6 Types of Comments That Can Be Harmful to Someone’s Body Image, Especially During the Holidays
Warning: This story discusses eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
No one is immune to the social stigma that dictates what our bodies should or shouldn’t look like, what we should or shouldn’t eat, and how we should or shouldn’t feel about it all. Whether you’re someone who consciously struggles with body image or not, these messages are unavoidable, especially around the holidays. As licensed mental health counselor and psychotherapist Akilah Sigler puts it, “This is the water that we’re swimming in.” And as much as we’re all doing our best to stay afloat, the ways we often talk about bodies and food can end up causing others, and ourselves, to sink further into the negativity.
Many of us may look forward to seasonal food the most when the holidays roll around, but with so many celebrations centering around communal feasting and so many New Year’s resolutions centering around weight loss, this time of year can come with a lot of mixed and uncomfortable messaging.
That’s not to say your family can’t partake in those holiday-themed marathons if that’s their thing—but the origins behind the traditions may not be as “all in good fun” as we’d hope.
During the holidays, many of us also reconnect with family members we only see a couple times a year. And because our bodies change over time (that’s human and totally normal, btw) family gatherings can bring about a lot of unsolicited comments about our bodies and appearance. Some of these comments, even the ones that seem like praise, can actually be harmful to a person’s body image.
Sigler helped us identify a list of the types of body and food comments you should avoid making during the holidays. It’s important to remember that while body image is an “inherently gendered” issue, Sigler says “diet culture and weight stigma affects everyone,” but some more than others.
Most importantly, you can never fully know someone’s relationship with their body or food, so you may never be aware of the impact a certain comment may have on someone. Instead, we can work to understand the weight and implications of our words and be more intentional in our conversations. Check out the list below to learn what not to say about someone’s body this holiday season (and, honestly, every day).
Types of body and food comments to avoid saying during the holidays.
1. Commenting on someone’s food intake.
Consider how much time we’ve all probably spent debating whether or not it’s acceptable to go back for a second, third, or fourth round of food. Even in a family setting, it can feel like others are always observing our food intake. Comments like, “Should you really be eating that?” or “Shouldn’t you eat more food?” can make people feel ashamed of how much or how little food they consume, whether you may realize it or not.
The comments that can be “especially insidious,” Sigler says, are the ones that seem like praise, the ones like, “Wow, you cleaned your plate,” or “You must’ve really liked your food.” Don’t get us wrong, cleaning your plate can be a great thing, but when someone else makes the comment, it can induce more shame than pride.
Instead, simply give your compliments to the chef. Your aunt would probably love to hear how much you enjoyed her green bean casserole and your uncle would likely be flattered that you thought his mashed potatoes were a smash.
2. Using coded language to describe someone’s weight.
While telling someone they look “healthy” may seem like a compliment, it could reinforce what Sigler calls “the hierarchy of bodies,” by implying that some bodies are better than others. “Oftentimes, the language around thinness is ‘good body,’ ‘fit,’ ‘healthy,’ and the language around [plus-size] is ‘bad body,’ ‘sluggish,’ ‘unhealthy,’ ‘lethargic,’” says Sigler. “In those instances, the language might be coded, but the message is clear.”
Using this kind of coded language can assign different levels of morality to someone’s weight, which means these types of statements don’t only tell someone how you think they look, but also, how you view about their lifestyle. While people with thin bodies are perceived to be “virtuous and hardworking,” Sigler says, “We assign laziness and poor health to [plus-size] bodies, which is really inaccurate and unfair.”
In reality, you can’t tell someone’s capability, health, history, or happiness just by looking at their body. And the truth is, you shouldn’t try to either.
3. Congratulating someone on changing the size or shape of their body.
This is a more explicit way of assigning morality to body size. Congratulating someone on changing the size or shape of their body can also reinforce the idea that some bodies are better than others—and more worthy of celebration. Most often, people congratulate someone when they’ve lost weight, because losing pounds is associated with the idea of becoming “healthier.” But Sigler brings up another important reason for why we should reconsider these types of comments: “Body changes can signify so many different things, like illness, improved health, financial hunches, food scarcity, recovering from an eating disorder or an eating disorder itself," she says.
Even though a congratulatory statement may seem positive and supportive in nature, we can’t know if someone is in a healthy place with their body, and these comments could trigger an emotional response instead.
4. Using clothing to comment adjacently on your own body or someone else’s body.
These types of comments are just one step (or one layer) removed from commenting directly on someone’s body. Sigler points to the comment, “I could never wear that,” as one that is rooted in body shame and weight stigma. “It also reinforces the idea that we have to dress in a way that society dictates is flattering when ideally, at least in my mind, we’re only beholden to our own comfort and self-expression,” says Sigler.
Like the many other types of comments, many clothing-related remarks are disguised as compliments as well. Comments like, “Your arms look really muscular in that shirt,” or “Those jeans show off your thick thighs,” might not be received the way we intended them to. What we may think of as compliment—because of what we individually see as positive body traits—could land as an insult with someone else, especially if you’re drawing attention to a part of their body they’re currently struggling with.
5. Talking about your own diet or negative body image.
You might think you’re in the clear with this one, but it’s not that simple. The way we talk about our bodies can affect the way other people see theirs. “I’ve definitely sort of experienced and also heard clients talk about the impact of what it’s like to just witness someone who’s struggling with their relationship with food, even if that’s not the way they’re framing it—if they’re talking about how the diet they’re on is the best diet ever, it reinforces weight stigma and the norm that we should be discontent with our bodies,” says Sigler.
Negative body comments (whether they’re at your own expense or not) and conversations about restricted eating habits, can be particularly harmful for people who are working on rebuilding their body image. “It tempts and triggers those who are trying to move away from diet culture,” Sigler says. “It sometimes tempts and triggers us back into a diet culture and mindset.”
Sigler also emphasized the importance of setting your own boundaries when you unwilling get stuck in these conversations. “Having good boundaries over the holidays and really telling people, ‘I cannot have this conversation with you,’ is totally valid,” Sigler says.
6. Projecting your thoughts and feelings onto others.
“It’s okay to not be okay,” is a mantra we always have on repeat here at HG. So, it’s an easy transition for us to also say that it’s okay to not be okay with your body, too. Because, for all the exact reasons listed above, it can be really hard to be content with, let alone love, the body you’re in. “It’s sort of like the pendulum has swung in the other direction and people are really interested in cultivating an environment of body positivity, which can be a really beautiful thing,” Sigler says.
But not everyone is ready to dive right into talking about body love. “To some extent, we’ve all internalized the body hierarchy and diet culture,” she says. "Most of us are sort of struggling with getting to a place of self-acceptance, self-love. And so being told that our feelings about our bodies—if we’re not feeling good about ours—are not valid, or we should feel differently, can really induce a lot of shame.”
Sigler tries to meet her clients where they’re at, and she finds that working towards body respect, rather than full-on love, can be an easier starting point for some.
Oftentimes, our comments are well-intentioned—sometimes we’re just trying to give our loved ones a compliment—but the impact can go be deeper than what we see on the surface. So this holiday season, let’s just all try to eat, drink, and be merry without all the body and diet talk.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741. Or, if you know someone who may be struggling with body dysmorphia, please visit The Body Dysmorphia Disorder Foundation for more information.