12 body-shaming habits to squash

These comments may be more harmful than you think.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Taking sides in the fat-versus-skinny debate

Making statements, or any direct comment about a woman's body has the potential to be shaming, says Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist and the national training director for The Renfrew Center, the nation's largest network of eating-disorder treatment facilities. Designating one body type or weight as the "best" or "right" way to be causes some people to feel ashamed or not good enough. "It is always better not to make a judgment – even when you think it's a positive one," says Ressler.

If you're naturally shaped like a bean pole, for example, hearing others say "real women have curves" can make you feel you don't conform, or there's something wrong with you. "Everybody has their own size and shape and weight that's specific to them," says Ressler.

-- By Linda Melone for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 13 Two women sunbathing (Robert Daly/Getty Images)

Congratulating someone on their weight loss

Illness, depression or any number of other reasons may result in unintentional weight loss, making it dangerous to assume that someone deliberately lost weight. "The issue is not that this remark 'creates' a distorted body image but, rather that it focuses only on one aspect of who we are – how much we weigh," says Ressler. "For those who are sensitive about their weight it may promote 'more is better' thinking and set them up to lose even more weight in order to keep the compliments coming. Others may wonder if they really looked fat or unattractive prior to their weight loss so they need to keep the weight off in order to be acceptable."

Your response should be determined by your own comfort with the questioner as well as how ready you are to share your personal business, says Ressler. "You might say 'thanks for noticing, I haven't really been trying,' or you might deflect the question and say 'how are you doing?'. "

2 of 13 A women getting a congratulatory gift (Hitoshi Nishimura/Getty Images)

Giving backhanded compliments

Comments such as, "That dress really makes you look thinner!" sends mixed messages to the recipient. If you say "thank you", you reinforce the idea that you are intentionally dressing to look thinner, says Judith Matz, an Illinois-licensed clinical social worker and the co-author of The Diet Survivor's Handbook, 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care (2006). "If you’re working on accepting yourself, going along with it will feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that such backhanded compliments are the other person's projection of what she believes about thinness, rather than a reflection on you."

Matz recommends a response such as, "You know, I wear clothes that I like and that I feel good in, not because they make me look thinner." Or, you might say, "I know that looking thinner is important to you, but I’ve decided to stop focusing on my weight."

3 of 13 A two-faced person (Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images)

Doling out unsolicited advice

Recommending that a person join a gym or suggesting "maybe you don't need that dessert" is a boundary invasion, says body-image specialist Ressler. "You make an assumption that they will benefit from your wisdom. Offer advice when asked; otherwise stay silent, no matter how hard that might be."

If you are the recipient of unsolicited advice, respond according to what is comfortable for you, but any one of the following could work:

  • "Thank you, but I’m doing just fine."
  • “I don’t really need help managing my life."
  • "I appreciate you taking the time to be concerned about me. I will think about it."
  • "I actually am following a plan that is working for me."

Alternatively, you can turn the tables and ask them what they find most helpful to stay healthy. Or simply change the subject.

4 of 13 A piece of cake for dessert (Lauri Patterson/Getty Images)

Saying ‘I wish I could be anorexic for a day!’

Making such a statement is damaging and otherwise unhealthy, because it's often said to someone who has just shared with another person that they’re in recovery from an eating disorder, says Kathleen MacDonald, an eating-disorder educator and health insurance advocate at Kantor & Kantor LLP, Northridge, Calif. "That can be severely damaging for the person in recovery, because she might feel further stigmatized about her disorder."

She may feel people don't take her disease seriously or that they wish they could look like her. That could discourage some people from getting help and continuing their recovery process, says MacDonald.

5 of 13 A person on the scale (David De Lossy/Getty Images)

Putting off life (vacation, moving, etc.) until you reach your goal weight

Telling yourself, "I'll leave the house once I lose the baby/vacation/winter fat," or "Just wait until I fit into my skinny jeans," reinforces the idea you aren't worthy of living if you don't look a certain way, says Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College at Cornell University. "Instead, do your best with what you've got – and then keep on going. Staying home or missing out may only further feelings of self-doubt."

Drexler also recommends dressing in clothes that flatter the body you have now. And if you want to lose weight, seek out a good nutritionist to help you find the best plan for you.

6 of 13 A person waiting for vacation (John Lund/Sam Diephuis/Getty Images)

Putting others down to compensate for your insecurities

Telling yourself that "She may be skinnier, but I make more money!" is a way of  compensating for your insecurities by putting other people down, says Drexler.

"It's not a contest. When it comes to how you look, there doesn't have to be a 'winner' and a 'loser.'" Instead, remove yourself from the equation and ask yourself: What does it mean to you that your friend is thinner? If it makes you aware of things you want to change about yourself, examine those. Are you unhappy with your weight, really, or are you only unhappy in the context of others? "And be sure you know how to tell the difference," says Drexler.

7 of 13 A bowl of healthy apples (Image Source/Getty Images)

Minimizing another's successful weight loss

When a celebrity loses a significant amount of weight, you’ll often hear comments like, "I'd be skinny, too, if I had a personal chef." If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to lose weight, it can be comforting to attribute someone else’s success to genetics, financial ability or any number of resources that are out of your own reach. But Drexler recommends turning the tables and tapping into that person’s secrets. She may be a valuable resource, says Drexler. "Let her know you'd love any tips she might share."

8 of 13 A restaurant with two salads (kali9/Getty Images)

Putting down thin pregnant women

Telling a woman she needs to "eat a sandwich" because she's too thin is known as "skinny shaming" or "thin shaming" and is considered by some the equivalent of telling an overweight person to go on a diet. This can be particularly harmful for pregnant women who don't gain as much weight as others think they should.

"Skinny shaming a thin pregnant woman is a distorted and dangerous way of thinking and is part of a much broader, persistent sense that women don't know what's best for their own bodies, or their babies," says Drexler. "Modern parenting can seem like a series of unending judgments of one another. This is just another example of that." Most women gain between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy, but some may gain only 15 to 20, depending on pre-pregnancy weight.

9 of 13 A pregnant woman on the scale (Image Source/Getty Images)

Saying 'You're so good!' when someone decides not to order dessert

This assumes you're abstaining because you want to lose weight, rather than that you're simply not hungry for dessert, says social worker Matz. "If this is the case, a response such as, ‘Actually, the reason I’m not ordering dessert is that I’m already full,’ lets your friend know that you don’t buy into thinking about food as a moral issue, i.e., being good versus being bad.”

If you are truly hungry for dessert, but pass it up to be "good" you’re likely to feel deprived, says Matz. "And there’s a good chance you’ll overeat at some point in the future to make up for it." If you are hungry, eat; but be mindful of when you feel satisfied, and use that as the cue to stop eating.

10 of 13 One woman eating cake and another woman looking jealous (Image Source/Getty Images)