How to Deal With Unwanted Body Commentary

by Gena on May 17, 2010

Nice responses to the vegan roast beet and goat cheese salad! When all else fails, give them fromage.

I’m pretty good at making lemonade out of lemons. When I make a mistake, I focus on the good things I’ve learned from it. When I suffer a professional setback, get fired up to work harder and achieve more. When I argue with someone, I take it as an opportunity to learn more about his or her sensitivities (and my own!). When I break up with a boyfriend, I welcome the onslaught of freedom. Don’t get me wrong: I’m far from a sunny optimist. My own particular brand of realism has been labeled “cynicism” by family and friends. But I try not to dwell on negatives or regret.

This morning, as I was leaving the gym, Gina, the receptionist at the front desk, beckoned me over with a furtive smile. “Hey G!” she motioned. “C’mere!” (I’ve been going to the same gym almost every morning since I was eighteen, so the old timers there know me well, and we all share an easygoing banter.) I leaned in, and she whispered, “Have you gained some weight? Because your legs look thicker than usual!”

I stared, aghast. “NO.” I declared. “Why on earth would you ask me that?”

Maybe, if I could do it again, I would offer up a slightly more graceful response. But the question was like a knock to the gut, and that’s what came out.

Now, let me preface this with a few facts. No, I don’t think I’ve gained weight. I don’t weigh myself regularly, but the last time I had a check up (which was very recently), I was right at my norm. And my clothes fit as always, so I’m confident that things haven’t changed. I have, however, been injured. Those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably heard me whining about my hip; for the last month, I’ve been struggling with on again, off again (but mostly on again) hip pain. Finally, last week, I got a proper diagnosis from an orthopedist. The good news? It’s not a plate injury or a stress fracture. The bad news is that it’s a dual injury–I’ve got a nasty adductor strain, and I’ve also got hip tendonitis, and I’ll need at least a month of physical therapy. I’ve had tendonitis from exercise before, but never like this. I’m OK, but I limp constantly, and any sharp movements, including shifting around as I sleep, hurt.  The upshot is that I can’t do any of my normal exercise. I can’t run, I can’t cycle. The elliptical is OK sometimes, but excruciating at others. So the only things I’ve been able to do routinely are long sessions on the stairmaster and the stepmill, both of which build leg muscle.

So I’m not surprised that my legs have bulked up a little. This little anecdote isn’t about me solving the mystery of why the receptionist said what she said, or me fretting about whether or not I’ve gained weight. I’m not fretting. It’s about my reaction to the question itself–its innocent, yet dangerous, thoughtlessness. And it’s about my personal development–where I am now, versus where I used to be.

Now clearly, Gina didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. And when I reacted as sharply as I did, she immediately back pedaled. “Oh no! I didn’t mean it to be a criticism. I just meant your legs, they look bigger than they usually do. I mean, it’s a good thing.” Perhaps she thought I’d want to hear these things. (To be honest, I can’t think of any scenario in which a woman wants to hear that she appears to have gained weight, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.) Perhaps it’s cultural; she’s Puerto Rican, and bodies that are shapelier than mine are usually admired in Puerto Rican culture. Perhaps she thought it was funny, that I’d respond with something like, “Oh my gosh, YES, I have! I’m so annoyed. I’ll have to cut back on the desserts, eh?” Who knows what she thought. It wasn’t malicious, I know that: it just wasn’t thoughtful, either.

Clearly, my gut feeling was to get angry. Instead, I tried to stay calm. “Gina,” I said, “you have to be really careful about what you say to women about their weight, especially if you don’t know them well. That comment doesn’t make me feel good at all, and I don’t see it as a compliment. I also have a history of struggling with food. So please, don’t ever comment upon the my physical appearance again.”

A sweet, horrified torrent of apologies followed, and I accepted them. I made clear that I knew she hadn’t meant to insult me, and that I wasn’t angry at her. And then I got out of the gym.

What was I angry at? I was angry at was the fact that it’s still widely acceptable for people–strangers, friends, family members–to offer up commentary on other people’s weight and bodies. How many former eating disorder sufferers could say that their weight loss began with a vocal observation from a family member or friend?

“Looks like you’ve been eating well!”

“My, haven’t you filled out.”

“You look great–you look so…healthy.”

I’m sure you’ve heard at least one or a few of these choice euphemisms for “you’ve gained weight,” and so you know how painful they all can be. Maybe there are women who can handle–even appreciate–them. But I’d wager most women are likely to be hurt. I remember a high school teacher who made a point of not accepting compliments on her physical appearance–even a remark as innocent as “That’s a nice shirt!” At the time, it seemed like an awfully dramatic stance. Today, seeing the carelessness with which people make comments about the way other people look, I sort of understand it.

A person’s feelings about his or her body are so deeply personal; some of us have uncomplicated relationships with our bodies, and others have tremendously fraught ones. Unless you know whom you’re talking to, and what his or her frame of mind is, it’s best to keep your observations to yourself. If a friend of mine has lost or gained so much weight that I’m concerned about her health, I might utter a few delicate words. Other than that, I keep any observations to myself. I make an effort not to focus on other people’s bodies too much, anyway–people are highly intuitive, and they typically know it when you’re scrutinizing them. For my part, I work to discourage outspoken commentary on body change. I do not broadcast angst about my body’s little ups and downs publicly–I try to be as impervious to them as I possibly can be–and I do not welcome weight loss conversations onto my blog.

I won’t lie: once upon a time–perhaps even five or six years ago–Gina’s comment would have sent me into a black hole of despair, obsessiveness, and isolation. Today, I’m happy to say that I let it roll of my shoulder. Here are the positives I took away from the whole thing:

  • Personal progress. I’ve come a long way from my days of self-loathing and body fixation. I may still true outrage and a sense of sympathy with women who struggle–and I hope that sympathy never goes away–but I’m no longer prone to self-destruction and warped self-perception.
  • Incentive toward setting an example. As I mentioned above, I make a conscious effort–on my blog and in the dialogs I have with other people–to in any way encourage excessive scrutiny of the body. This episode only compounded my dedication to this commitment.
  • Preventing future commentary. Gina said what she said innocently. But she works in a fitness environment, which is full of body conscious men and women, and it’s important that she not feel entitled to carelessly vocalize her observations about people’s bodies and how they change. My reaction to what she said today is likely to prevent her repeating the same remark to someone else.
  • This is probably the first time in my twenty-seven years that anyone has ever called me muscular (in not so many words).

Not bad, as far as lemonade goes.

What’s my advice for the next time someone comments upon your body?

  1. Remember that people’s perceptions are subjective and inaccurate. Gina may have seen more bulk than usual, but she didn’t see weight gain, and she didn’t express what she saw particularly well.
  2. Rather than feeling devastated or diminished, try to see the comment as a challenge: it’s a test of your relationship with your own body. Don’t give into the impulse to be easily influenced and irrational; instead, prove to yourself that you’re capable of an objective understanding of the way you look.
  3. Speak up. Eighteen year old Gena would have heard that comment, offered up a shy response like “Oh–I don’t think so, no–” and slunk away to fester in my own despair. Today, I spoke up immediately, defined my boundaries (i.e., I made clear that I don’t like it when others comment on the way I look), and offered up a gentle warning about the hazards of these kinds of remarks. Was I outspoken? Yes. But given the context (a fitness center) and the circumstances (Gina and I know each other, but not well; we’re friendly, but have a client/employee relationship), it was appropriate. Use every unwelcome comment as a chance to offer up your definition of what is and isn’t acceptable as commentary. Do your part in nipping these remarks in the bud.
  4. Move on. The more you fixate on your body, the more you perpetuate the kind of focus and attention on physical shape that fosters these kinds of comments in the first place. Fat talk begins and ends with us.

Those are just my two cents. But I’m sure I’m missing a lot of great strategies. So I’m opening it up to you guys. How do you handle unwanted commentary on your looks? How legit is it to remark on another woman (or man’s) appearance? How have your responses to commentary changed with age?

No matter what your strategies are, you needn’t be turned into a victim by unwelcome commentary; instead, you can use it as an opportunity for personal growth, as a reason to spread thoughtfulness, and as a chance to set an example.

And for another conversation about fat talk and its dangers, check out Tasha’s spicy post today!

Night!

xo

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{ 132 comments… read them below or add one }

cindy March 13, 2013 at 6:43 pm

why are we so conscious of what other people think of us? I know most of us are but how about what we think of ourselves. The 2 are never weighted in the same measure. I’m trying to love myself just the way I am and maybe then I can love others just the way they are too. Great article

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Melissa September 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I know I’m late to reading this, but I wanted to say that I really appreciated this post, Gena. I’ve had similarly unwanted comments about my body for a long time. In fact, one of my omnivore coworkers would focus on the vegan food I was eating (asking me questions about it and then say, “that would never tempt me”) until I finally mentioned to him that I wasn’t tempted by his food either. He would also say things like, “Maybe you eat too many vegetables” or “What I do is never eat until I’m completely full.” I wish I’d thought of saying something like you said to create boundaries in the conversation.

More recently, my sister lost weight through changes in exercise and diet. Since then, a few family members or mutual friends would say to me, when she wasn’t there that she’s so skinny or that they’d heard she’d lost a lot of weight and looks really good without making a comment about me. Funny thing is that these comments make me feel almost as bad as when the comments are directed toward me personally.

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