Speaking Up Against Body Criticism: How to Create Kind and Firm Boundaries

“Wow! I can’t believe how much weight you’ve lost. You look great!”

“Oh, there’s no way I can eat that. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips!”

“Is that outfit really flattering for someone with your body type?”

Whether it’s a troll on social media or well-meaning Aunt Kathy, all of us have come up against comments and criticisms about our bodies. 

Comments about weight gain will almost always be negative because our society is obsessed with thinness. Conversely, you may be receiving praise for losing weight, a job well done for fitting into the ideals of our society. 

Many of us don’t know what to do with these comments. We may meet them with shame and a nervous laugh, or perhaps a hesitant “thank you” if the comment was meant to be positive. And although women are socialized to be modest, and we can perhaps chalk our awkward responses to that, I believe there is a deeper reason: We know that the fixation on our physical bodies is harmful to us as women. It keeps us objectified and small.

If someone is complimenting your weight loss, they may be complimenting depression, cancer, an impossibly restrictive diet, or even an eating disorder. The latter was a painful experience for me. As someone who had three undiagnosed eating disorders, I was constantly praised for being the “fit, healthy” one. My desire to recover and restore my weight was at constant odds with the praise and validation people were unwittingly giving my eating disorders. In the same vein, if someone criticizes your weight gain, they may be criticizing recovery.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re on a journey to quit dieting in pursuit of more intuitive health, even if people aren’t criticizing your body, they will be criticizing their own. As a result, you may start second guessing what you’re doing for your health, since your coworker Alice lost so much weight by swearing off carbs and sugar. 

But, as I tell my clients, you cannot control other people and their criticisms of your body. The words of others are neutral circumstances we cannot control. 

What we can control, though, are our thoughts, emotions and reactions to those criticisms. We have the choice to believe them to be true, to make them mean something about who we are; and we have the choice to set up kind, yet firm, boundaries around the people who participate in making those comments. 

The topic of our thoughts and emotions around body criticisms is incredibly nuanced and not something I could cover here in one article; it’s something I take weeks and weeks to dive into with clients. But what I can do is arm you with a few boundary-setting tips! All of these are discussed in greater detail in my upcoming book, Freedom with Food and Fitness: How Intuitive Eating is the Key to Becoming Your Happiest Self.

Tip #1: Write down conversational triggers/ what you’re not willing to tolerate✨

How do you feel about compliments regarding certain body parts? Your weight? How do you feel about conversations that include numbers? Is discussing weights, calories, or macros triggering? What about diet conversations? Figure out what you can and cannot handle in terms of conversation, actually write it down so you can feel it. As you think of each kind of scenario you may come up against, see how you feel in your body. Do you get a pit in your stomach? Do your shoulders tense up? Those are the topics you want to avoid.

✨Tip #2: If the talk is happening as part of a larger gathering (e.g. party), walk away. ✨

Go to the bathroom, grab a drink, talk to someone else–whatever you have to do to physically remove yourself from the situation.  This strategy is for those who know they need to filter the narratives around them but aren’t necessarily ready for actual confrontations. Quietly excusing yourself is absolutely acceptable. If you’re at a dinner table and the people to your left start talking about diet-related things, physically turn your body to the right and see what those people are talking about. 

Tip #3: Don’t get defensive ✨

If people feel attacked, the logical part of their brain shuts down and they, quite literally, can’t hear what you’re saying. Sometimes, especially if someone is being critical, you want to come back with fighting words. What does THAT mean? Why would you say that? We won’t want to be defensive because that puts people’s guards up, too, and then no one is really hearing what anyone is saying. It shuts down meaningful, productive conversation instead of facilitating it. Part of the reason we can get defensive is because, deep down, we still believe diet culture’s lies, too. Still, it’s not exactly fair to go into attack mode. For one, they’re also a casualty of diet culture’s messages; and two, the fact you still believe diet culture’s messages is not their problem–it’s yours. 

Tip #4: Write down responses ahead of time

This may feel silly but if you know what you’d say in certain situations, you’ll feel more confident sticking up for yourself and you’ll say them with more conviction, instead of stumbling on your words.  Write down what you think future disordered conversations will be like based on what they’ve said in the past. What will they say and what will you say back?

✨Tip #5: Be “punny” (lighthearted with your request for boundaries)✨

Although setting boundaries is a serious matter in terms of setting yourself up for recovery success, you don’t have to sound so serious. Laughter and humor are great ways to disengage the offending party and have them be more open to heeding your requests.

UNWELCOME COMMENT: “You’re going to eat all that?”

RESPONSE: “Yup, can’t topple the patriarchy on an empty stomach!”

UNWELCOME COMMENT: “Have you lost weight?”

RESPONSE: “Yup, the weight of other people’s opinions on my weight.” 

✨Tip #6:Be ready to let go of relationships✨

Some people are so wrapped up in their own thoughts, beliefs and wants (and diet culture), that they won’t want to or be able to fulfill your request. You’ll have to learn to let these people go. We only want people in our lives that will support what makes us our best selves, and we know that people pleasing (keeping people around even if they’re toxic) doesn’t serve us.

 We may fear we are being “oversensitive,” that we should just be able to let things go, that it’s not that big of a deal; but it is. Your mental health and happiness are huge deals, and you have every right to safeguard them, while asking others who supposedly care about you to do the same. They might not understand your journey, your requests, or how they themselves are wrapped up in diet culture, but they should still be willing to respect your requests. If they can’t do that for you, they’re not meant to be in your lives in the first place.

Want to learn more about how to be your own body’s best friend? Go to www.freedomwithfoodandfitness.com/discover to learn more about Defy the Diet, my signature program where I coach women on how to heal their relationship with their bodies through the philosophies of intuitive eating. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s