Dealing with Trash Talk, Part 1

body bashing trash talk

Read Part II right here!

Reader R. has written to me a couple of times and I would like to adopt her as my sister. She is a kind and contemplative young woman and my correspondence with her is always thought-provoking and rewarding for us both. She wrote to me recently with some concerns about trash talking, and since it’s a behavior that ALL of us have dealt with at one time or another, I wanted to share some of our conversation with you all. And, of course, gather your input and thoughts on this touchy subject.

From R.:

After reading your blog for several months now, I truly love your message of seeing the beauty in women who come in all shapes and sizes. I find this very empowering and almost spiritual. However, I have noticed some struggles with this message in my college setting:

1. Some people say your inner beauty shines more than your outer beauty. What can be said about the beauty of some peers that demean others and get wasted all the time? Physically they are beautiful for sure! But I find myself in a moral dilemma because I want to see them as beautiful as other women but I feel I am being a hypocrite by labeling such behavior as “beautiful.” Are women that bring others down still beautiful?

2. One time my suitemate and I were looking at pictures on Facebook together and I remarked that a peer looks beautiful. My friend promptly replies that she doesn’t think that peer is “all that.” I’ve noticed it is common here to judge girls based on their weight or appearance. For example, a girl is hanging out in a guy’s room and another girl walks in acting jealous of the friendship. The first girl doesn’t care because she says the jealous girl is overweight. That does not define the person! Should I just keep to myself? Should I have a talk with my friend?

3. As stress increases, my roommate and suitemate will sometimes point out their “fat areas” and how they are breaking out like a “pizza face.” My heart goes out to them because I want them to see how their bodies are perfectly fine and so capable and pretty. However, I feel like this could turn out to be very awkward and cause deflection of any comments.

Help?

R. is in a tough position, especially as a college student. She wants to convince her friends and peers to be kinder to themselves and others, but risks looking preachy and condescending in doing so. Here’s what I told her:

* * * * *

Making fun of and demeaning other women is a sign of insecurity, period. The women you see engaging in these behaviors are hurting on the inside and trying to make themselves feel better, more powerful, even superior by putting others down. It’s destructive and counterproductive, but it’s also instinctual. They probably don’t even realize they’re doing it, and certainly don’t realize WHY they’re doing it. Is this behavior beautiful? No. Are the women engaging in this behavior doing something harmful? Yes. And while including them in an encompassing view of women as wonderful, gorgeous creatures deserving of love and acceptance may feel hypocritical, judging them as dumb or ignorant won’t help them (or you) feel better about the situation.

I’m not sure how close you are with the women you’re discussing in the first example, so it’s up to you how you handle this. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with them at all, just remind yourself that they’re making choices. Their choices are different from yours, and hopefully they’ll make less destructive choices when they feel more secure about themselves. Also bear in mind that they are hurting and afraid, and thus behaving like wounded animals. Since they lash out due to their own insecurities, you could consider complimenting them at random. Be subtle, and don’t worry about it if they snicker once you’ve walked away. Compliments are like little nuggets of verbal gold, and even if they make us uncomfortable at first, we take them to heart. You would be contributing to their self-confidence levels, and helping mitigate that hurt. Doing this won’t halt the trash talking behavior, but it might help a little bit.

As for your friend who is judging people based on weight on Facebook and elsewhere, if you feel comfortable, I think broaching the subject could be beneficial. Again, she is almost certainly making fun of other women because of what she’s feeling about HERSELF. If you could get her to talk about her own self-image – even without mentioning the Facebook stuff – it could really help her. You never know what you might tap into if you got her to open up. That could be a truly transformative conversation for you both.

Finally, your suitemates. This one is a tough call since stress causes human beings to do all sorts of things we wouldn’t under calmer circumstances. It’s fairly normal to turn frustration about external events into venting about oneself, just as it’s normal to break out or binge eat during finals week. So I’d say cut them some slack. But you could also remind them to cut THEMSELVES some slack! When they start ranting about their bodies, just say, “Hey! It’s midterms! Cut yourself a break. Worry about the pimples next week, and go back to veggies once the tests are over. You’re only human.” I’m not condoning the body bashing talk at all, just saying that when they’re already stressed, chastising them for venting might hurt more than help.

* * * * *

In many circles trash talk is socially acceptable behavior, and that SUCKS. I think it’s especially prevalent among high school and college women who are working their butts off in school and trying to carve out identities for themselves. But I’ve heard it everywhere from the gym to the office to the park to the movie theater as an adult, and it brings me down every time. There’s not much we can do to curb this behavior in strangers, but I hope you all feel comfortable attempting to reroute or discourage it in acquaintances and friends. My suggestions above – dropping random compliments, encouraging discussion about self-image, and making light of body-bashing – may work under some circumstances for you readers and your peers.

In Part 2, we look at trash talk among coworkers and friends, and how to delicately handle it when you finally reach your breaking point.

Image courtesy mrtopp.

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  • Casey

    Sal, I'm reading a book right now "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" that deals exactly with this topic! I'll have to mail it to you when I'm done with it, as the author has some interesting arguments and personal stories as to why this goes on. Not so much on how to handle it, but the psychology behind it. You'd find it interesting!

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

  • Daisy Dukes

    Sal, I remember this from days gone by. It always seemed to me that there were people who trash talked about others and there were people who didn't.

    It's repulsive for a reason.

    Now I don't have a problem about someone ranting when they have just been the object of someone's cold and heartless attack, or even in a moment of weakness when they do a little name calling. We all have our limits and we all act a little immature sometimes if pressed. What I am talking about are girls I grew up with that for no reason, I mean we were just having a great time having lunch at McDonald's or skating at the ice rink, and they would just start laughing at another girl, taking her apart. Calling her fat or ugly or saying, "I can't believe she's wearing that! EWWWW!"

    Sal! I even remember THEIR MOTHERS DOING IT! My mother never talked like that about others. THANK GOD.

    But the point being I was always repulsed by this behavior. I would slowly pull away from these people. I did not bother correcting them usually, because then they learned just not to talk that way around me. But that is still who they were in their heart. I just found different people to hang around, and in the cases there is nobody else to hang around, I hang around by myself.

    It just does something awful to your spirit to hear that talk. Hurts everybody involved!

    If there is anything I would qualify as ugly, it is a lack of love and compassion for other people.

  • Meli22

    brings me to mind one time I went to a club and was dancing. some random guy who asked me to dance was trying to talk to me… he suddenly sees a seriously obese girl (maybe 20ish) in a striped tight top dancing and feels the need to say how fat she is etc, etc, and that stripes looked bad on larger people (I am saying all this in a much nicer way than he did). I told him I was glad she was out having fun dancing with friends, and that it was a shame so many people felt the need to judge her/talk about her/make faces at her/call her out. He changed his tune REAL fast (I think he was trying to get on my good side lol).

    I hate how people use trash talking to break the ice or unite with each other. Can we find things we have in common, instead of berating the next poor soul we see?

  • eek

    Great post Sal! I do my best not to, but I find myself looking for "flaws" in other people, probably when I am feeling shy or insecure. My goal today is to find the best in others and compliment them on it! You're right, paying compliments can feel awkward, but it gets easier with time!

  • Linda

    I do think that you answered her well. To be honest though, I think it just comes down to maturity. Trying to approach the subject to tell someone they are beautiful regardless may end up blowing up in her face. The great part is that your "adopted sister" is comfortable with herself, is a good person and is extremly mature for her age. It sucks to be surrounded by people like that, but it's either something they grow out of, or they take it bitterly into their adulthood.

    I agree with Daisy Dukes, she should find new friends.

  • Beki @ The Good Girl

    It is so much easier to look for the good things in others, the nice things to compliment, even in girls who already look gorgeous and put together and girls you know are popular and are possibly even hateful… those girls need compliments too. They are "hateful" because they are insecure about themselves and whatever you can do to mitigate that behavior from them will help shorten their reign of terror over other girls. See, compliments can save others' insults. Perhaps. It's worth a shot, anyway, since it certainly won't hurt the one you're complimenting and can only make you feel good yourself.

    If a friend is doing some damage to someone else, through pictures or across the room or whatever, maybe redirect the behavior by pointing out something good instead of negative. Or, for instance, if there is a very round girl wearing a tight stripey top, compliment her to your friend on her courage to wear something eye-catching rather than hiding her weight under a baggy black sweatshirt like most gals do in college. Who knows what will inspire the changes in other people, but you will always feel better for not adding to the negatives yourself.

  • futurelint

    This immediately made me think of an interview with Dave Eggers, where his addendum at the end is so awesome and inspiring… he is talking about people cutting down writers and musicians and artists, but I think it applies here too:

    "But you know what is easiest of all? When we dismiss.

    Oh how gloriously comforting, to be able to write someone off… One less thing to think about."

    I agree that most of the bashing that goes on across the board is to make ourselves feel better. Oh her? She's fat. Done. She's labeled and put away from your mind. You are better than her. Oh her? She's dumb. She's a slut. Blah, blah, whatever your insult is for whoever is nagging at your self-esteem at that moment for whatever reason. It's just a convenient thing to be able to write someone off as some undesirable label.

    P.S. You can read the whole article here, while the interview is nothing spectacular, the part that says "Now the addendum" at the end is soooo beautiful, so just read that:

    http://www.armchairnews.com/freelance/eggers.html

  • Anonymous

    i sympathize with Reader R. – it's hard to be a caring and thoughtful person in this world sometimes. Sal and the commenters here will have some great ideas to help you with this scourge – smart move to contact Sal!!!

    a couple hints. Meli22 outlined a great way – make a sympathetic comment about the target. usually i use the tone that i just feel so bad for the target's situation that i can't bring myself to be too mean. like i could see the temptation, but the situation is just kinda too sad. lots of time it deflates the nastiness, just like Meli22 said. repeat until people see that you're very sweet but no fun 'that way'.

    also, keep an eye out for others who may be allies – people who actively discourage trash talk (observe their techniques!) as well as people who look uncomfortable with it. the latter can be recruited by you to discourage trash talk (either on the fly or as a plan you discuss together).

    as i said above, keep an eye out for any times you see trash talk being discouraged. this could be in real life, in a movie or book, on the street. take apart and learn the techniques used (words, emotional tone, body language, how far they pushed it). when you decide to use any technique, take a look at what happened afterward to see how you want to approach things the next time. what worked, what maybe not so much?

    good for you R. for making the effort!! just read and listen and pay attention and you'll be defusing these type of situations yourself!!!! steph

  • Courtney

    That is so hard! Sometimes it feels like a shame that we can't just reach out with a magic wand and make other people change. I do two things to deal with it:
    1) I've made it a discipline that if I like something about a person, I say it, even if they're a complete stranger. It makes my day when someone compliments me, and remembering that helps me pass it along to others.
    2) When someone is trash talking, I'll let them get it out of their system and then say good things about the trashed person. I.E. a friend says she's fat, I'll say but you have amazing hair!, or friend says so-and-so has let herself go (I hate that phrase), and I'll say sorry you think that, she's got a really great xyz. You get the picture. It keeps the trasher from making the trashee (even if it's themselves) an object instead of a person. Looking at the whole person is the best antidote for trash!

  • interrobangsanon

    I was struck by R's first point about the moral dilemma of labeling people as beautiful who don't act as such. I remember a case study (in Reviving Ophelia, perhaps?) in which a girl said that the pretty girls didn't have to be nice, because they were pretty.

    As I've become more comfortable in my skin, and more adventurous in my wardrobe, I find an increased responsibility to be kind, considerate, funny (or at least I hope so!), etc. Because we're such visual creatures, I'm attracting attention by how I look, and I want those people who think it would be neat to get to know me to not be disappointed when they do.
    -Katie

  • RB

    This post really strikes a chord with me. You mention college, but I come across all these issues even now in grad school (age group 24-30) where trash talking is the normal female bonding conversation. It especially reminds me of my housemate who is so kind and generous and also beautiful but has serious self-image issues (for a myriad of reason) which causes her to point out any perceived flaws in strangers and how thin=beautiful and so on. To deal with this, I have had several conversations with her about how being healthy is more important than being thin, all shapes and sizes can be beautiful and even once stole your idea and forced her to list five things about her body that she loves. I also do drop sincere compliments whenever possible. It is still early days, but I am hopeful that she will change. In the past (like reader Daisy Dukes) I have distanced myself from such individuals but this is one friend I really care about. It sometimes does get to me and pulls me down because I too am human and have my less confident days but I am determined to not give up. Thanks for your tips and encouragement, I feel reassured that I am on the right track.

  • Rebecca

    I'm very impressed with R. Not many women would respond to those situations in such a mature way, especially at such a young age.

    Thanks for sharing this. I don't have a lot of advice, but these are good questions to think about.

  • Anonymous

    The first point has always been a bugaboo for me – where's the moral dilemma? "Inner beauty" is important, yes, but when it gets to the point where you're ringing your hands over whether to acknowledge that an attractive but unpleasant person is, in fact, attractive, it seems like PC overkill. What's so hard about accepting, "She's pretty; she's also a b1tch," if that's the case? Isn't the urge to define beauty in such a way that only those we deem deserving get the label just another side of the weird social valuation of beauty?

  • Charlotte

    Your correspondent is wise beyond her years if she's picking up on this NOW. The danger of her friends' mindset is that is becomes habitual–as Daisy D. says, their mothers do it, their sisters do it, so of course, they do it, too. Not engaging in the behavior herself is one way to respond–her silence is a powerful voice, even though she might not realize it. Or just change the subject–pointedly. Your suggestion that when her friends begin denigrating themselves, she provide them with a sincere compliment is great. A sincere compliment, and then change the subject: the message is, I acknowledge you're upset, but let's talk about something more important than your pimple. I grew up in an all-girl family where every body part and outfit and hairstyle and break-out was scrutinized and commented on to the nth degree. Every one of us ended up with an eating disorder (anorexia for me, obesity for my sisters). It's "just talk," but it's destructive behavior, especially in the formative years. Eventually, this smart young woman will find friends with more interesting things to talk about than somebody else's behind. Until then, maybe good birthday presents for all these friends would be "Self-Esteem Comes in All Sizes" by Carol Johnson. Good luck to this smart and sensitive young woman!

  • Jenny

    I've struggled with how to do this as an authority figure in a college classroom. I frequently hear my students dissecting their own or each others' bodies, before or after class, or sometimes at events I'm a part of. Sometimes I'm not brave enough to say anything, but sometimes I'll say, "Wow, I'd really prefer to hear body-positive talk in my classroom. For instance, Jessica, I know you run track and have been doing really well. Congratulations." Or whatever.

  • saturdayjane

    This is absolutely lovely and fantastic. I want to print it out and take it to every middle school in the world and pass it out to the girls, and tell each and every one of them, "You're gorgeous. You're great. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, and there's nothing wrong with any of these other girls, either."

    I swear I should be printing your posts off and saving them for future daughters.

  • Work With What You’ve Got

    I am so so blessed in that I don't encounter this really all that often at all. I remember it well though. A well trusted adult in my life used to sort of trash talk me until I put a stop to it. I basically said "Hey, no one gets to talk to me that way" but before I did I paid a therapist a bajillion dollars to tell me it was OK to. So save your money. Tell them it's not OK. My therapist said so.

  • Clare

    I love what your blog does and how it inspires people. Plus I love the photo at the top of this post!

    tweet tweet tweet

    x

  • Sal

    Anonymous (2): I think R's question was more along these lines: She wants to view her peers as beautiful, and while they are physically beautiful, their behavior upsets her and detracts. She was looking for a way to support these women and praise them, but couldn't squeeze them into the "every woman is beautiful" bucket because of their trash talk.

    But I hear your point. Women can be physically beautiful yet unpleasant or spiteful. The combination is not unheard of. My hope, with this post, is to suggest ways of dealing with demeaning comments about other women … no matter where they're coming from.

  • Malvina

    I remember those nasty younger days! I also remember that one of the things that made me switch from snide to supportive and to leave personal sarcasm behind were a few friends who asked me point blank, "Why did you say that? That sounds so mean. I think s/he is courageous/pretty/nice/etc." It stopped me dead in my mental tracks.

    See, it was all about approval; I didn't want my friends to see ME as mean so it made me reflect on my attitudes and how I could be perceived. Today I am thankful for kind example.

  • poodletail

    Trash talk is never OK. Never. Every person is just doing the best they can do.

    This is not something I have down pat but it's what I aspire to.

  • FashionTheorist

    I'm lucky in that I don't encounter this sort of behavior very often – I don't even remember doing so in high school and college, when I know it's endemic. Maybe I was just oblivious. Maybe it had something to do with having more male friends than female, and the female friends I did have were artistic types who were more focused on what they could do than how they looked.

    When I do encounter trash-talking it's mostly self-directed – "oh, I'm so fat," "oh, I'm so ugly." I used to do that a lot, particularly when I was already feeling down – somehow tearing myself down further was almost enjoyable, in a sort of masochistic way (although in the long run, it always made things worse, not better). I'm trying really hard to break those habits, and to lead by example when I see my friends doing it. I spend plenty of time telling my girlfriends they're not fat, there's nothing wrong with their boobs, and their thighs are not the size of Switzerland!

  • Anonymous

    Hello, everyone! I am "R." and I want to thank all of you and Sally for your kind words and knowledge. Different opinions are really helpful and I'm slowly getting better at handling these situations. It takes practice. =)

  • Make Do Style

    Gosh it is a hard one but you are right about insecurities – I think it remains and lots of people are like it when they are older but change the game slightly.

    I think best to stay true to yourself and not comment or engage with any such conversations – correct through silence more powerful than challenging.

  • acb26

    I agree completely that these harsh comments stem from insecurity and their own feelings about themselves, rather than about what they think about these people they are bashing. So I think the approach is to be compassionate and show by example that you don't need to be critical and be caught in the all of the ideas about how bodies are supposed to look in order to be one of the pretty ones. Speak up! I know exactly how it feels to be in that situation — have been in it myself — and that's the approach I've taken. I don't know if I've changed anyone's mind but I think that you can't go wrong by encouraging self acceptance.

  • Chelsea

    This post came at a perfect time, and I can't wait to read the other! I actually wanted to e-mail you about it! I don't live in a SUPER small town, and the stores here supply people from all the towns around me, so its a good sized area, and I work at a popular restaurant. My store, although its "just a restaurant" prides our self on being positive, upbeat and a very fun place for our customers.

    The other day I was walking through a craft store and I actually had to leave the store because a large group of teenagers were following me, walking in next aisle over or standing towards the ends of my aisle making snide comments! "Oh that chick works at _______, look at her, she's such a bitch! blah blah blah" and I could be very wrong, but I think I'm a very, very attractive person, and I'm also extremely positive and always out-of-my way nice, and I feel like people dislike pretty people and think anyone pretty has to be a bitch!

    Likewise, it makes me upset when pretty girls really do act quite horribly towards other people. It's such a horrible circle of meanness! and it's something that will probably never end. People think that all "pretty college girls", and by pretty I mean stick thin, fake tan etc girls are mean, and not all of them(us) are! But then a lot of those girls are mean towards other women for not being what the media portrays as beautiful.
    Another sad thing is, I'm 5'3, 100lbs and considered beautiful, and I actually get a lot of rude comments from my friends when I talk about body image, they said because I'm petite I have no room to talk about body image! I wish ALL women could get their hands on your blog and see that all women have body issues, especially the pretty, insecure girls!

    I'm curious to reading more comments and seeing part 2, as I'm at a loss of how to deal with these things most of the time, besides walking away from it.

  • RETRO REVA

    Sal,
    I love your insight!
    I believe that with spiritual maturity comes a natural sense of finding beauty in Everything and Everyone. A person who is connected to their own inner beauty can't find flaws in another. It's impossible!
    When I do find myself searching for the "flaws" in the world, it's time to check my own inner dialogue. Love sees no imperfections, including self! When I "trash" another, my ego is running my mouth and saying something's wrong with ME, not the other person. Thanks as always for sharing your maturity and insight! Reva

  • Hammie

    Complimenting people about things they genuinely have gong for them is very empowering. Model this behaviour and reward it when you observe it. Genuine compliments that the reciever can believe are the key- You have great boobs, your hair always sits nice, what great ankles you have. Your skin is amazing.
    I love doing it with Moms who have kind of given up on themselves, if it's true, they believe it and it builds them up. And that feels great!
    xx

  • Audi

    Great post, Sal. I've got no patience for the sort of high schoolish cattiness your reader describes. Hopefully many of these girls will simply outgrow the need to put other people down in order to make themselves feel better, because I really think it's a sign of immaturity as much as it is insecurity.

    In her situation I think I'd look for some nicer friends; I refuse to believe that she's the only kind-hearted and mature college age lady out there. The loss of a friendship can be a powerful message, and for some people that's the only way they'll learn that their behavior is unacceptable. The judgy girls might go on to become truly beautiful people later in life, but right now they're just bringing R down, and when you're trying to achieve in school, that's the last thing you need to deal with.