Talking about someone’s weight, and participating in fat talk and body-snarking are ways in which we can devalue someone’s self-worth, or derail their recovery.
What we say and how we say it can have a profound effect on the person we’re talking to. Phrases like, “Wow, you look great, did you lose weight?” are often weighted with subconscious, unspoken judgment, and the implication that the person on the receiving end didn’t look as great before. Within this context, there is an intimation that one’s value increases or decreases based upon their external presence. Thusly, when someone suffers from an eating disorder, fat talk exists internally and externally, making these types of statements a trigger and increasing the potential for relapse. In other words, “It’s so good to see you!” is more helpful than, “You’ve lost weight!”
Fat talk occurs on a daily basis in the lives of girls (and boys) starting in elementary school and extending across the age span to include women (and men) in their later years. Statements like “Wow, look at you, you look so great!” or “Have you lost weight?” or “Wow, you gained weight! That’s so great!” are common and may be said with good intentions, however the negative effect of these statements for someone in recovery is often shame, negative self-talk, self-doubt, and self-judgment, leaving them in an emotionally debilitating space.
Working in recovery affords us an opportunity to shift our lens to one of inclusion. We are in a prime position to help shift this culture of fat-talk and body-shaming toward a healthier, more comprehensive way in which to communicate with those around us. As we hold space for clients working with eating disorders, we shift the way we communicate; likewise, we become aware that some of our co-workers are in recovery for similar things, allowing us to also shift our conversations other areas of our lives. Part of recovery requires that we change our actions and our interactions with others—shifting and broadening the lens through which we see others. When we speak wisely and with clear intent, we will create an environment of emotional safety for those around us.
Ashley Harris, one of Visions’ Recovery Mentors shared her experience with me about this topic, saying, “Commenting on weight is pointless. There’s so much more to a person than physical appearance. If you want to compliment someone tell them how they’ve affected you or influenced you. Tell them you love them. So many times people have commented on my body, thinking they’re being nice, and it’s spun me out for the rest of the day. I would much rather hear that I made someone laugh or smile than hear that I look like I’ve lost weight. I no longer base my value and self worth on the number on the scale.”
I also spoke to Joseph Rogers, our Assistant Director of Education, and he echoes the same thing, “We have to be careful with any comments that engage the idea that self-worth is somehow tied to our appearance.”
In truth, it’s much more helpful to say “I’ve missed you,” then “You look great.” Or, “It’s so good to see you,” then “Look how skinny you are.” While a compliment is lovely, we work in a tender environment and live in a culture that places altogether too much value on our outsides. We are all perfect just the way we are. If anything, our perceived imperfections are the very things that make us beautiful.
Try some of these things to encourage self-care and to develop self-love:
- Write yourself notes and leave them around. Imagine how it might feel to open your sock drawer and see a note that said, “You’re beautiful!”
- Practice acts of kindness toward yourself: get a mani/pedi, or a foot massage (those $25 ones are great!), go to a restorative yoga class, or put your feet in the sand.
- Allow yourself to cry.
- Surround yourself with people who truly have your best interests in mind.
Next time you feel compelled to comment on someone’s weight as a conversation starter, find a softer approach: “I’ve missed you,” “You have such a great sense of humor,” or “You really helped me the other day, thank you.” Challenge yourself to be kinder to yourself and to others. We are all enough, we are all beautiful, and we are all perfect: just the way we are.