Saturday, October 20, 2007

5 Things You Should Never Say

We've talked about the kind of corporeal self-loathing that's become institutionalized in American culture, especially among women. We've promised to try to love our own bodies. (Right?) Now let's take all that a step further and think about the kinds of things we say to one another about the way we and other people look.

Here's my vote for 5 things you should never, ever say to anyone. No matter how thin or fat s/he is. No matter how much you really want to. Because not one of these comments is helpful, and some are harmful--to you if not to the other person involved.

1. You look great! While there's nothing wrong with a sincere compliment, this is typically not sincere. It's usually code, meaning either You look great, you've lost some weight! or You look great even though you're still fat! Try, instead, something specific, like I love your hair like that. Better yet, skip the comments on other people's appearance and find something more interesting to talk about.

2. I never eat X. Maybe you're a vegetarian who hasn't eaten meat in 20 years. Maybe you're allergic to chocolate. Or maybe you're caught up in the good food/bad food syndrome, where the demon du jour is carbs or fat or whatever. My advice: Keep your food tics to yourself. Better yet, get over them. Learn to love your body and respect the fuel that keeps it going.

3. I guess you got the thin genes! This comment was actually directed to my daughter by a salesperson. I was the one shopping; I'd just come out of the dressing room with an outfit on. My daughter had recently been diagnosed with anorexia and was emaciated and awful looking; she was with me that day because she was too anxious to be home alone. This salesperson managed to insult both of us with one comment. I haven't shopped in that store (which used to be one of my favorites) since.

4. Aren't you worried about your health? Translation: You should damn well be worried about your health, you fatso. Given what we know about the tenuous to nonexistent relationship between weight and health (see Sandy Szwarc's righteous columns, Paul Campos' writings, Gina Kolata's book, and other up-to-date treatments of this subject), this comment is outdated and ineffective. And just plain cruel.

5. I wish I had a little anorexia! Do I need to tell you why this is a stupid, cruel thing to say? I don't think so. You realized that the minute it came out of your mouth.

Now that you've developed your inner editor, here's one thing you can always say: I love you. Repeat as needed.


Julia said...

Last year I saw two girl cousins of mien I hadn't seen in years. The first things out of my mouth was about how cute and adorable they were. I wanted to smack myself, because their beauty is not why I was happy to see them. I mean, they are the most adorable girl cousins in the world, but they're also smart, strong, resiliant, and fun.

So I gave follow up compliments talking about their school work, how well they did at coloring, etc. It startled me that despite all the education I have about sexist comments made to little girls, I still popped out with them.

But yes, specific compliments are good. "The dress you picked out really compliments your beautiful smile. Seeing you smile always makes me happy." Or something. I always try to mention being happy to see someone. But yeah, these are great conversational land mines to avoid.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add a few other items to your list of things of what not to say. Of course, this could be the never-ending list.

1. Please don't gleefully tell me how much weight you've lost and how much happier you are now that you can fit into a smaller size. I don't care. And especially for someone with an ED, this can be a major trigger.

2. Don't tell me how much you hate certain parts of your body or scrutinize negatively over how you look. I realize misery loves company, but I'd rather not go down that same path with you.

Harriet said...

Julia, I've said the same kinds of things. That's why I have to remind myself not to do that. We all do that. When my daughter was very sick with anorexia I had to send a letter to my family members telling what they could and couldn't say. And even then they just couldn't keep some of those comments from popping out. It takes time to retrain yourself.

Rachel, love the additions. Yeah, it could be a neverending list.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz said...

I love this. Thank you.

My personal favorite, which I hear probably at least once a week from various individuals, is "You're losing weight!"

Now I know damn well that scale hasn't moved, so why say something like that? Why do you think you're complimenting me, when all your really saying is that I looked fat to you the last time you saw me? WHY DO YOU EVEN CARE??


mary said...

#5 is sheer ignorance! Sad but true.

I too hate comments that are usually what I consider the back handed slaps. "My you really clean up well." HUH?
"Lost weight I've noticed, don't you look good" : O
Or, "you really cleaned the place up" another way to expose that I sometimes prefer to lead a more relaxed lifestyle that doesn't entail keeping up with the Jones! So you caught me in a moment of weakness when I cleaned the house! GRRRRRR I'm a busy busy woman!

One woman who always looks exhausted tells ME that I look tired. Sure, thanks.I would never tell her that she looks exhausted, though if she catches me in the wrong mood someday I may say more than she expects.

We do need to be mindful that ED's don't force us to walk on eggshells forever. Many people offer kind words as terms of endearment. I don't think it's the compliments that are harmful, it's omitting telling our girls that they are strong warriors and have everything they need, including a voice to ask for help, including the ability to get their own hands dirty and fight back investing themselves in reclaiming their space in the world.
I think THEN it's ok to let our girls know how beautiful they are but in a very different way than surface fashion model beauty. Cute can be good honest fun. Please don't beat yourselves up over this. rule is that we don't intentionally harm another person with words we know suggest that they are anything less than ourselves, awesome creatures that we are! We had better make sure we like ourselves in whatever condition we find ourselves in.

Anonymous said...

Nice list! But is it OK to say, "I never eat anything that tastes like ass to me unless I'm literally starving, because it's just not worth it"? Or is that triggering too?

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree with this list, but, honestly, I often say "you look great" without any negative connotations -- I just mean that they look great, and it's not a comment on their size, nor a comparison to how they looked the last time I saw them. Yes, specific compliments are nice, too (and hair is safe and neutral territory, I *think*,) but I don't think it's fair to say that more generic compliments always have to be taken ill. The hearer has a choice in what they choose to read into it (and whether or not they judge there to be negative implications will depend a great deal on what else the complimenter says, and all past experiences with that person.)

In response to Julia, I used to worry that my constantly telling my young daughter she's beautiful would cause her to equate that with her worth -- but then I decided that it's simply part of who she is, and not something I could or should hide from her. Of course I also compliment her on other aspects of who she is. She, in her turn, tells me both that I'm fat and that I'm beautiful -- and I try to receive these comments in the innocent, complimentary spirit she obviously intends them.

Anonymous said...

Great suggestions, Harriet! I would add that it's good to not say these things about other people, also (e.g., while watching television, looking at magazines, etc.)

Anonymous said...

I like these rules. I've had...issues...with the way I look and the way people have subsequently treated me. Maybe I'm incredibly over-sensitive, but I feel like it's inappropriate to make comments about someone's appearance, period (unless it's a communicative thing like "Why are you smiling?" "You look sad, are you okay?" "There is a bug on your shoulder" possibly even moving into "That is a lovely necklace." But even that can embarrass me.)

I personally just don't feel I need the running commentary. I have a mirror. I know what I look like. I suspect everyone else knows what they look like too.

Jenny said...

sneaking in through Elastic Waist... just to say, very well written.

Harriet said...

hi anonymous,
you might say "you look great" without any "negative connotations," or intend that, but I think most people in America hears all kinds of baggage along with a comment like that. Like, "Do I usually look awful?" Or, "Do I look great becuase I've lost 2 pounds?" Or whatever. I find it's best to simply not comment on people's appearance unless there's a specific and appropriate reason to--like someone cut 12 inches of hair and you want to tell her how fab she looks. I think it's a reflexive type thing that we all say and we'd be better off just cutting way back on appearance oriented comments.

I like Michelle's ideas for other things to say. :

And thanks, anonymous boxer.

Anonymous said...

"When my daughter was very sick with anorexia I had to send a letter to my family members telling what they could and couldn't say."

Reading that one sentence actually brought tears to my eyes. As a "skinny girl" who suffered horribly with anorexia as a teenager (and into adulthood; I think of it as being in remission, lest I slide back down that slippery slope), I can't even tell you what it would have meant to me if my mother--or any family member--had possessed sufficient sensitivity to monitor THEMSELVES, never mind suggest that others do so.

It's astonishing how painful those memories remain, lo, these 20+ years later..."why don't you eat something?" "if you turn sideways you'll disappear" "you're going to go right down the bathtub drain one of these days," "she's just trying to get attention" (God forbid we should actually give it to her!), and on and on and on. So very helpful, doncha know!

I've literally *just* stumbled on this blog, Harriet, but let me say straight out that I already know you're a terrific mother in my book!

Harriet said...

thanks for your kind comments. i'm sorry for what you've had to go through. you sound like you've come a long way and i'm glad for you. and glad to "meet" you!

Anonymous said...

I'm not even sure where to start, but this is a great post. Lookism has bothered me for a long time now and I think we're doing each other a great disservice by greeting each other with superficial "compliments." I am quite sick of having my body and looks commented on, either positively or negatively - this is a very small aspect of who I am, and I honestly feel that people who make these comments are projecting their own insecurities onto other people. I think these comments make a lot of people feel scrutinized, and wonder, like you said, "Well what was wrong with me before?" It also sends the extremely damaging message that your image is what makes you valuable. I come from a very image obsessed family and have been trying to escape focusing on my looks for some time, but people make it very difficult. Unfortunately, my opinions on this issue amongst family and friends have been largley ignored. The only thing I can do is treat other people the way I would like to be treated - I focus on the wonderful people they are on the inside. I also find your rejection of the obesity panic to be extremely refreshing. I am a medical student and I reject these notions as well - I think a healthy lifestyle means being reasonably active and eating whatever you please, with some consideration given to moderation. Being fixaed on "healthy eating" is totally unnecessary and often problematic and I worry about children being raised with these notions of "good" and "bad" food. There are many strong, healthy, overweight women in my family, and the fact that anyone with a medical education would focus on thinness as a necessary marker of health is quite sad to me. People are INDIVIDUALS and we all need to keep an open mind.

Crayons said...

Hi Harriet

This is my first read and first comment. I love your list! I really agree with adding "You look great!" to the list. People often say it to me -- and in a way, I'm flattered because I try hard to hide my fat by dressing well. However, I NEVER hear people say that to my friends who are thin, muscular, tan... I sometimes think that people think of me as being fatter than I am, and then when they see me, they are sort of relieved or something.

I can't wait to read more of your writing.

Harriet said...

Hi Crayons,
I've often had that same feeling. I bet it's fairly common.

Welcome to the blog!

Anonymous said...

I wish it was ok for you to slap anyone who said "I wish I had a little Anorexia" with a fairly large trout, or some other rather large bluntish object. I'm j/k, I don't encourage violence.

However, it does make you want to go crazy on them like someone in a comedic Anime. Like when the character's head grows huge, and the get those white demon eyes and a wall of flames appears behind them.