Words you’ll never forget
Can’t recall your ATM password, but still remember the insult about your butt from a fifth-grade jerk? Turns out, body barbs affect us for years. Read on to move on.
When Kristy Scher was 16, her father said, “I’m concerned about your weight—even your ankles are fat!” When he said that, “It was like, ‘Damn! Even the things I thought were OK about me really aren’t,'” says Scher, a 38-year-old yoga teacher in Portland, Maine. Almost every woman vividly recalls at least one childhood crack that influences how she feels about her body now. In a new SELF survey, 50 percent of readers say parents were a frequent source of these zappers. Worse, a study in The American Journal of Pediatrics notes that more than 80 percent of college women say parents or siblings have made negative comments about their weight or eating habits, which contributed to lower self-esteem. But the hurt can come from others, as well. In the SELF poll, 54 percent of women say schoolmates were the worst culprits. Megan McCafferty, 36, a writer in Princeton, New Jersey, recalls a fellow eighth grader saying, “It’s a good thing you’re smart, because you sure can’t rely on your looks!” Laughs McCafferty: “The only good thing is that the angst this caused has given me great material for my novels.”
Why, decades later, do such remarks remain vivid? “As a child, you lack the cognitive skills to put them in perspective, so you may take them more seriously than you should,” says Ruth Striegel-Moore, Ph.D., chair of the psychology department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Worse, our culture tends to reinforce the idea that an imperfect body isn’t good enough, which can make the shame doubly hard to shake. Still, “you can choose to say, ‘I’ll let this rest and live by my own values,” Striegel-Moore says. Try these tips for letting go once and for all.
Get indignant. Instead of taking nasty remarks to heart, respond strongly—but in a healthy way. Says Scher, whose father maligned her ankles, “Nowadays, if I hear someone denigrating a woman’s body, I think, Bow to the goddess and kiss my curvy, luscious ass!”
Light a fire. Take the insult (thunder thighs!), jot it down along with the belief it’s searing into your brain (“I have no self-control”), then burn it, Striegel-Moore suggests. “The ritual lets you say a formal good-bye to the negativity.”
Talk back. “My mother once said, ‘You’re perfect from the waist up,'” recalls Deborah Jaffe, 43, a photographer in Los Angeles. Rather than bottling up the angst, try responding directly, in a neutral tone (“You’re telling me this because…?”). That forces the other person to justify her behavior, Striegel-Moore says.
Learn from it. “Many of us repeatedly put ourselves in hurtful situations, hoping to get it right,” Striegel-Moore says, which means you might gravitate toward someone because she insults you, as the behavior feels familiar. Alyssa Goldberg, 43, a systems analyst in New York City, used to tolerate bad behavior from “friends.” Then one day, “a guy told me I’d be happier if I lost 25 pounds,” she recalls. Instead, she lost him. “I said, ‘Watch me lose 180 pounds now,’ then I left him standing there.”
Check you out!
Are you constantly peering at yourself in the mirror—and disparaging what you see? It’s time to put your body-bashing habits to rest and give kudos to your fantabulous shape!
From the February 2009 Issue
You’re walking along, having a lovely day (tra-la-la!), when you glimpse yourself in a store window and a voice in your head bursts in like a news flash preempting your favorite TV show: “You’re too fat to deserve to have a nice day!” Kiss your good mood good-bye. You’ve got self-denigrating to do.
I am well acquainted with that kind of self-critique. And although I know being healthy is more important than being thin, knowing isn’t the same as believing. “To shift your feelings, you have to change the way you act,” says Terry Wilson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, New Jersey. In my case, he says, that would mean curtailing behaviors that reinforce my body negativity. To start, he suggests I notice when I check out myself—whether in a window, a mirror or even in my own head. (“My belly feels thick today!”) “Women like you, who worry about their weight, tend to body-check on a regular basis,” Wilson tells me. “There’s a tendency to think, If I’m not vigilant, if I don’t stand guard, I’ll let myself go.”
That strikes a chord. More signs of body-checking behavior: You constantly glance at your shape, ask your partner if you look fat or weigh yourself more than once a day. “One problem with body checking is that it keeps you in a heightened state of consciousness about what you perceive as a problem,” Wilson says. Once I start paying attention to my body checking, I’m shocked by how often I do it (six times in half an hour!). I suck in my gut while on the phone with my dad, stare at my butt in store windows when I’m on my way to a work meeting and take note of my belly extending past the waistband of my jeans as I sit down with a friend I haven’t seen in a while. The fairly obvious conclusion: When I’m feeling insecure—about work, a relationship—I’m apt to turn that dissatisfaction toward my body, maybe because it’s easier to do that than to cope with whatever is truly bothering me.
Simply seeing the link—stress leads to body checking—helps me see the habit as a sign I need to pause (“Hey, you’re checking again!”) and breathe. I discover that the less I check myself, the less I bash myself—and the better I feel about my body. Lately, I’m having more lovely days. I can live with that.