Why Is Talking About Looks Damaging to Mental Health?

Body talk can be damaging for our mental health, but it doesn't HAVE to be.

Image by Cathy Scola/ Getty Images

By Reina Gattuso

I’m a pretty confident gal. Actually, that’s an understatement. I am a seriously confident woman. I think I’m gorgeous, exceptionally talented, super interesting, and not least of all, very humble.

I’m lucky to have a fantastic mom, who always modelled body confidence, never talked about weight, and told me I was the most beautiful woman in the world (well, except for my equally beautiful sisters). My partners have never made me feel bad about my body. I go for a “queer, curvier Sophia Loren in 1964” vibe, and I’m pretty pleased with the results.

And yet…

Internal and External Pressures

And yet, I am a woman in contemporary American culture with a BMI over 25 (the dreaded boundary between “normal” and “overweight”). And yet, shopping for pants is an unpleasant affair, with every resisting zipper a judgement. And yet, when my doctor told me it couldn’t hurt for me to lose a few pounds, I said, “Listen lady, if I have to choose between my mental health and losing weight, I will choose my mental health every time.”

It really does feel like this is the choice.

Trying to lose weight — trying to do anything much to alter my appearance, in fact, besides my usual makeup-pencil skirt-rhinestone routine — stresses me the heck out. I like to exercise (when it’s fun stuff, like Zumba, and not boring stuff, like jogging). I like to eat fruits and vegetables. But if you put me in a room full of women talking about their diets, counting calories, or shaming themselves for eating too many Christmas cookies (…no such thing?), insecurity alarm bells start screeching in my head.

What gives?

The Root of Decreasing Body Satisfaction

Turns out, I’m not alone. The majority of Americans feel somewhat dissatisfied with their bodies, with only 28% of men, and 26% of women feel “extremely satisfied” with their appearance, and only half reporting that they’re “somewhat to extremely satisfied” with their weight.

Social pressure can make this worse. “Fat talk” and comparing ourselves to others have been repeatedly shown to increase and normalize body dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, exposure to traditional and social media is significantly related to decreased body satisfaction in both men and women.

Fat shaming, though often described in the faux-benevolent language of “concern” about fat people’s health, actually has a negative effect on fat people’s physical and emotional wellbeing — in turn decreasing the likelihood that they’ll lose weight even if they want to.

The best kind of body talk? No body talk at all, say experts.

The Talk on “Body Talk”

According to experts on raising children with healthy body image, parents shouldn’t talk about their children’s weight, but they also shouldn’t shame themselves or model harmful dieting practices. Instead, they should emphasize healthy eating, healthy physical activity, and positive personality traits in order to teach a more holistic relationship with the body.

If you already have a negative relationship with your body, research has shown that some kinds of talk can help: specifically, self-compassion and cognitive behavioral therapy. Writing in Psychology, therapist Vivian Diller recommends paying attention to and transforming negative thoughts as one way to improve our “beauty self-esteem.” She suggests looking in the mirror and noticing what we think about ourselves, positive and negative. Then, rewrite negative dialogues as though you were talking to your child or best friend — to someone who you believe is beautiful and perfect just the way they are.

This research makes a lot of sense to me. The (relatively infrequent) occasions when I do feel self-conscious about my looks aren’t when I’m in a bikini on the beach, or in dance class wearing only a sports bra, or naked with a partner. Living in my body is sheer joy: my legs stretch, my thighs pump, my hips shake. There is nothing better than walking down a street with the sunshine on my face, eating a perfect peach.

Hearing other people complain about their bodies, on the other hand, is the surest killer of personal confidence. It’s only when I see pictures of other women complaining about their “flab,” or sharing weight-loss strategies, or shaming themselves for eating dinner that I pay attention to the so-called flaws in my own body.

In these moments, I’m reminded that the body isn’t the problem: society is.

We Must Learn to Recognize Our Own Beauty

The body is not to be agonized over, picked apart, punished, obsessed about. It is meant to be enjoyed. As John Mayer famously said in a slightly different context, the “body is a wonderland.” We can eat delicious things, exchange backrubs with friends, masturbate, and dance. We can make children, climb mountains, and swim seas.

We’re born at home in our bodies. Babies kick and gurgle and feed, delighted by the colors and textures of the world. Toddlers run around naked without fear or shame, jumping and dancing and eating just for the love of it.

Society takes that pleasure away from us. But that’s not inevitable. Developing a more body-positive society begins with each one of us. By finding joy in our own bodies, we give others permission to discover that childlike wonder for themselves.

Originally published at www.talkspace.com

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