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.
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.
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.