You need not look far to see the ways that our culture has conditioned us to judge other people’s bodies.
Tabloids constantly run headlines shaming celebrities for apparent weight gain or speculating that stars are pregnant based on how their bellies look in a certain outfit.
School-age kids at higher weights are far more likely to be bullied than their thinner peers, according to a study published in July 2020 in the Journal of School Health. And survey research (PDF) suggests that more than a majority of kids age 8 to 18 struggle with body image.
Entertainment is rife with fat-shaming. A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders looked at episodes from 10 popular TV shows geared toward children and found that more than half of them contained comments or storylines that were anti-fat and that those comments were often followed by audience laughter.
No matter how much work you’ve done to improve your own body image and rethink your beliefs around appearance and body size, comments that insult your body are hard to hear (and all too common).
“Almost everyone has been the recipient of someone commenting on their body,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a therapist based in Chicago who works with clients who struggle with eating disorders. “When it’s criticism, sometimes it’s hard to bounce back.”
If you find yourself stung by someone else’s words, here are some expert tips for how to handle the situation in the moment and afterward.
1. Recognize Your Feelings
Whether you just listened to a smaller-than-you friend talk negatively about their own weight gain, or you’re reading an article that writes about “fixing” a body characteristic you’re sensitive about, it’s important to acknowledge the way these things make you feel.
“Allow yourself to feel your feelings — don’t avoid them,” Kitley says. “If those words hurt, acknowledge that and allow yourself to feel frustrated, sad, angry, or whatever else you’re feeling.” Doing this, instead of ignoring those feelings or telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way, can help you process them and then move on, instead of dwelling on them.
2. Remember That It’s Not About You, No Matter How Personal It Feels
“It can be extremely painful when someone insults your body size, intentionally or unintentionally,” says Emma Kobil, a licensed professional counselor based in Denver who has expertise in helping clients with eating disorders and trauma. “Remember that any insult is not about you — when people insult us, it is due to their ignorance or pain.”
When someone insults your body or says something that makes you feel bad about how you look (whether it’s directed at you or not), it’s a reflection of their own self-judgment, Kobil says. Because our culture is so critical of bodies, making judgmental comments about someone else’s appearance can be a way for someone to deflect their own insecurities or make themselves feel superior.
“You are not alone in feeling the pain of judgment from others, and the fact that this person made an insulting comment doesn’t signal any truth about you,” Kobil says.
3. Challenge Your Own Thoughts and Reaction
Oftentimes, hearing an insulting comment about our bodies can lead to a negative thought spiral that causes major body image distress. Aditi Jasra, a registered clinical counselor based in Vancouver, British Columbia, recommends using a cognitive behavioral therapy approach to challenging negative thoughts.
“For example, if the thought that arises is I am fat or I am ugly, you can shift your thoughts to there are so many good things about me,” she says. Think of what you truly like about yourself — possibly appearance related but also what you’re good at or value — and focus on listing those instead.
If this feels challenging, Jasra recommends asking a few of your closest friends and family members to list some of your positive qualities. It’s nice to hear in the moment, and you can also use them in your thought-shifting process later on.
4. Go Into Potentially Triggering Situations With a Plan
Whether it’s a family holiday gathering or a catch-up dinner with a particular group of friends, certain situations can be particularly triggering. “It can be helpful to have a plan ahead of time,” says Martha Aguilar, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Seattle.
She recommends identifying an emotionally safe person who will be at the gathering or whom you can message if you begin to feel overwhelmed. Creating a playlist of confidence-boosting music to listen to on the way to the event can also help, as can having an exit plan in case you want to leave early (like telling everyone you have to be home to feed the dog or that you have somewhere else to be).
5. Have in-the-Moment De-Stressing Strategies at the Ready
Aguilar recommends using tried-and-true grounding exercises like deep belly breathing, drinking a warm beverage, or stepping outside for a quick walk if you’re feeling shaken in the moment and need to de-stress.
6. Have Some Canned Comebacks Ready, Too
When someone says something that insults you or makes you feel bad, it can be tough to think up a response on the spot. For this reason, Aguilar recommends having different comebacks rehearsed and ready to go, such as:
- An Assertive Comeback “I would appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my body.”
- A Positive Comeback “Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re beautiful.”
- A Direct Comeback “Why do you think it’s okay to say that to me?”
Depending on how you feel and what the situation is, you can choose to use one of these comebacks to quickly diffuse the situation or change the subject.
Aguilar says that you can also try asking questions that turn the responsibility of the insult back on the person who said it, like, “What makes you say that?” or, “Can you explain that a bit more? I’m not sure what you mean.”
Often, people will be surprised by these questions, and having to think about what they meant by the insulting comment could make them realize that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say.
7. Set Boundaries (to Avoid Similar Situations in the Future)
If the insulting remark came in passing from someone you’re not close to or comfortable with, you might choose not to address it at the moment. But if it came from a close friend, family member, or someone you see often, Kobil recommends setting explicit boundaries to prevent the same thing from happening again.
“Consider bringing up how the comment made you uncomfortable and ask them not to comment on your body,” Kobil says. (You can also ask them not to comment on bodies at all when you’re around.) “It is important to set boundaries with people around us so that they know how to treat us, and also to send ourselves a message that we are worthy of respectful and kind treatment,” she says.
Although it might be difficult to have this conversation, many people will appreciate you clarifying your feelings and expectations. And, Kobil says, it might inspire them to think more critically about what they’re saying.
8. Surround Yourself With Affirming Messages
Although there’s no escaping body judgment completely, it’s possible to seek out communities and messages that affirm your body and make you feel safe, empowered, and more resilient when faced with potentially insensitive comments. Kobil recommends listening to podcasts that promote body acceptance and seeking friends (in person or online) who don’t talk about bodies, weight, or dieting.
Some great podcasts to start with are She’s All Fat, Maintenance Phase, Why Won’t You Date Me?and UnF*** Your Brain.
When someone insults your body, you don’t have to respond at all if you don’t want to. But getting your thoughts out can be helpful, so you might consider doing so privately on paper.
“Sometimes there is more that you want to say, but you might not feel courageous enough to do so, or it simply isn’t worth your time or energy to say anything,” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a therapist with Choosing Therapy who is based in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and specializes in anxiety management and self-esteem. “Journaling and brain dumping are great ways for you to let your thoughts flow.”
She recommends writing everything you wanted to say to the person who insulted you. Then write down the negative thoughts you had about yourself after hearing the hurtful words and try to reframe them as more positive thoughts.