Surprising Ways Small Talk Screws With A Woman’s Body Image


body image

It's not news that women are judged on their appearances in ways that men aren't. But what's not talked about as much is all the subtle ways this mentality informs our everyday interactions. Somehow, we think that passing judgment on a woman's body is an okay topic for conversation. It's like women's bodies are part of the public domain. Here are a couple ways--which I've encountered recently--that we unconsciously reinforce the idea that it's okay to judge a woman's body.

You look great! It's the context that's important here. A few years ago, I gained about 20 pounds in a fairly short period of time because I stopped compulsively counting calories--something I'd done throughout most of my twenties--and finally reached a healthy weight. When I run into people I haven't seen since then, they often comment on how much "healthier" I look. Yes, the things they say are complimentary--but does that mean they think I looked terrible before? Does it mean they believe I have some obligation to live up to their standards of beauty? I don't mean to be overly sensitive, but come on, there's no way   they would say this stuff to a guy. I feel I have a pretty healthy body image now, but doesn't it ever cross their minds that, as a woman, my weight might be a touchy subject?

What weirds me out the most is when it comes from people I don't know that well--and this has happened more than once. When it's close friends and family, that's one thing, I know they love me regardless of my size. But the fact that a casual acquaintance doesn't feel awkward about judging my body really highlights the extent to which we consider a woman's appearance an acceptable topic for public discussion.

The truth is, these   people mean well. But their remarks demonstrate the degree to which unsolicited commentary about a woman's body is seen as normal. There's nothing wrong with paying a woman a compliment--just do it in the appropriate way. Don't make her feel like you're constantly ranking her on a scale from 0 to 10.

Congratulations on the baby! Again, the creepiest thing about this is that it often comes from total strangers. Nutrition coach Marc David tells a story about how he once said this to a woman he didn't know--turns out she had a health condition that was giving her a distended belly. Once again, these comments can leave women with the feeling that their bodies are constantly being scrutinized--like we're always being watched. Even when the intention is good. You don't know how a woman feels about her body during pregnancy. Maybe she feel self-conscious about the weight. Or she just might be sick of hearing, "Congratulations," for the thousandth time--and being obligated to smile and say, "Thank you" repeatedly to complete strangers while she's just trying to go about her day. It puts her in the spotlight in a way that can be uncomfortable.

And, as we all know, there's an incredible amount of commentary about how women look after they give birth. As both Lily Allen's video for Hard Out Here (yes, I know it's controversial) and the recent uproar over Maria Kang's photos of her toned body have pointed out, many people believe there's a way a woman's body "should" look after giving birth. When actresses and pop stars make appearances shortly after delivering their babies looking toned and fit--we compliment them. And although we might mean well in doing so, that kind of praise reinforces the idea that a woman has an obligation to lose all the baby weight immediately--that she's lazy if she doesn't.

Complimenting a woman isn't a bad thing. But we have to be aware of the underlying connotations. And we have to understand why we're complimenting her in the first place. Praising a woman for coming closer to unrealistic standards of beauty often just makes her feel like she needs to keep working even harder to continue getting that praise. It piles on more pressure--which leads to more insecurity. It can be a subtle way of lulling a woman into buying into the arbitrary standards set by our culture.