In an interview with Glamour, actress, comedian, and producer Amy Poehler reflected:
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if you spent one day not mentioning how anybody looks, or how you look? I think I tried it as an exercise one time. I was saying, ‘Oh, she’s that really funny person.’ Or, ‘He’s that guy who has that great science mind,’ so you don’t say, like, ‘He’s the tall one’; ‘She’s whatever.’ And then, if you look in the mirror, you don’t say, ‘How do I look?’ It’s almost impossible.”
There’s no question that our culture puts a premium on physical appearance, and it permeates everything we do. Media images, advertisements, and even the toys our children play with (Barbie, if a real human, would sport bodily proportions not remotely supported by the rules of physiology) prime us to notice, judge, and voice opinions about the appearance of others.
Walking with friends who’ve had eating disorders, however, has made me realize just how loudly our culture shouts about the quality of our bodies. Not to mention that, as a woman currently pregnant, I’ve noted the tendency of other women (and even some men!) to immediately comment on my size, weight, or physical appearance. The number of you’re-so-smalls and you’re-so-bigs and you’re-glowings and you-look-exhausteds has boggled my mind.
But these outwardly focused comments aren’t always negative; in fact, in many cases, they’re simply well-meaning attempts to affirm someone. Telling a pregnant friend that she looks great and has maintained her figure is, arguably, a high compliment, as is cheering on a friend navigating the eating disorder recovery process by telling her she “looks beautiful.” And yet, I’ve put my foot in my mouth by dishing out such well-meaning comments that end up doing much more harm than good.
Avoiding the comparison game
First of all, these outwardly focused affirmations invite unhealthy comparison. Hyper-focusing on a friend’s appearance can make us feel commensurate dissatisfaction with our own. I know I’ve shown up to a lunch date clad in ugly workout gear, complete with a four-day-old dry shampooed bun, while my friend has donned her cutest, Pinterest-worthy getup. But gushing about “how cute” she looks and “how embarrassed” I am for being “so gross” only serves to make my friend feel awkward and me feel, well, gross.
Furthermore, we’re all familiar with the concept of “fat talk.” Healthy friendships should never condone it. Even humorous comments about your own body or how you feel about it can invite comparison and negativity—or imply that the critical eye you turn on yourself views everyone else with the same harshness.
If you can stave off the urge to complain about your postpartum stomach, aging lines, or frizzy hair, you’ve avoided opening the floodgates for negative self-talk to poison your relationship. It also gives you and your friend space and freedom to talk about things that matter much more, like how she’s thriving—or struggling—in her work, life, or relationships.
Treading lightly—because you never know what’s going on in someone’s life
Outward affirmations can even plant seeds that exacerbate our friends’ dissatisfaction with their own bodies. In college, one of my friends battled an eating disorder. One day, she confessed that when people complimented her appearance, she felt a rush of anxiety.
“When people tell me I look good, I take that to mean I need to maintain whatever eating regimen I’m currently on,” she said, “so I tell myself, ‘Okay, I can’t eat dessert anymore. I can’t put on any additional pounds.’”
Clearly, this is a dangerous mindset for a woman fighting to free herself from a negative body image prison—not to mention, to follow a doctor-mandated order to gain weight. I never would have thought that simply telling a friend how great she looked could trigger a regression in her recovery process, nor would I have imagined that what one person considers an offhand compliment could loom so large in someone else’s world.
Focusing on intangibles
Commenting on one another’s bodies is treacherous, as we simply can’t anticipate the long-term impact of seemingly innocent comments. Instead, we can focus on affirming one another for intangible, lasting qualities like character, integrity, and kindness. In other words, we can speak truth over our friends by bypassing the superficial, societally sanctioned chatter about how “amazing” they look.
For instance, when a friend shares her experience volunteering at a women’s shelter, tell her, “Your heart for uplifting other women is so inspiring. I know your gifts are so appreciated there. I’m so proud of you for using them so selflessly!” Similarly, if a friend is navigating a difficult breakup, avoid the temptation to placate her by telling her how easily she’ll land another man. Instead, say, “I know this is hard for you—you’re such a compassionate person, and I know how deeply this type of pain can cut. But you also have such a phenomenally healthy outlook on this situation and that will carry you far!”
While comments focused on outward appearance carry a tremendous potential to wound, statements that speak straight to our friends’ passions and hearts can only affirm and heal. Of course, that’s not to say that we need to ignore a friend’s new haircut or sprouting baby bump as though they don’t exist; there can be a time and place for such compliments. But we can rewire our tendencies to focus only on the external and, instead, speak the truth about who our friends truly are—not just how they look.