How to Be a Body Image Role Model

be a body image role model

E. dropped this one into the suggestion box back in July:

I would love to see a piece on how you can positively influence the self esteem of others around you. I find that I often have girl friends who have such poor self esteem and body image, and they look at me (I have relatively high self esteem) and they always wish they could mimic it. But they never actually do and instead just keep beating up on themselves. Any ideas on how I can help positively influence them to feel better about themselves? (I also think this would be good information for moms as well.)

Tina Z. and several others echoed this request, or had similar ones.

In a world where self-loathing is the norm and it is more socially acceptable to trash-talk your own body than it is to praise it, making yourself a body image role model is no mean feat. But there are a few simple, subtle actions that can encourage others to move toward self-love and acceptance.

Don’t be afraid to express pride about your own body.
I’m not saying you should waltz up to total strangers and declare yourself the sexiest being alive. I mean, you can totally do that, if you’re so inspired … but I’m thinking more along the lines of reacting to compliments with something more than a timid, “thanks.” If a friend tells you she likes your dress, say, “Thanks! I just adore how it makes my legs look.” If a peer tells you she loves your shoes, say, “Oh thanks, lady! I feel so gorgeous and powerful in these … like I could take over the world!” If a friend tells you your hair looks amazing, say, “You are so sweet! I feel like my hair is one of my best features. Thanks for noticing!” Will some women decide that these reactions make you conceited? Maybe. But until we have the courage to express pride about our own bodies, how can we expect anyone else to feel pride about theirs?

Be generous and genuine with compliments.
Tell as many women as you can that they’re gorgeous. Tell them often. Tell your nearest and dearest until they are sick of hearing it. Extend your compliment circle to strangers, women who actively irk you, women you only know online.

Only give compliments that you truly, truly believe. Half-assed compliments can feel like insults. Genuine ones feel like mini-orgasms.

I cannot emphasize this enough: Every compliment is an invaluable gift. Unlike many other gifts, compliments cost nothing and are easy to procure. And unlike many other gifts, compliments can change the course of another person’s life in a split second. Never underestimate the power of a compliment.

Ask questions.
If a girlfriend complains that she feels ugly or fat or old or unattractive, give her the third degree. “Why? To whom are you comparing yourself? Has something changed that made you feel this way? How long have you felt this way?”

Some women use venting about their body hang-ups as bait. They want to see if their peers will contradict their assertions. A claim of, “I look so haggard today,” may be laid out in hopes of generating a “No you don’t!” response. Dig deeper instead. See if you can get your fellow women to explain themselves and explore the root causes of low self-esteem. Exposing the causes of self-loathing can actually help reverse that self-loathing. And a few well-timed questions often do the trick.

Re-route trash talk.
Trash talking each other, ourselves, celebrities, women we see on the street … it can sometimes start happening before you even realize it. A simple observation becomes a catty remark, and soon things are spiraling down into a festival of nastiness. Instead of getting upset or attempting to silence the trash talk, find ways to defuse situations with humor. If you feel like the conversation is devolving into body bashing, say, “Girls, do we REALLY need to go there? No, we don’t. Let me tell you about the movie I saw last night …” Or just, “Blah, blah, whatever. Hey, did you hear about the new Mexican restaurant that just opened?” That may not work ongoing – or at all, depending on the social climate – but it’s worth a shot. You can express discomfort with these conversations by making a quick quip and changing the subject.

Listen and reflect.
It can seem preposterous to repeat back to someone the very words they’ve just said, but believe me when I say that it’s an effective tool for prompting self-examination. When a friend expresses negative thoughts repeatedly, tell her so. “I hear you saying that you hate your stomach so often, hon.” Just leaving it at that may force her to think a bit, but you can also press a little, “Why do you think you feel this way?” Simply letting her know that you’ve been listening to her will make her feel important and supported. Asking more of those key questions about cause and motivation can unlock an important conversation.

Coin positive nicknames and greetings.
This one is so simple, but so incredibly effective. (I even wrote an entire post on it back in the day.) When you run into a girlfriend on the street, say, “Hey, beautiful!” Or, “How’s it goin’, hot stuff?” Address your e-mails to “lovely” and “gorgeous” instead of given names and just see what happens. I’m telling you, it works wonders. And it couldn’t be easier.

Giving lectures about body image to your peers and coworkers, scolding acquaintances for trash-talking, or ranting at your family members may just make you look self-righteous. Besides, body image is an elusive, subtle beastie and attacking it head-on is seldom effective. Leading by example, spreading positivity, and re-routing potentially harmful conversations are all actions that take effect over a long timeline, which is precisely why they work.

Image courtesyย Devin Trent

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  • I don’t mean to be combative here, but I really think the other thing that needs to be emphasized that self-esteem and positive body image are also linked to accomplishing things with your body and mind. Instead of or in addition to telling girls and women that they are pretty and hot, I think we should be emphasizing that they are smart, strong, kind, capable, powerful, amazing. How many girls think it’s better to be pretty than smart? And how fucked up is it that so many do?!?

    For me personally physical activity has always been linked to my body image and self-esteem. Lifting weights, running half-marathons and a full marathon, coming to peace with a pose in physical asana do more to make me feel amazing, powerful, radiantly capable than compliments from friends about my hair. Finishing and defending my dissertation made me feel greater than every compliment on my physical appearance I’ve ever received combined did.

    While I think it’s wonderful to work on positive body image, I think it might be good to remember that we don’t expect guys to be beautiful and thin and focusing on compliments that only have to do with attributes of physical attractiveness only compound this problem for girls and young women.

    • Sal

      The question at hand is how to help your fellow women feel better about their bodies, specifically. Praising women, especially young women, for appearance-related things ALONE can create imbalance, and I agree that some eventually rank pretty above smart because of that imbalance. But that doesn’t make these suggestions invalid or unhelpful. I don’t believe it’s harmful to express pride about your own body, dole out compliments, redirect trash talk, or ferret out the causes of negative body image in loved ones. And I don’t believe that doing any of those things will automatically convince other women that appearance is more valuable than strength or intelligence, humor or kindness.

      Nor do I believe that every woman’s path to self-love and body positivity is tied to athletics, strength, or physical prowess. Some women can’t or don’t want to run marathons, do yoga, lift weights. What about them?

      Finally, I’m not advocating for smart OR pretty, a dichotomy that rankles me personally and deeply. Never have, never will. Nor am I suggesting that these be the only things women ever say to each other. Just recommending some easy actions that can help boost the body image of others.

    • Although I can see your point and agree that a balanced perspective of beauty is to be recommended, I’ve often found that focusing on things like intelligence and wittiness inadvertently sends the message that someone is not physically attractive! When a woman feels insecure or loathes her body for whatever reason, she really needs to hear positive things specifically about her body to combat that and raise her confidence.

      As nice as it is to hear other good things, they often get discounted or lost because in many women’s heads no amount of other giftings will counter-balance the inherent need to feel beautiful and desired. Just my observations.

  • Uta

    This is a very interesting entry. I have totally changed my communication with others since getting over my own body hang-ups. Here’s what I do: I don’t put myself down. I try not to praise looks, esp. body shape/size. I compliment style, a happy countenance, a healthy lifestyle. When someone starts a conversation about body image in a way I don’t find constructive (I’m so fat, you’re so thin…) I either ignore it or move on to another subject. When someone really insists on the subject, I try to listen, but I don’t get into that destructive conversation pattern of – I’m fat – No you’re not… I also point out that thin doesn’t equal pretty or happy; it’s just a number. With my daughter (5 yo) I praise her healthy body, I remind her to be thankful for and enjoy the food we have, I encourage her to have physical fun – biking, dancing – and I try to model a good mix of healthy habits (food, exercise) and enjoying the good life (having chocolate, vegging out in front of a movie). I believe that she has no clue someone would want to be thin (yet). And I pray that she grows up with her body image intact!

  • Kylara7

    My friends and I agreed a good while ago that fat-talk, body-bashing, negative comments about our body parts/selves, etc. was verboten. We compliment each other genuinely and receive compliments gracefully instead of deflecting them…and this took a while and a lot of practice until it became a habit. A couple of friends have struggled with eating disorders and other body issues, so we had good motivation to provide a safe space and good support to them as well as ourselves. We share updates about our workouts in terms of how they made us feel instead of how we hope they will make us look, and are allowed to share when we’re feeling “low energy” or “in the blue zone” as long as it is an honest assessment/statement and not a self-bashing or self-punishing exercise. I think having the positive peer pressure of a group that will check each other in a kind way and support the goal of good body image and self-love is powerful. I really like your suggestions for how to introduce that and how to model it in general ๐Ÿ™‚

  • GG

    As the mum of an impressionable 8-year old daughter, I’m very careful about saying anything negative about my body, especially around her. She sees me working out, but she’ll never hear me talking about dieting, calories or how fat or thin I am. I also NEVER say negative things about food in front of my children – I just make sure they’re eating a balanced diet and let them have their treats. It’s a system that’s worked for my mum and her mum before that. I know somebody who’s always treated food in terms of calories and has always been obsessed with her weight – and guess what? Her teenage daughter’s hair has started falling out because she never eats! I think all mums owe it to their daughters to tell them how beautiful and unique they are and to set a good example by projecting a positive body image. I love that Gok Wan is campaigning for positive body image to be compulsorily taught to teenagers in schools here in the UK.
    http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/s/2066781_gok_tells_pupils_not_to_get_hung_up_on_body_image

    • Thanks for the link to Gok’s campaign GG, I hadn’t heard about it. Good for him!

  • Jo

    Love this. I’ve adopted the habit of calling my friends “gorgeous” or “my lovely” already, and it seems to make ME feel good as much as the recipients. I wish I could get over the habit of modesty, though, of feeling like it’s socially inappropriate to think I’m fabulous. I find I want to be complimented by others, so that I can modestly say “oh, pshaw, thank you very much.” But who does that serve?

  • poodletail

    Thanks for this post, Pretty. I’m printing it out and putting a copy in my meditation corner.

    Just for today I will lead by example.

  • I love this post – I love the idea of answering a compliment with one that demonstrates a positive self-image. I feel like that’s contagious, and I love that idea. I feel like I’m a pretty poor body image role model, although I do point out to my friends and family that I think they are beautiful, or look great, or have a positive glow about them. I say these things because they are true, and you’re right – a false compliment always has that ring of fakeness to it.

    Great post! You’ve made me think (again).

  • B.

    Thanks for this advice!

    My heart was broken when my 5-year-old niece started asking if she looks fat. I wonder how that became a worry at her age. I compliment her on her looks and her smarts and say thanks when she says I’m pretty. I’m going to do more asking questions and listening.

    I’ve noticed the dieting crowd at the office telling me I look thin, in a way that means they’ll never look thin. I respond by saying I work hard with diet and exercise to look this way. They are often shocked that it’s not somehow natural.

  • Tabithia

    Haha I’m normally too busy doing a dance if someone compliments me to reply! I will say though you’re right about the whole compliment thing, you can go for days because of a compliment. I also call all my friends gorgeous which some of the guys laugh at until I shoot them a look. I think another thing we can do is teach guys to help instead of hurt (this is not a men are evil coment), if you have a male in your life like a brother or best friend make sure they know it’s ok to compliment women they’re not dating. That they know that some of what they say hurts even when they don’t mean it to (Make sure we know the same) because no matter how much we do as women to help some women hold themselves up to what they think men want which they are often wrong in their assumptions, I was. Lastly, make sure our husbands tell their daughters that they’re beautiful every day. I feel very strong about daddy-daughter relationships affecting body image and self worth. Thanks for the post Sal!

  • Jenny

    I also appreciate this post and the idea that acting as a role model can help in some small way to move our culture towards more body positivity. I have a 17-year-old younger sister who struggles mightily with her body image, and I try as often as I can to remind her how amazing she is, in all kinds of ways. I agree with what you say above, Sal, in your response to the first commenter, that praise for accomplishments and genuine compliments about appearance are NOT mutually exclusive. I tell my little sister she’s smart and great at tennis and has a wonderful aesthetic sense and pretty hair. I think the way to subvert the pernicious gender binary at work here (women=bodies and should be pretty, men=minds and should be smart) is to give MORE compliments, not fewer. This is why I risk making my boyfriend uncomfortable by telling him he has sexy legs and lovely eyelashes ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Sal

      Jenny, I LOVE that. My 6th grade boyfriend had the most luscious eyelashes and I never had the chutzpah to tell him!

  • The positive nicknames one is something my girlfriends & I do a lot, & wow, nothing makes me feel happier & more powerful than when I’m with them. We’re a very physically diverse group, & just thru a little “hey, hot stuff / who’s a cutie” along with compliments about hair, clothes, shoes, etc., sprinkled thru a day, it’s a complete ego boost.

    And ditto what Jenny said — I do the same thing to male friends ๐Ÿ™‚ They have body hangups, not as dramatically as women in our society, but past a certain age, it’s more noticeable.

  • Katie

    The last one – I call my friends, “Beautiful” and “gorgeous” a lot ๐Ÿ™‚ I find that it throws a lot of them off-guard but there is ALWAYS a smile on their face!

  • As the mom of two girls, I was also careful about how I talked about food and weight. Both the girls were active in sports and as a family we valued good health and exercise. Vacations usually included lake sailing and swimming, mountain hiking, and lots of other outdoor activities.

    Another thing I did was set an example to stave off the social pressure to “doll up” at a young age by limiting my own makeup, always going with my natural hair color, pretty much banning nail polish, and encouraging appreciation of natural beauty. If God has made you so pretty, why would you want to change it?

  • (Love the new WordPress layout, Sal).

    I *really* resonate with rerouting trash talk. It never does anyone any good and before people know it, it’s catty yak deluxe and that gets me down in a big way. Accentuate the positive and get on with it!

  • Well holy smokes, gorgeous, this post is awesome! I struggle with how to best be a body image role model when others around me seem determined to obsess or trash talk their own bodies in front of me. I like the idea of digging deeper when those negative observations are said, instead of just saying “no you’re not!”

  • molly

    Totally off-topic: I like the new nested comments–it makes it feel more like a conversation I could get into.

    • Sal

      ME TOO! I’m amazed by how different it feels!

  • Starting a blog has had a curious effect on me in that I give compliments more freely to both my colleagues and my students. Your tips will help me refine those even more.

  • I think the suggestions about saying positive things are good ones. I think one can also be a role model by doing.

    Here’s how I contribute to doing. At they gym I lift my weights on the “boys” side. I use the squat rack. I use the olympic barbell (with actual weights on it). I’m middle aged and I’m not thin. But I’m strong. And yesterday I lifted weights with a blue glitter Hanukkah manicure peeking out of my weight gloves. I’m as strong as several of the younger, thinner, fit looking women at the gym, to my great delight. But what delights me even more is that I can once again pick up my 53 pound son and hold him in my arms.

    As I age, the value of having a healthy body versus a pretty one becomes more and more apparent.

    Shari

  • Ok, now I’m totally in love with you. This is such a thoughtful article. Personally, it took me years to get over it and my life is soooo much better for it. I’m totally in the habit of calling my friends by complimenting nicknames, (I.E.: hottie, sweet stuff, beautiful), and I also make it a point to acknowledge all the ways that they are fantastic and what makes them beautiful: Their health, their generosity, their kindness, their intelligence. We are each our own unique and most awesome package.

    Here’s a thought that just recently came up in conversation, which I’m hoping to cover at some point: Are women who are more typically cute or beautiful on a purely physical level cheated out of being acknowledged for their intelligence?

  • I love these tips! I have pretty darn good self-esteem now, wavering to the point of cockiness, but I haven’t always been that way. I don’t remember exactly what changed, though, so I’ve never really known how to help people. This is a great place to start. Thanks!

  • Thank you so much for this. As a twenty year old woman currently trying to overcome an eating disorder, your blog has been so inspirational for me over the past few years–even when you’re just posting about your outfits, seeing someone who reached a point in their lives where they love and respect their bodies is amazing. And it gives me hope.

  • Al

    I love this post, Sally! It inspires me to help my mom, who has very negative body issues. She continually fights her weight and is convinced that clothing looks awful on her. I wish I could find a way to help her appreciate her body as it is. But she’s very sensitive about it; and because I’m thinner than she is, she tends to take umbrage at my viewpoints. It’s tough. But I think genuine compliments are a good (and sneaky) way to help others feel better about their appearance.

  • helene

    Last night, I was volunteering at a local concert venue taking tickets. I often compliment people on what they are wearing or the complete look because I mean it. Last night though, I paid more attention to their reaction and yep I could tell it made them feel a little better! There are people out there though that do not know how to deal with compliments and that is sad ๐Ÿ™

  • Thanx Sal,
    Thank you for this post. You have been inspiring me for a while now to be a positive body image embassador. I would love to try and translate this for my hebrew readers, with your permission of course.

    • Sal

      Of course, Ravid! I’d be honored!

  • I love this post, Sal. These are really excellent, and easily accomplished, tips. Although I have to admit that if there was an actual event called the Festival of Nastiness… I would probably attend ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • i need to try to be better at this… but i’m so comfortable in self deprecation, i think it keeps me on my toes. but i know it’s not healthy to be that way!

  • I have struggled with eating disorders, body dismorphia, etc. I have just in the last few years gotten right with myself and so many people compliment my self esteem and confidence. Sometimes it’s genuine, sometimes I fake it. But the biggest thing I’ve done? Started teaching sensual dance and pole fitness. It has reshaped *me*, and also put me in front of lots of women struggling to find their inner lovely. ๐Ÿ™‚ I also joined a burlesque troupe this year. We have women from size 2 to 22 in our group, and everyone is celebrated for their beauty and strength. I do my work for women to see what they can do if they just get right with what they have. ANY woman can be beautiful, sexy, strong, smart, funny, at any size. They don’t have to strip to pasties to prove that point, but dammit if it doesn’t feel good to do it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • You offer valuable insights and great advice on this topic.
    I like what you say about giving and receiving compliments; also digging deeper when some you care about says “I look haggard”, or similar. I’m going to use your advice next time I get a chance!

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  • Hi Sal,
    Wonderful post. I have linked to it in my sewing blog. Amazing how sewing, clothing, body image is all linked. I have tried to encourage my friends to talk about their bodies as they talk to a good friend. Like they never tell me how thick my waist is but they do tell me how they envy my long legs. We need to talk about ourselves as we do about our best friends.
    And it’s not about putting body image above brains or being a good person. We are complex beings and can celebrate more than one facet of ourselves.
    Brava!

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  • Kayla Freeman

    When thinking about and talking about my body, I try to follow one simple rule: imagine that whatever you say/think about your body is being heard by a little girl who adores you. Think about how much that would influence her life and attitude. Would you still say those same things now?