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 courtesy Devin Trent

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