I’m in need of some thoughtful advice. How do I deal when friends express insecurities that feel directly hurtful to me?
I have a great group of friends who are generally loving and supportive. I am the only fat person in this group (I don’t use fat in a derogatory manner). On occasion a thin friend will make a comment about fear of weight gain or having a “muffin top” or correlate weight and health or say “I shouldn’t eat this because…”. I find these comments really hard to hear 1) because they mirror a lot of my own negative self talk and 2) because it starts to sound as if their worst body nightmare is just my body reality.
I’m doing my own work on loving my body and taking ownership of my feelings about my weight. But I too talk about when I’m feeling less than great about my physical appearance. Maybe I’m creating some kind of social cue that complaining about weight and body size is okay in general? I wouldn’t assume that a friend who discusses an ongoing frustration with acne is giving an invitation for me to complain about a zit I get once a month.
I understand that beauty culture sucks and makes many of us of feel like we’re majorly flawed no matter how we look. I’m not interested in shaming my friends about their very real insecurities, and I realize that it is likely not their intent to make me feel bad. I just wish their comments didn’t make me feel like they look at me as some kind of cautionary tale.
Is there a way to address the hurt I feel while still honoring that we all feel insecure sometimes? Or is this just something I need to work on internally?
Feeling Fat and Flustered!
Dear Feeling Fat and Flustered,
If you want to change the way bodies get talked about in your circle of friends, there are a few things you can do:
Stop the negative self-talk about body & weight related issues yourself. This is a “be the change you want to see” moment. You can’t tell your friend not to hate her body at you while you still get to hate yours at her. This takes time, and a lot of practice, and then more time, and a lot of forgiving yourself for not being perfect and then beginning again, but it is life-changing once you make it your habit.
When you feel up to it, tell your friends what you are doing and why. “Friends, I’m really trying to break the cycle of saying mean things about my body and talking about weight, diets, weight loss, etc. Would you try this out with me, at least when we hang out together?” Or be even more blunt. “You probably don’t realize it, and I know that everyone has their own body image issues, but when you talk about how being fat is your worst fear, it hits me in a strange and really hurtful way, like, turning into me is your worst fear. Could you maybe…not? with that?”
When you don’t feel up to it, remind yourself “They are so far up their own asses they can’t even see mine.”
There are certain people who like to talk about diets, thinness, weight obsession, etc. AT YOU, as a way to police you. You know who they are because they aren’t exactly subtle about it. That brand of concern-trolling is visible from space.
But it’s a sad fact that most times when women talk about their bodies this way they are inside their own heads and their own warped mirrors, they are either so self-conscious that they are not aware of how it is affecting you, or they are participating in a certain kind of call and response. A typical exchange:
“I’m sooooooo fat.”
“No you’re not, don’t say that!”
“Ugh, but look at this muffin top!”
“Pshaw. Did you see my armpit fat?”
“Shut up, you’re beautiful.”
“No, you are!”
“OMG, did you see what Amy was wearing?”
“It made her look sooooo fat. She is sooo fat.”
I’m no anthropologist, but to me this translates roughly as:
“I’m humbling myself by declaring I have flaws to show that I am one of you.”
“I have noticed and received your message. Don’t worry, you’re one of us! And I am one of you, too!”
“Yes, we are us! We are a team!”
“But Amy is not on our team.”
“No she isn’t.”
“Let us conclude this grooming ritual as a sign of our bond.”
Sometimes it’s an exchange where everyone goes around the table and identifies something they don’t like about themselves. It both enforces beauty/body/grooming standards and teaches you that you have to say something you hate about yourself or be perceived as stuck up/an outsider. For example (video contains exaggerated comedy violence, incl. mimicking suicide, among other offensive things, so if that’s not for you keep scrolling):
It’s not harmless, because the choice of body shame as the bonding/humbling mechanism is not harmless, because we live in a society that hates and fears fatness and fat people. It’s not harmless because it is perceived as normal to talk about yourself this way, when it is in fact REALLY FUCKING WEIRD. It’s not harmless, because teaching women to devalue themselves and be unable to accept compliments is not harmless. It’s not harmless, for example, if someone you know is looking at a fat person and says “I’d die before I let myself get like that” and the person looks like you (or better yet is much thinner than you) and you think “Does my friend think I should die?” and this is why this shit really and seriously Must. Be. Stopped. But, in news you can use, a lot of this IS highly ritualized and not based in reality, as in, “Amy” doesn’t have to actually even be fat to be coded that way in this dialogue, and even if you are demonstrably fat you will be told “What? You’re not fat!” if the people want to convey that they like you. This stuff is 99.99% not about you, or, it is about you, because it’s hurting you, but the people doing it aren’t seeing it, like the way we can’t see the air we breathe. They are so far up their own asses that they can’t see yours. So remind yourself “It’s not about me it’s not about me it’s not about me,” take a deep breath, and refuse to participate.
Because one tactic to shut down the concern trolls, the people with no self-awareness, and the call-and-response team is to give the shame statement zero attention. Respond with a non-sequitur. For best success, make that non-sequitur a compliment, but one that doesn’t relate to body hatred, like so.
“I’m soooo fat.”
“I love your nail color- do you remember the name of it?”
“Look at my muffin top.”
“Cool shoes. Are they comfortable?”
“LOOK AT IT”
“Your hair looks very pretty today, I like that style on you.”
Depending on their self-awareness level, the other person will get that something is off but not necessarily what. You can actually refuse to participate in the call and response. I recommend this tactic for people you aren’t particularly close to, people you don’t see that often, people where the “Hey, could we chill with the body hate talk it makes me feel yucky” is too much engagement for your energy level and emotional investment right then, people who really are enmeshed with their own problems. If you don’t give people attention for talking about themselves this way, and you give them a viable subject change out, it may take a few tries but most of them WILL get it at least enough to stop it for the rest of that particular conversation. And if they ask you why you seem to be ignoring their negative body talk, they are giving you an opening to say “Actually, it really weird me out when people I think are beautiful talk about themselves that way. I never know what to say.“
I dunno. I know what you mean by not wanting to be told that you shouldn’t feel a certain way about your body, or that your friends aren’t allowed to feel the way they do about theirs, and I don’t want to pretend that I’m somehow above it all. My close female friends and I have found a very happy medium where diet-talk and body shaming related to weight is not done, but some degree of “OMG I am not feeling or looking my best today” is allowed. The rules are different from the standard call-and-response, in that if someone says “I have a giant zit right on the bridge of my nose where my glasses sit, and it seems to be growing 8 new friends” and another person says “Good news everyone my nipple hairs are finally ready to braid into that friendship bracelet!” and another says “Thanks to that kale salad at lunch I think my farts could reanimate the dead and then make them want to die again” no one contradicts them or tells them they shouldn’t feel that way. No one says that bridge-of-nose zits or nipple hairs or farts are even Not Okay things to have. No one says “it’s not that bad” or “well “I think you’re pretty” because the culture of that friend group is that we are all a baseline of gorgeous and awesome, but sometimes our bodies rebel in disgusting and fascinating ways. It’s one of the things I like about Samantha Irby’s writing, at Bitches Gotta Eat. She has Crohn’s disease. She wore a diaper to a speed-dating event, and Readers, she pooped in it. It is not all body-love over there all the time, but it is honest about how it feels sometimes to be wearing a meatsack that is not cooperating with you.
So, good for you for working on loving yourself. This is not easy to navigate, so be nice to yourself, be nice to your friends, change the subject A LOT, give yourself a lot of time and chances to figure out what works for you.
Some of the resources that helped me build a better body image and gave me strength in an unfriendly-to-fat-people world:
- Fat Body Politics
- Gabifresh for pretties
- Shapely Prose archive and Kate’s book co-written by Marianne Kirby, Lessons from The Fat-o-sphere
- se smith‘s, Marianne & Lesley‘s posts at XO Jane
- Hanne Blank, esp. Big Big Love
- Health At Every Size
- The Fat Nutritionist
- The Fatsronauts series at Shakesville
- Fat Ladies in Spaaaaaaaace
I’ll admit, I was heavy into reading this stuff 3-5 years ago and as time has passed (and I got more ok with myself) I haven’t kept up with it that fiercely, so give us your recs, readers!
Also, please review the site policies about commenting if it’s been a while. This is a no diet-talk, no mention of specific-weights, no body-shaming, no weight-loss evangelism zone.