I'm also going to discuss how to respond when yoga students or clients in your practice or gym body-shame themselves.
And if you prefer to read, scroll down for the article.
This week’s topic comes from Bree, who has given me permission to use her name: She wrote:
Right now I’m navigating how to inform others about diet culture, fat phobia, body dysmorphia, disordered eating disguised as “wellness”, when they (unknowingly) make a comment or compliment that is tinged with or fuels one of these things.
For example, when someone compliments me with “you’re looking great, you’ve lost weight”. It’s extremely triggering and uncomfortable for me (and so many others) with a history of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. One comment can have such a huge backlash for me if I’m not super mindful. It’s like I have to do damage control in the days after.
I usually smile or laugh but I would love to feel more comfortable having a conversation around it with them, as well as with my clients when I notice the way they speak about food or their bodies.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
This is a tricky situation, and you’re right Bree when you say that many people feel uncomfortable when receiving these types of comments and struggle with what to say. Especially folks who might have dealt with disordered eating or body dysmorphia, and even those who have discovered intuitive eating, body kindness, fat acceptance, anti-dieting, etc., and are on the road to making peace with food and healing their body image.
A comment like, “you’ve lost weight, you look great!” Can really derail some of that hard work you may have put into healing.
In the yoga world we might hear variations on this, for example:
“Your body is looking amazing since you finished that juice fast!”
"Your jump throughs look so much smoother now you’re not carrying that extra weight.”
“You’re looking more pitta than kapha now! You looked a bit “juicier” the last time I saw you”
That last one was one I personally received from a yoga teacher... and I don’t even live in a larger body. I have thin privilege.
In the fitness world it’s:
"You look so good, you’ve leaned out!”
“You’ve dropped fat mass, way to go!”
“Body comp (composition) is on point!”
All of these are variations on the same theme of complimenting someone for perceived weight loss – “perceived” because sometimes the person hasn’t lost any weight at all.
And to be clear, for some people these compliments are going to make them feel better about themselves, at least in the moment. These aren’t the people I’m speaking to right now.
I’m speaking to the folks who have to do damage control in the hours or days after receiving such a compliment because it triggers them for all the reasons I’m about to explain.
"Soft" Weight Stigma
It can be weird situation because you don’t want to be rude in your response, but you also don’t want to leave your values by the wayside.
The problem is, congratulating someone on weight loss isn’t always going to help that person feel better about themselves... and it reinforces harmful ideas about body size.
These comments can really galvanise weight stigma.
Weight stigma isn’t always overtly calling someone fat or body shaming someone. It can also come in the “softer” form of congratulating someone for losing weight. I call this soft weight stigma.
Praising someone for losing weight implies that their body was in some way bad, or worse, or unacceptable before. That’s a problem because it’s both weight-stigmatising, and just plain old untrue: weight loss does not make you or your body unanimously “better”.
How to respond to weight loss "compliments"
So, how can you respond to this kind of unwanted body commentary? This is really going to depend on a few factors:
- how much energy you’re willing to invest at the time
- how strong in your disordered eating and/or body dysmorphia recovery you’re feeling in the moment
- how much emotional labour you want to put into explaining concepts like weight stigma or fat phobia to the person
- how YOU are feeling emotionally, and
- who the person is, specifically what your relationship with them is like.
Say it’s someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing a little bit about your life with, you could say something like, “it’s interesting you say that, I’ve actually stopped dieting and focussing on weight loss... and I feel better for it.” This keeps it short and sweet without being too confrontational, and lets them know you no longer see weight loss as a goal.
If you’ve got more emotional and mental energy on board that day, and you’re closer to the person, you could divulge a bit more about why being complimented on weight loss or body size doesn’t feel great to you, given all the hard work you’ve been doing to unlearn disordered thinking around food and body weight.
A step further would be to disclose your intentions or successes so far in healing from disordered eating and body dysmorphia, or to answer some questions they might have about diet culture, weight stigma and so on.
Again, you’ll need to gauge where you’re at in the moment and check that you feel safe enough and have enough brain bandwidth to have a conversation like this.
Just remember that diet culture messaging permeates our existence from the moment we are born… burning diet culture to the ground is a big job. It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to educate others about what it is… that’s a lot of pressure on YOU! You don’t have to explain anything or educate anyone in that moment… unless you and the person are open to that.
First and foremost, look after yourself. This is a central part of my upcoming online course: nutrition and body image training for yoga teachers.
If the person is more of an acquaintance or someone you don’t know well, or you just can’t be fucked engaging in that moment, a short, neutral response could suffice. Something like, “I haven’t been trying to lose weight.” Or, “Oh? I hadn’t noticed”. Then quickly change the topic. It’s ok not to dive into to full activist or educator mode.
Look after yourself first.
Sometimes these comments are going to trigger some pretty strong feelings in you: annoyance, anger, visceral rage. Especially if you’re a larger bodied person who has has dealt with a lot weight stigma and bullshit body commentary in your life. Sometimes expressing your anger might be exactly what you need in that moment. You don’t have to rip into them, but saying something like “can we please not talk about my weight.” Or “Having you comment about my body makes me feel uncomfortable / anxious / angry / etc”. Or, “that’s super triggering for me. How about we don’t talk about my body size.”
This might feel confronting, but if the person is someone you want to have an ongoing relationship with, they might need to know how these comments affect you. It could also prompt them to think more deeply about the ways they offer body commentary in the future, and they could learn from the experience.
How to respond when others body shame themselves
With friends, fitness clients or yoga students making body shaming comments about themselves in your class or in your clinic, you could keep it light, for example:
"Hey, that’s my friend you’re talking about right there!”
Alternatively you could go deeper… pull them aside later and say, “I heard you say xyz about your body today, and I’m wondering if you’d like someone to talk to about that? I’m here if you need me.”
The invitation is there for them to take you up on the offer. In the right context, offering slivers of your own journey can be helpful. Or if they’re receptive to it, gently letting them know there are ways to improve body image and feel better about themselves, without having to lose weight or change their appearance.
Having anti-diet, body positive books in your yoga studio or clinic can initiate conversations, and knowing providers – body inclusive, HAES dietitians (ehh hemm, you're reading the words of one!), psychologists etc. who you can refer on to can really help.
You could try writing out a list of possible responses on your phone or even practise these aloud, to figure out what feels right for you in certain contexts.
Unhelpful body commentary, disordered eating and body image concern are HUGE issues burning through the yoga and wellness worlds, which is why in a few months I’ll be launching my online nutrition and body image training for yoga teachers and yoga practitioners. In this training I cover what we as yogis and other fitness professionals can do to get solid on our understanding of basic nutritional science, disrupt diet culture as it shows up in the yoga world, and make our classes and our community safer for everyone!
I hope that gives you a starting point when knowing how to respond to unhelpful body commentary, either directed at you or when it's self-body shaming coming from others. If you have comments or questions please pop them in the comments box below!
In body-inclusive solidarity,