Here you have it–a list of what not to do when someone confesses body image issues.
1.) Don’t gasp, shout, wail, or sob.
Be extremely sensitive of how you react to someone vulnerable enough with you to tell you about their body image issues. The smallest overt reaction of any kind, be it horror, shock, or dismay, will come across to the person as a reaction to themselves, not what they’re saying. It takes a special kind of strength to be able to confess these issues out loud, especially for someone who has lived with these incessant lies day in and day out.
Your reaction of shock may be a legitimate one, being that you could never imagine this person thinking of themselves as ugly. But you need to understand that you have no idea what goes on in this person’s head or their eyes when they look at their reflection, behind closed doors when these thoughts consume them.
Be kind in your reaction, not just your words.
2.) Don’t use platitudes. They’ve heard them all, and don’t believe them.
This may sound bitter. It is.
Don’t trot out the old bullshit sayings of, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” etc., etc.
Not only are these statements false and inherently flawed, there is a 100% guarantee that this person has heard every single one of them–has attempted to believe them as a way to heal themselves, and has failed miserably. And now they feel like there is something else wrong with them.
These sayings are more for someone who is heartbroken over this person’s flawed view of themselves than it is about helping heal that person of their wounds. You know the difference, and so do we.
Don’t use them.
They won’t work, and will do far more harm than good.
3. Don’t say, “How can you think that?!”
I have been on both sides of this table. Although this statement combines the above two points, it deserves its own elaboration because of the special kind of hurt this causes the person who questions their beauty and worth.
When someone comes to you in raw vulnerability and tells you of how they view themselves, it is difficult for both parties: difficult for the person to admit they have these problems, and difficult for the person who loves them to hear that they hate themselves. Especially when you can clearly see how beautiful and amazing and wonderful they are.
That is all well and good, but you will wound them far more than even their body image issues by saying, “How can you think that?!”
Let me explain: the deeper you dig into body image issues, you find it is almost never about what’s on the outside.
Whether it was twisted out of being bombarded with false and fake images of “beauty” their entire lives, or through an abusive filial or romantic relationship (or both), it’s about the twisted way they view themselves, not about how they actually look.
Here is the only circumstance that tired cliché, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” makes sense. It’s not about that BS, “The right guy will see your beauty,” crap; it’s about the ability, in your own eyes, to see your beauty.
This reaction only cements the way they’ve been taught to view themselves the majority of their lives.
It also creates a rift of guilt between you and them. The last thing they want to do is make you upset or to be blamed for how they view themselves. This is all they’ve known of themselves for most of their lives.
Remember that when you react in such a brash way, you’re not insulting the lie: you’re insulting the person who believes it.
4. Don’t use Christianity like a light switch to magically heal me or change my view about myself.
Being a Catholic/Christian myself, this one deserves a section on its own. As if the guilt from feeling this way isn’t bad enough, the Christian community has done a great injustice to those men and women who struggle with body image issues.
Well-meaning and ignorant individuals immediately have a plethora of reasons–all supposedly backed by Scripture, theology, philosophy, and conference talks–about why your feeling terrible about yourself and your self-imposed ugliness is bordering on sinful and insults God in His creation.
This needs to stop. Immediately.
You are doing so much more harm than good, making the other responses seem kind in comparison.
Being aware of who I am as a creation of God, my body image issues, which feed into my self-esteem issues and vice-versa, only get worse when I address them in prayer.
Because I know I shouldn’t feel this way.
I know I shouldn’t call myself wretched or hideous or ugly.
I know I was made in the image and likeness of God, and that insulting myself is insulting His image.
Hurling Scripture at me like a grenade-launcher and expecting my body image issues to crumble like a brick wall is having literally the opposite effect.
You know how I (and many people like me) see myself after being attacked with all these “sound” theological and Scriptural reasons for loving myself?
I must be really fucked up, because even these aren’t working. I must be unlovable and ugly, in the deepest, truest, essence of the word. Thanks for cementing that fact by expecting a miraculous waterfall of healing after a twenty-minute pep talk session about God’s beauty inside me and telling me I just need to pray harder.
It is not overnight.
It is not instantaneous.
And it’s almost never in front of someone else.
Only God Himself knows how deeply these wounds run, and only He knows how to heal them properly. Stop using His Word and His Love as a baseball bat to beat those who struggle to see His worth inside them.
5. Don’t take it upon yourself to heal them. You can’t, so don’t try.
9 times out of 10, the people who cause the body image issues in others aren’t the ones who are told about them. If this happens to be you, and you’re made aware that you’ve (inadvertently or not) created a body image issue in someone else, apologize, but don’t go any further than that.
You can’t heal their body image issues.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t healing found in loving companionship with someone else, whether platonic or romantic.
6. Don’t tell me I’m beautiful.
This may vary depending on the person, but I don’t like to be told I’m beautiful after venting how ugly I think I am.
Like I’ve said, this ugliness is far deeper than just skin level: it is about the inherent beauty of my person.
Tell me I’m beautiful when I get my hair cut.
Tell me I’m beautiful after I’ve gotten a new outfit.
Tell me I’m beautiful when I laugh, or smile, or sing.
But don’t heap compliments on me after venting my insecurities. Not only does it reek of being ham-fisted, it won’t be believed.
I’m still in that place of questioning the validity of the truth of my life, let alone how I see myself, and being given such compliments while my heart bleeds in my hands won’t act like medicine. It will either be completely ignored because of the timing, or it will be looked at as the other words are: another way to deflect the “ugly” words and not address the actual issue.
There is one thing everybody can do to help those with these issues, and I’ve never known it to fail: LET THEM VENT.
This can oftentimes be harder for the person listening than the person venting, but it is so crucial.
The injured party, viewing themselves as a sack of fat and tissue (yes, it gets gross and visceral like that; much worse than that, actually), will hold onto these lies that they are told and that they tell themselves because these lies ARE ugly. People, even those who love us, don’t like ugly things. We will keep them bottled up because we’ve been burned before, or we’re too terrified to let people know how terrible our thoughts can be.
The solution to this is very simple, but certainly not easy:
Let them vent what they feel and what they think.
Let them tell you, in graphic detail, how they feel about themselves.
They know it’s horrible; keep your mouth shut and let them vent. These things lose their livelihood when exposed to the air and oxygen of a loving third-party, far enough removed from the destructive thoughts inside that it will lose power and start to shrivel up and fade away.
…If you let them vent it.
Being horrified at their issues will not help them; letting them speak the lies out loud, to hear them as lies, and to be told they’re lies, will.
What I’ve found to be most healing is the unequivocal love and attention of my friends, beyond that of my looks. If I’m complimented by them, I know that they mean it, because they don’t ham-fist their words to me. They know I struggle with how I view myself, but they don’t let that affect the way they speak to me or treat me.
I’m still me, and that is enough for them.
To those that struggle as I do: healing is possible, and you can get out of this vicious cycle of self-hatred and condemnation.
To those who love those that struggle with body image issues: keep loving them. That’s all.
Image source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-standing-beside-window-curtain-1541212/