When a loved one is struggling with the way they look, it can be difficult to know what to say. So, with this in mind, Becky Wright shares essential tips for supporting someone who’s experiencing body image concerns
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful
When we talk about self-image we’re generally referring to how someone sees, and feels about, their appearance. This can be not only what they see when looking in a mirror, but also any assumptions about how their body looks, or is perceived, by others.
As someone who’s battled with body image issues themselves, I know how hard it can be to focus on anything other than how you look – and, often, it can find its way creeping into our everyday conversations.
If someone you love is struggling with self-image – talking negatively about their body, saying they need to lose weight, or refusing to have their photo taken – it can be difficult to know what to say. Here we share some simple tips to help you navigate the conversation.
Avoid talking negatively about your body
This can be hard if you also struggle with body image issues but, although it might be tempting to talk about your body hang-ups with your loved one, this is detrimental. You may think you’re providing them with comfort – proving that other people struggle with the way they look, too – but, in reality, you’re feeding off each other’s negative energy, and are encouraging negative self-talk.
Also, pay attention to how you talk about other people’s bodies. Avoid making negative comments about anyone else’s appearance, as this feeds into the culture of body-shaming.
Compliment them on something other than their appearance
“When someone talks negatively about their body, it can be tempting to step in with reassuring comments, or appearance-related compliments,” says Harriet Frew, a counsellor who specialises in eating disorders and body image.
It might feel natural to say things like, ‘Don’t be silly!’ or ‘No, you’re beautiful!’ However, it’s unlikely that this will have much impact. Negative body thoughts can feel powerfully true, so even the most well-intentioned comment might be dismissed.
Instead, help them to see what you value about them – things that are unrelated to their appearance. “Get the conversation away from body-bashing by focusing on other, uplifting topics. Compliment your friend on their thoughtfulness or sense of humour, and direct the self-worth away from aesthetics,” says Harriet.
This can encourage them towards a mindset of body neutrality and, hopefully, over time, they’ll recognise that so many things about them matter more than their reflection.
Help them to express and unload their feelings
It might be hard to believe, but negative body image isn’t usually about the body! “A difficult ‘phone call, work stress, or relationship conflict may have triggered feelings of anxiety, guilt, or overwhelm. These emotions get unconsciously projected on to the body, when it’s about something else entirely,” says Harriet.
Encourage the person to open up and talk about what they’re struggling with. What is going on in their life that’s contributed to a difficult day?
It might also be helpful to have a signal. A friend and I have a common language we use when we’re struggling. Rather than ‘I hate [x body part]’, we say ‘I’m having a bad body image day’. This helps to emphasise the mental load over the physical problem, while still recognising that there’s something going on.
“Self-compassion helps tremendously to improve body image and wellbeing,” says Harriet. “If your friend berates their body, gently acknowledge the harsh self-judgement, and suggest that they could be kinder.” A great example of how to put this into context is saying something like, ‘You would never talk to [me/a friend] the way you do to yourself’.
Encourage them to prioritise acts of self-care that make them feel great – wearing their favourite outfit, or doing exercise that feels good, rather than an act of punishment.
It’s a slow process, but taking these steps can make a real difference to how your friend sees themself – and you might be surprised at how much your own self-image can benefit from helping someone else with theirs.