Dealing with Trash Talk, Part 2

trash talk body bashing

Read Part I right here!

Reader Laura wrote recently about HER experiences with body-based trash talking. In this case, a bit more self-focused.

… it can be difficult to maintain [a] healthy mentality when I am constantly bombarded by others commenting on their own/my/other people’s bodies. I have a group of several co-workers that I regularly spend time with. For various reasons the topic of conversation regularly turns to our bodies. It usually takes one of two forms, someone bashing their own body, or complimenting another on a certain aspect of another’s, often along the lines of “you lost weight and therefore look good.” Both of these make me uncomfortable, as the aspects that they are bashing of their own body are often in better shape than mine, and because I feel that commenting on anyone’s body is inappropriate when done to the extent that my co-workers do.

I am at a loss of how to deal with this, both in how it affects me, and wishing that my co-workers would also adopt a more body-positive mentality. Short of lecturing them, or constantly sending them links to your blog and others of a similar vein, do you have any tips for dealing with these situations? Strategies that you use?

So Laura is immersed in a microculture of trash talk and body bashing. Not fun. And not easy to deal with, since direct confrontation may be both awkward and ineffective. Here’s what I suggested to her:

  1. If you feel closer to any one woman, consider taking her aside and telling her how you feel. I know that may seem like ganging up or espionage or something, but hear me out: You need an ally. Tackling this alone may make you seem judgmental or haughty to the group. If you can get one member to hear you out – even if she sympathizes more than agrees – you’re in a better position.
  2. Whether you’re addressing that single friend or the entire group, talk in terms of “I feel” statements. It’s a classic conflict management strategy for a reason. If you say, “You guys need to stop glorifying weight loss and harping on your body flaws. It’s wrong and damaging,” that will make your coworkers feel defensive. If you say, “When you guys glorify weight loss and dwell on your body flaws, it makes me feel crummy about MY body,” it’s much more diplomatic. And, hopefully, effective. If these women are your friends, they should want you to feel gorgeous, not crummy.
  3. Find ways to defuse situations with humor. If you feel like the conversation is devolving into body bashing and trash talk, say, “Girls, do we REALLY need to have this conversation again? I could recite it in my sleep! Let me tell you about the movie I saw last night …” That may not work ongoing – or at all, depending on the social climate – but you get the picture. You can subtly express your discomfort with these conversations by making a quick quip and changing the subject.
  4. Start complimenting these friends on things that don’t have to do with weight. Glowing skin, gorgeous new makeup, fabulous shoes, even things like great posture and a dazzling smile are good options. Hand out these compliments with regularity to get everyone thinking about themselves in more positive terms overall. It may not stop the body bashing, but it could slowly erode the self-doubt that is CAUSING that body bashing.
  5. See if bringing up body image-related topics that aren’t so personal can get the conversation on a higher level. Ask them about the movement to diversify model bodies. Bring up eating disorders or the Fat Acceptance movement, and make the discussion more theoretical. Under these circumstances, I’m hoping you can voice a contrary opinion without seeming like an outsider. You can inject your ideas about beauty being more than just flat abs into such discussions, and just plant those seeds.


* * * * *

As I said in Part I, trash talk is considered socially acceptable behavior in many circles, and that SUCKS. 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 – gaining an ally among body bashers, keeping the conversation to more theoretical topics, defusing and rerouting – may work in some circumstances for you readers and your peers.

Image courtesy Whatsername?

Originally posted 2010-04-30 05:54:00.

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19 Responses to “Dealing with Trash Talk, Part 2”

  1. Ame

    Interesting! Although it seems to me in most cases I've experienced that self-directed trash-talk is (an albeit unhealthy and terribly twisted) means of self-confidence reinforcement through fishing for compliments. Maybe I run with more of a manipulative crowd than most, but it seems almost ritualized.

  2. The Patersons

    I have faced such conversations before where women I consider to be fairly slim have complained about how fat they are and I've actually said then and there, "Well if you think you're fat, what does that make me?"

    In hindsight, probably only a temporary stop and not the best way to deal with it.

    I agree with all your suggestions, especially the one about paying complements – be the positive person you want the others to be – and I would only add:

    1. You can't control what other people say but you can try and control your response – Laura, make sure you're building your self image up so that you're less vulnerable to feeling bad when they trash talk.

    2. If it really gets too much and nothing seems to change, and it's really getting to you, I would even spend less time with them as a group.

  3. Anonymous

    I feel like my comment might be a little controversial, so I'm going to be anonymous today.
    Does anyone ever feel that sometimes some people are just overly sensitive? I agree with a lot of what the reader has to say, but sometimes I feel like we are encouraging a culture that says no one has the right to comment on appearance. Good or bad.
    Is that what we are striving for? I agree that being clique-y and bashing other women is just plain wrong, but for all that I love my body, clothes and hair – there are days when I just feel the need to vent certain frustrations.
    And honestly it sucks when I become fearful of complimenting someone on how slim that skirt makes them look, if they are going to assume that means I think they look fat every other day. Or if I say their hair looks shiny- does that make them assume every other day their hair is totally dull?
    Just my two cents – I don't mean to offend.

  4. Sal

    Anonymous: No, you bring up a good point. While trash talking others and oneself is never productive or helpful, I can understand how a responsive culture could make some compliments feel loaded, even dangerous.

    And sometimes we DO need to vent about our body-based frustrations. Feeling like venting is forbidden is damaging, too.

    I'll give this some thought and write something else up. There's a way to strike balance … I'm just not sure what it is off the top of my head.

  5. Sophie Miriam

    I hope this doesn't sound like bragging…

    I often feel very uncomfortable in this type of conversation, because what often happens is they take this form:
    Person A: I'm so fat!
    Me: You are not.
    Person A: Yes I am! I wish I were skinny like you.
    Me: Um….okay, you do weigh more than I do. But you're not fat.

    Okay, the conversations are usually a tad more sophisticated than that, but the point is that I never know how to react to a conversation like that. My body has plenty of flaws, but it seems that all people see is my skinny waist.


  6. Steph

    We've all been in situations like these, and yes, it does seem like a ritualized part of the female bonding experience. Sometimes it is fishing for reassurance that one is okay, and not a horrifying ogre who should just give up because what's the point anyway. And anyone who refuses to take part in it by bashing her own body or others' is viewed as being stuck up or thinking she's better than others, simply because she refuses to hate herself. Opting out or changing the conversation are good solutions, but ultimately won't fix the problem. So many people do it without even thinking, as if this is the way we're supposed to talk about ourselves and hear our friends talk about themselves. I won't even get into the issue of making random comments about complete strangers passing by. Except to say it's horrible and hateful, but really says more about the person making the comment than about the person being bashed.
    The problem is that it's such an unconscious, socially ingrained thing to devalue oneself (at least for women; what group of men sit around harping about their spare tires and thunder thighs?) that most women don't even recognize it for the abuse it really is. But if a "friend" of mine were so constantly viperous and hateful to me by picking at my body flaws, I certainly wouldn't make a habit out of spending much time with her–and I'm betting most other women wouldn't either. So why do we do this to ourselves?
    Lately, when the women I care about start verbally abusing themselves, I tell them to stop and I tell them it's because I don't like hearing someone talk about my friends that way. I have to believe it helps, because I can't see any way of reversing the years of cultural values and possibly even family pressures that have caused so much emotional damage. I do think part of it is because women are naturally more sensitive to subtle messaging and perceptive about social and personal interactions than men. Absorbing that much more information unknowingly tends to make us more uncertain about ourselves, unlike men who tend to barrel through life with all the dumb confidence of a bull.

  7. Anonymous

    I'm having a similar problem with my boss. She is amazing and I look up to her as a mentor and freaking adore her personality and think of her as a dear friend. BUT. The way she is about her own body and the bodies of others drives me crazy! This woman, who is older than my mother (I'm 26), works out religiously (and watches what she eats) to maintain her size 2 figure. To me, she seems obsessed. I am a size 12 and have always been just a bigger person since childhood… something she has never experienced so cannot relate to, so her obsessiveness over her own body and being slender already makes me hyper-aware of the difference in our bodies and how she must qualify that in her head. Add to that the fact that she CONTINUOUSLY compliments others in the workplace on their bodies, saying "look how skinny you are!" or "have you lost weight? you look amazing!" and I feel deflated. When I have lost a few pounds, she always notices and comments, or if I'm working out a ton she'll say "good job" or something like that. I feel like I'm under a microscope, and that to her being non-skinny is wrong. How can I talk to her about this without sounding like a whiny bitch? I truly believe that bodies are beautiful at all sizes, and this belief fuels my love for my own body… but being in close contact with someone with toxic body issues makes my own body love that much more challenging.

  8. Tess M.

    One of the hardest situations I was in was with a friend in college you was a size 2, constantly talking about how fat she was and how she needed to lose weight. I am a healthy size 14 so I felt like if she felt fat she must think I'm morbidly obese. It finally got to me one night and I asked if she could look me in the eye and say that she was larger than me. I don't think it was the right way to handle it. I think it was hurtful. But she didn't talk about her weight in front of me anymore and it made me more aware in other situations.

    Something I didn't think about then is that this girl has every right to feel that her weight is unhealthy for her. If she was coming to me as a friend with concerns about her health maybe I shouldn't have so easily dismissed it. If all of our bodies are different then her body at an unhealthy weight is probably still smaller than mine. Maybe she wasn't body bashing or fishing for compliments. Maybe she was opening up to me as someone she felt she could talk to and I just shut her down.

  9. La Belette Rouge

    Yesterday I got two left handed compliments from the same person:
    "Your legs look so much thinner than they usually do" and "Your hair is so pretty when you don't straighten it."(it was straightened yesterday). After her second 'compliment' I told her that she sounded just like my mother. I feel sure she knew that wasn't a compliment.

  10. fashion herald

    When I was modeling years ago, this was the #1 topic. "I'm so fat!" was all you 'd hear while standing around with skinny, tall beautiful women. If I knew them well, I'd say "Nothing is more dull than listening to models bitching about their weight." Or "You are so fat, wow, really, really fat."
    In this case, I'd say single out the leader of the talk and take her/him aside as you advised. Such talk is cumulatively damaging! And really boring!

  11. Make Do Style

    I say point 4 is a winner – the rest seem reasonable but at a younger age I think self and ish go together more than listening and reasoning skills x

  12. lisa

    I really like your idea of complimenting other aspects of someone's appearance like new makeup, shoes, or a dress. Often we can't change aspects of our bodies that make us unhappy, but by complimenting someone's style choices you're giving positive re-enforcement to an aspect of their appearance that they DO have control over. And who knows, hopefully as time passes the person's attention will shift away from self-perceived body flaws and towards what great style they have. 🙂

  13. Eve

    I may be more sensitive than most, but I do ask my family and friends not to talk about bodies at all around me — positive or negative. Just like Anonymous in the 2nd comment mentioned.

    I'm OK talking about clothing, hairstyles, makeup, etc. as long as the focus is on making personal style choices and not on "enhancing assets" or "covering flaws."

    It increases my self-esteem more to be seen, heard, understood, and reflected, instead of complimented. I try to do the same for my friends. I say with a smile, "You got your hair cut!" or "Is that a new skirt?" and if I say more, I try to be descriptive of color, texture, symmetry, etc. without judging anything cute/uncute, pretty/unpretty, or good/bad.

    I also try to turn compliments into "I" statements, because the reality is that both compliments and bashes say more about the person talking than the person being talked about. So, I'll say, "when you smile, I feel like smiling, too" or "that dress makes me happy."

    And I try really hard to verbalize things I notice about my friends that are unrelated to appearance — hilarious quips, being there for me and others, taking time for themselves, solving tricky problems. Feeling capable and appreciated raises self-esteem, and I want my friends to know they are capable of more and appreciated for more than just their appearance.

  14. Diana

    This is a great post! I've been in so many groups of women before where the conversation focuses on body flaws. It's always so depressing.

  15. Jill

    I experience something a little similar with my mother-in-law. Everytime she sees a member of the family she comments on their size! I have a 9-year-old daughter and don't want her to be obsessed about her body already and my mom-in-law will say things like, "You're such a skinny thing!" She's not, she's totally normal, not even close to skinny. At the last b-day party for a nephew my daughter didn't want cake just because (believe me she eats sweets) but my mother-in-law kept asking her why she didn't want cake. She also tells her she looks "sexy" when she dresses up. on! She's nine! This is a tough one because she's the mother-in-law. She does this with other family members too–Oh you look so skinny…this drives the not-so-skinny members crazy and drives me nuts cuz I don't want my daughter to focus on people's bodies!

  16. Anonymous

    I think it's interesting that these situations make ALL kinds of people uncomfortable. People who are heavier feel that a skinny person complaining about weight is secretly criticizing the heavier person's weight, while people who are skinny feel guilty for having to admit that they are skinnier than the complainer. Either way it's harmful.

  17. budget chic

    I roll solo for some of these reasons. I have very few women friends and associates. You just can't stop folks from complaining or vocalizing their body issues, some women are so obsess they don't even know they are doing it. I got issues myself but I try my best not to let that takeover my conversations or bring it up around someone I know is struggling to lose weight or desires to lose weight. I switch the convo up to something else if I feel like it going down that road – because that's a conversation that the majority of time everybody is not going to be on the same page and it may even make someone else feel defeated.

  18. Lisa

    I just discovered your blog today and I'm so inspired! The trash talking bothers me SO much and I never know what to say so I usually just ignore it like no one said anything. Thanks for some great ideas of what to say that might cut down on future trash talking. We shouldn't live ina world where girls constantly put each other and themselves down. We're smarter than that!