Talking About Our Body Image Issues Can Be Harmful. That’s Why We Should Ask for Consent

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“I hate my arms.”

“I’m getting so fat.”

“I shouldn’t eat that, I’m trying to be good.”

When it comes to food and talking about body image issues, many of us are used to airing our insecurities and uncertainties openly. Diet talk and negative body talk have become mainstays of our interactions. In 2011, one small study of women who were college students found that a staggering 93 percent of college-age women participate, regardless of their size.

We do it because many of us feel it—an enduring dissatisfaction with our own bodies. We do it because we are exposed to a constant stream of messages from businesses that profit when we hate our bodies. They urge us to get beach bodies or to lose the baby weight or to change our size for a new year, new you. The diet industry thrives when we’re desperate to be smaller.

We speak ill of our own bodies out of some misplaced and unproven belief that doing so will help us heal our relationships with our own skin. And sometimes we just do it because we’re used to it. In shopping with friends or getting ready for a night out, saying things like “I hate my legs” becomes almost de rigueur. But whatever our reasons, we rarely consider the impacts of that behavior on those around us. And frankly, we should.

Negative body talk and diet talk may feel gratifying to us in the moment, but for those around us it can have lasting negative impacts. Those with eating disorders and body dysmorphia may be triggered into a relapse of dangerous behaviors we’ve long struggled to escape. Even for those without eating disorders or body dysmorphia, so-called negative body talk is harmful, not to mention contagious. A 2011 study in the journal Sex Roles found that those who overheard negative body talk were more likely to engage in it—especially if it went unchallenged by others.

Bemoaning the size of our bodies, especially when they’re smaller than those of the fatter people we’re talking to, can invite a tidal wave of negative body image. If they think they’re fat, what must they think of me? And a common feature of negative body talk—the reassurance that “you’re not fat!”—can feel like salt on the wound. Should she keep feeling terrible if she is fat? Indeed, those feelings may be rooted in a concrete observation of the behavior of women who aren’t fat.

Our diet talk and negative body talk can also significantly contribute to burgeoning body image issues and disordered eating in the children and teens who hear us. Many of us know the sting of hearing our parents discuss our bodies or their own with disdain and disgust. A 2010 study of 356 high school girls found that the way parents discuss dieting and bodies—both their children’s bodies and their own—may contribute to disordered eating behavior in adolescent girls.

And it hurts us too. A 2013 study in Body Image found that negative body talk among young adult women was linked not only to lower self-esteem and body satisfaction, but to eating disorders, a distorted view of our own bodies, and depression. Indeed, according to a 2003 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, as little as three to five minutes of negative body talk can have significant negative impacts. (Positive body talk, on the other hand, was linked to more body satisfaction, higher self-esteem, and higher quality friendships.) Talking about our body-based insecurities may ease them in the short term, but in the long term they can hurt us just as much as they can hurt those around us.

So how do we process our own body-based insecurities and anxieties without hurting those around us? The solution, thankfully, is a simple one: Ask for consent first.

If we believe that consent matters—that all of us have the right to choose how we engage with those around us, especially when that engagement could harm us—then all we need to do is bring that culture of consent to the way we talk about our own bodies. Ask your friends and family if they’re prepared for some body talk. Some phrases to try out:

“Hey, I’m working through some body image stuff and could use a friend to talk it through with. Are you up for that?”

“Ugh, I’m having a terrible body image day. Are you okay to talk about it?”

“I’m struggling with my diet and could use some help troubleshooting—can you talk today? No problem if not.”

However you phrase it, there are two key components to requesting consent for body image talk. First, ask directly and allow them time to respond. And second, be prepared to accept a “no.” Negative body talk has become so ubiquitous that many of us respond to boundaries around it poorly, expecting it as some kind of birthright. But if we value consent, it can’t be a hollow exercise—we have to be prepared to accept any answer, not just the one we want or expect to hear.

Of course, we’ve all got our troubles with body image—in a culture so relentlessly focused on size, how couldn’t we? And of course, we need the support of our friends and family to work through that. But a key part of any friendship is respecting one another’s boundaries, and working not only to bring joy and support to one another’s lives, but to avoid doing harm to one another in the process. And when it comes to body image, one quick request for consent can go a long way for our loved ones, our relationships, and ourselves.

Related:

  • When I Speak Out Against Fat-Shaming, I’m Told to ‘Just Lose Weight’

  • Your Fat Friends Hear the Way You Talk About Gaining Weight During the Pandemic

  • The Freedom and Joy of Fat Acceptance

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