Body Image Coping: How Do We Heal From Negative Comments?
“Raise your hand if you don’t have boobs! Why aren’t you raising your hand?” asks my elementary school friend.
I am 10 years old.
“Are you anorexic?” asks my crush in the hallways of our junior high.
I am 12 years old.
“You’re a nine. You would be a 10 if you had boobs. If we get married you’re getting a boob job,” said an ex-boyfriend.
I am 21 years old.
I allowed each of these moments to shape my body image. And the reality is, while I have been fortunate enough to hear many positive body affirmations over the years, those all fade to black. The negative ones stick because I allowed them to.
You might be wondering why I am taking responsibility for the negative comments made by others. This is because when we receive a negative comment or judgment from someone else, it actually isn’t about us, instead, it is a reflection of themselves and their relationship with their body; they are struggling with their self-esteem. They bring others down as a way to move from thinking about their problems to placing a negative spotlight on someone else. We judge and compare as a way to take a break from our self-deprecating thoughts, and focus on someone else, even if for a moment.
At 10- or even 12-years-old, a child does not know that these comments are not actually about them at all, but they need to know this because we have a choice: let go of others’ thoughts or weave these comments into your identity.
By the time I reached 20-years-old, I had allowed others’ judgments to shape how I viewed my body, and I forgot that I had a choice. This is why we need to talk. This is why we need to be open. This is why we need to watch how we speak about our bodies, not only in front of our children, but also in front of our peers. We all struggle, but if we are open about our struggles instead of shifting the conversation to bring down someone else, then we can begin to heal.
We have a choice when it comes to body image: Allow ourselves to start healing by doing the hard work of understanding body image, or to continue to allow ourselves to be ping-ponged between judgments of others, therefore losing our identity and allowing others to shape what we are and who we are. But first we need to understand what body image is.
By most modern definitions, body image is comprised of two parts:
- One’s attitude towards the physical self. This includes emotions, feelings, self-attitudes, thoughts, behaviors and beliefs around one’s body.
- A mental picture of one’s physical body which includes appearance, size, shape, etc.
Both of these elements are influenced by a number of social factors including interactions with friends and family, culture, the media and past experiences.
For many, our body image is often negative and at odds with how others actually view us. As a result, an unhealthy body image can lead to low self-esteem and insecurity. This is not to say that you either have positive body image or negative body image, rather, body image is experienced along a continuum and may shift more towards one end, or the other, at different times of our lives.
So what do we do when others make a negative comment about our bodies? We focus on positive rational acceptance coping.
Studies have found that there is a meaningful connection between cognitive and behavioral coping response styles to body image related threats (e.g., being teased about weight), and body image. This is hugely important as it tells us that we are not simply tied to either negative or positive body image, but rather that there are cognitive-behavioral practices that encourage positive body image.
There are three body image coping response styles.
- Avoidant — Attempting to escape body image-related threats
- Appearance Fixing — Altering appearance by covering, or correcting the perceived flaw
- Positive Rational Acceptance — Accepting the threat or negative situation and in response, engaging in self-care and rational self-talk
It goes without saying that the first two are less adaptive while positive rational acceptive is more adaptive and tied to positive body image.
The next time someone makes a comment about your body remember this: you have the power to make a choice. You can let their comment become part of your identity and adjust your body to meet their standards. Or you have the power to take a breath, recognize the negative comment, let it go and return to treating your body exactly how it should be — with love, care and acceptance for all of your imperfections — because those, too, are beautiful.
I’ll leave you with a few suggestions to help you on your journey of positive rational acceptance:
- Pause and acknowledge how you feel. Give recognition to the pain, anger or hurt that the negative experience presented and acknowledge its presence.
- Take ownership of your feelings and do not place blame on others. While your peer may have said a negative comment, they cannot control your reaction. Only you have the power to control how you feel.
- Move forward. Once you have acknowledged the feeling, release it and do not become victim to the comment. You have the power to say, “That comment caused me pain/anger/sadness. I acknowledge that pain, but I will not fall victim to the pain.”
- Release your emotions. If you are having a difficult time moving past the painful experience, take the time to release it. Everyone has a different emotional release. For some, this may come in the form of journaling or meditating. Find your release practice.
- Forgive. When we truly forgive someone, we release the negative energy, and it is replaced with compassion. Only then are we able to recognize that the negative experience has nothing to do with ourselves, but is a reflection of the journey that your peer is on.