Reader Request: Uncomfortable Body Size Discussions

Tips for handling and navigating uncomfortable discussions about body size or body shape

Reader Alison e-mailed me this request:

As a slender woman, I always feel extremely uncomfortable when friends tell me that a) I am so skinny and b) they really need to lose weight. I hear this from beautiful women of every shape and size, who in my mind do not need to change a thing to be healthy and lovely the way they are. Also I do nothing to be slender, so it is not a compliment on anything I have personally worked for. I want to encourage friends that are trying to improve their health, but want them to remove from their heads an ideal of themselves that is just 10 pounds skinnier. A simple “you are beautiful the way you are, but if you want to feel healthier, then great,” does not seem to work to get women to stop calling themselves fat! Any suggestions are appreciated!

I sent her a few links to older posts, which I’ll round up below, but felt that this topic was well worth addressing again.

There are a million different reasons why these cyclical weight and comparison conversations occur, and although I could guess at a few of those reasons here’s what I’ll suggest instead: Ask questions. If someone in your life comments constantly on YOUR weight or laments her own weight, I believe that the most helpful thing you can do is ask her about her thoughts and feelings. Tease out what is hurting or worrying her. Create space for discussion. Here are some possible responses:

I’m so fat.

– Has something changed recently that makes you worried about your weight?

– What makes you say that?

– You’ve mentioned that a lot. Can we talk about why weight stuff is on your mind these days?

You’re so skinny.

– Can you tell me why that worries you so much?

– You’ve mentioned that before. Can we talk about why this keeps coming up?

– It’s true! Is there something about that we should be discussing?

“I’m so fat,” and “You’re so skinny,” are the two main comments Alison has dealt with, but the gentle question response works for many other uncomfortable body size/shape discussions, too. “What makes you say that?” or “Can you tell me why that worries you so much?” are both possible responses to any number of statements about body size, weight, and shape. Each person will likely have her own reasons for bringing up these topics, and she may not even realize she’s doing so repeatedly. Body bashing is socially sanctioned in much of Western culture, so these conversations often feel as commonplace and innocuous as discussions of the weather. Pausing that cycle and requesting more information – even forcing participants to examine their own feelings and motivations – can help change the roadmap. It will likely feel more comfortable asking these questions one-on-one, but since these conversations may be taking place in a group setting you can try putting them out there while multiple people are present. It might be awkward, but it might also get more than one person to consider why these topics have become recurring.

I also think that a dose of honesty, carefully doled-out, can be beneficial. Specifically, if there’s a person in your life who repeatedly talks about your or her body size, you are well within your rights to take her aside and say, “You know, these conversations make me feel really uncomfortable. Can we talk about why they come up so often?” Again, many people see weight talk as ordinary. Give your friends the benefit of the doubt that they’re not trying to make you feel weird, but also be communicative and tell them how these conversations make you feel.

Of course, some folks who engage in weight talk are fishing for compliments or trying to get a rise. But even in those cases, requesting further information in a gentle, caring way can re-route the conversation and potentially put a stop to attention- or praise-seeking behaviors.

Related posts:

Originally posted 2013-06-13 06:49:47.

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24 Responses to “Reader Request: Uncomfortable Body Size Discussions”

  1. Heather

    My suggestion to the “You’re so Skinny” bit is a simple “Thank You, I’m Blessed with a great metabolism” and change the subject.
    I went through high school and part of college blessed like that and it was the one way to shut down a conversation like that quickly without being hurtful to others.
    I’m still not sure how to shut down the people fat shaming themselves thing.

    • Mila

      I am a naturally slender person, and had a low grade eating disorder in my teens. I am now happy to be a little heavier, though I am still pretty slender. I work with a youth group and the teenage girls are always saying things about how thin I am, and how do I stay so thin, and I just want to shake them and scream “BECAUSE I HAVE A MENTAL ILLNESS! AND A FAST METABOLISM!” I stick with the second part (said without shaking or screaming!). I also don’t add the “I’m blessed” bit. I just say it flat and neutral, because frankly, it ain’t that interesting). They are all so beautiful, so youthful and alive, I wish they could see it.

      • Heather

        I absolutely agree with you on wishing they could see it, too. Unfortunately my metabolism hit the pot, and I’m working my way back to fighting trim for my own well being, so I’ve seen this now from both sides.
        I get comments all day on how I eat (pescatarian, very little processed food) and how I should add this, do that or how someone whould follow my example, etc. I only fuss at one person regarding not eating and that’s someone I know doesn’t eat anything at all all day and lives off just coffee and milk….

    • Sally

      Something like, “Yeah, but body decisions are so personal, ya know? It’s important that I feel good, so I’m trusting myself on this matter.”

  2. Olivia

    I really love the suggestion to ask questions. Hopefully, it would make people rethink making those kinds of comments.

  3. LK

    Will the questions work if your curvier friends won’t let you have the same discussion they have with you? For example. I gained 20 lbs but that only put me at 120lbs which is still considered small (size 4-6). That is a lot of weight at one time and I feel a little awkward now having hips, a butt, and a stomach. However, if I try to express my frustrations to my girlfriends they get mad at me because “You’re still so small what are you complaining about?!”. I have learned to just not talk to anyone about my new awkwardness with clothing but I still have to listen to them complain constantly. It just doesn’t seem fair that I have to listen to them rant about their issues, but I cannot talk about mine because I am under a size 12.

    Will the questions work to curb their constant want to discuss their weight situations? It is starting to get old after all these years.

    • Sally

      LK, I know it’s daunting, but yes I’d still encourage you to broach this with your friends and maybe try using some of these questions. (Other phrasing below in this comment, too.) I doubt they’re doing this on purpose, but they’re dismissing your feelings as invalid, and that’s hurtful. Size bias definitely works both ways. It might work best to talk with your friends one at a time and say, “I’d like to find a way for both of us to be able to talk about these feelings. I understand where you’re coming from, but my body has gone through changes that feel daunting and real to me, and I want to be able to express that and get your input and support.”

      On the other hand, if you’d rather not talk about weight-related topics at all, you can try changing the subject. Even something as abrupt as, “We talk about weight all the time. Let’s discuss something else. Seen any good movies lately? I’m taking this great cooking class …” etc.

      But that might just make things worse in the long run. Hopefully expressing your feelings and saying that just because you’re still small doesn’t make your body changes any less new or perplexing will help your friends understand where you’re coming from.

    • Mila

      So, I have been in this situation, and while I sympathize with your situation, you should try to see their perspective. To them, you are sad because your body is becoming more like theirs. It sounds like “I am so bummed out I weigh 120 lbs, could you even imagine the horrors of weighing 150 lbs? Or *gasp* more?” That isn’t what you are saying, but that is what it sounds like. And you also have to be aware, that it feels unfair, and hurtful to you that you can’t bitch equally, things are a lot more unfair and hurtful as a whole to larger women in our society. So you have to recognize your overall privilege as a thinner woman. The scales (pun not intended) are still tipped a lot more in your favor. So you can try to be kind and find other people to talk about weight stuff with other than friends who are substantially heavier than you. And when you do have conversations with other women of a different size then you, try to think of how you frame it. Instead of “I am 120 lbs, I feel so fat!” instead to talk about how you are dealing with your body going through a lot of changes and how disorienting that is (not that your slightly heavier body is now hideous or even diminished in attractiveness).

      • LK

        I asked Sally what I can do because I have these discussions with friends on a daily basis. Why shouldn’t they offer me the same curiosity? Because I am small? I NEVER SAID I WAS FAT. Re-read the comment. I said AWKWARD which does not equal fat. I feel awkward now having a butt and chest that I never had. I now have to look for clothing to fit those areas. But I am NOT FAT. I make accommodations in my clothing and speech every day to keep my girlfriends comfortable. Don’t want me to wear that swimsuit in your presence, I won’t. But I think I deserve a little courtesy when I’m crying because I ripped my favorite dress due to my butt being the wrong shape for it now. Not getting yelled at because I am still small.

        Thin women deserve the same respect as curvy women. Period.

        • LK

          And I am actually MORE ATTRACTIVE now with the weight. I love the curves, I don’t know how to dress them!

          • Sally

            Hi ladies. Just wanted to chime in again here.

            Mila, I appreciate your perspective and definitely agree that thin privilege is very real. It’s also a valid point that comparison-based weight discussions can be hurtful to ALL – regardless of size or weight. But you’ve made some big leaps in assuming what LK is doing and saying to her friends. “Horrors,” “hideous” … harsh words, and not LK’s words. Putting all of the responsibility in LK’s court for potential negative reactions is understandable in theory due to how our society views and treats fat people, but these are actual human friendships we’re talking about here. There should be space to have honest dialogue about body-related feelings with the people we love and care about. Yes, society is scornful of fat people and favors thin people, but that doesn’t mean that LK’s feelings as an individual woman are invalid or should be constantly suppressed. There is a way to find middle ground. Fat people have been dehumanized for decades, but that doesn’t mean that thin people don’t have body image struggles, too. And it certainly doesn’t mean that complaints about fit issues or body image woes should be a one-way street for all women at all times.

            LK, from the tone of your comment I assumed that you weren’t whining endlessly about how fat you’d become, and am glad to hear I was correct. Mina makes good points about thin privilege, and it sounds like you are well aware of them and do your best to accomodate that privilege already.

          • Erica

            CI just want to chime in LK and say I know what you mean!! I don’t know exactly what caused it – maybe my body’s going through another round of maturing? – but my breasts just spontaneously started gradually growing at age 25 after 8 years of being reliably the same size (+give or take with periods) and a year and a half later I’m realizing I might need the NEXT round of new bras. Its so frustrating!!! Some favourite clothes don’t fit or have a totally over the top focus on my chest for my style and old tried and true combinations need to be totally refigured out to be balanced again. Belted skirts make a very square silloette now with my old width belts. Simple stuff like hiking thermals that I thought would have me sorted for 10+ years are now tight underthe arms. Its made me realise how much I took my body stability for granted but the disorientation is very very real. It was hardest while other aspects of my life went through a difficult stage too but at least this time at least I oils control and recover from them

  4. Chip Paulson

    All that really matters is what makes you happy! I have bipolar and when i feel down i really feel down so being able to bring myself back up is an important part of my life! The key to staying positive is to control your thoughts- dont let negativity bring you down!

  5. Esti

    Sal, I appreciate your suggestions, but some of them come of as things I’d only ever say to people I, well, wasn’t all that close to. When one of my best friends in the world says “Ugh, I’m so fat,” it would be disingenuous of me to say “Can we talk about why you feel that way?” Because I know why she feels that way. And it’s not new, and we both know it’s been coming up a lot. And we talk about it and I do my best to help, but I’m running out of body-positive ammunition. We’re way beyond politeness or delicacy in our friendship (and I love and value that)–but neither subtle nor direct comments seem to help right now.

    Any suggestions?

    • Sally

      Oooh, good point, Esti. If this is extremely familiar ground, some of these suggestions might not be as helpful.

      Have you talked to your friend about actions she can take? Not necessarily weight-related, but things like affirmations, media fasts, gratitude journaling, changing up her style or clothes, seeking out body positive readings? Sometimes when you’ve talked out all of the weight and body challenges, it helps to focus on something active. That will give you a new but related topic – how is the journaling going? Has the media fast helped? And if one thing doesn’t work – after a real, earnest go of it – suggest trying something else.

      You two might be beyond that, too, at this point, but that would be next on my list after teasing out why the topic keeps coming up …

  6. Heather

    We live in a complex time. There is no such thing as too skinny to the media, but everyone seems to feel free to comment on everyone else’s size at any point be they too big or too small. Fitness, health and nutrition are lost in the pursuit of the almighty thigh gap, down to models eating cottonballs soaked in orange juice. I’m fairly convinced that this societal definition of perfection is a contributing factor in the eat whatever and don’t exercise mentality of many Americans.

  7. Danni

    I am so glad you posted this. I have always been “The Skinny One” and I never know what to say when comments like this come up, It makes me feel so awkward! I know that sometimes it’s just a flip comment, but sometimes it feels very passive-aggressive too ( A simple complaint about feeling cold often leads to a comment like “Well you don’t have any body fat.”) It’s frustrating.

  8. Erika

    Um, pretty good timing here. Going through a down period (gotta love depression, even on meds, it will bite you hard at times) and the wail at Best Beloved this morning was about feeling inadequate, ugly, fat and stupid. Now, intellectually, I know I am none of those things. And I can even pinpoint the origins (CFS, lack of self-care, being tired and a few other complications thrown in. And being 47). But that doesn’t make wrestling those labels any easier and it’s an ongoing bit of work. So I guess I’m with Esti on this.

    When you know intellectually, but not in your gut, how do you deal with it?

    This blog is a brilliant resource in terms of body acceptance, using clothes for play, using them for more than just not scaring the horses. Bodies change with age, learning to accept that and adapt your dressing to it is part of the process. Sometimes though, this body dysmorphia has deep and complicated roots.

    One of the things that my psychologist suggested is talking to my 8 year old self, letting her know that she is intelligent, loving, worthwhile, attractive and always will be. Sounds very goopy, but this is a REALLY confronting exercise when taken seriously, because you see the whacking great holes in the story that is you. What’s been missing, what needs shoring up, what needs taking away. It’s a work in progress, but I write it down, then stick up positive notes to myself.

    Hope this makes sense!

  9. Bree Bronson

    I’m six months pregnant expecting my third child and I must say that it has always disturbed me how people feel that they have a right to freely comment on my baby belly. I’m the type who gets a really big belly and even complete strangers stop me on the street and will start loudly wondering “how huge I am”. Friends and relatives are even worse although they mostly mean well.

    I’ve solved this by either changing the topic asap or making a similar blunt comment back. “Your belly isn’t too small either. I’m 6 months pregnant, what’s you’re excuse?” It’s mean, but it does the trick most often.

  10. Erica

    Gah writing on a ph is difficult! Fixing my last sentence. I wanted to say that while other aspects of life make body changes feel particularly difficult even now when I’ve worked out much of the other aspects of life that had elements of alienation/ foreigness/post graduation uncertainty etc body change turns out to be in and of itself a kind of fundamental unmoored feeling, a loss that requires effort to know and understand a less static me. At one point when every single thing in my life seemed to be changing (country, bf

  11. Erica

    Gah writing on a ph is difficult! Fixing my last sentence. I wanted to say that while other aspects of life make body changes feel particularly difficult even now when I’ve worked out much of the other aspects of life that had elements of alienation/ foreigness/post graduation uncertainty etc body change turns out to be in and of itself a kind of fundamental unmoored feeling, a loss that requires effort to know and understand a less static me. At one point when every single thing in my life seemed to be changing (country, bf , job etc) I wailed at my sister ‘even my bra doesn’t fit!’ She having had much larger breasts all along that fluctuate with minor life alterations didn’t really sympathsise all that much. All I can say LK is that being smaller makes small changes proportionally bigger – in clothing fit and it seems? sense of being in ones skin. I’m trying to treat it as a new life lesson- to not presume about oneself just as one doesn’t (or trys not to) neglect to continue to know and seek to know long term friends. Life’s going to bring far more changes than this one and treating this as a practise run for body change resilience seems to help. ( I’m keeping a couple of favourites that don’t fit as favourite objects 🙂