From body snarking to food comas and girly gift-giving, this is the go-to guide for all of your holiday body image woes!
You know the scene. Family gathering. Aunts, uncles, cousins, distant family friends you haven’t seen in ages. All eyes on you as you come in. Hugging. And … body policing time! Maybe it’s, “Oh honey! You look great! You’ve definitely lost weight. Tell me your secrets!” Or, maybe they only say that to your sister while you smile with dead eyes nearby. (Smiley face). Whether or not this scene reflects your Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Festivus traditions, any gathering of people you don’t see regularly is sure to reflect some characteristics of the traditional body policing bonanza. To gear up for the holidays, we have put together a Holiday Survival Guide to ensure you are fully prepped and ready to shield yourself from falling victim to — or inflicting — body-image-harming words and deeds.
First, skip the body policing of friends and family. Rather than commenting on someone’s weight or new hairstyle, put a little extra thought in and compliment them on a work/school/family accomplishment, or on a positive character trait you admire them for. Yes, it’s MUCH harder than a spur-of-the-moment appearance observation, but it will also last longer and mean more to the recipient.
Tip: Hesitate to congratulate or compliment someone on dramatic weight loss – especially if you don’t know how or why it happened. Not to be a downer, but Illness, eating disorders, depression, or other private matters can contribute to weight loss, and it isn’t always the pride and joy of the person who has lost the weight. And if the weight was lost on purpose and in a healthful way, maybe that person doesn’t want everyone to shine a spotlight on it in front of a crowd. Be careful and tactful if you must say something.
AND, even if you feel like you’re complimenting someone by telling her she needs to “get some meat on those bones” and pushing food toward her since she’s a “beanpole,” go ahead and don’t. Well-meaning skinny-bashing or teasing seems to be funny for everyone but the recipient. If she’s thin, assume she’s PROBABLY heard that exact comment/joke thousands of times before. You can do better than that.
Shut down the body policing when it’s directed at you. Don’t defend, deny or otherwise dwell on your looks – whether the comment was positive or negative toward you. If it’s nice, say thank you! And then deflect, deflect, deflect. Oh look, he needs help in the kitchen! Hey, how is your job going? See? Easy. If it’s a snide comment or hurtful to you, either ignore it entirely or shut it down. If you want to get all Beauty Redefined on them, make the point that whenever we minimize a woman (or a man) to what she looks like, we are contributing to an unhealthy culture of body shame and appearance obsession that is harming all people. Remember that girls who feel badly about their bodies – regardless of what they look like – are more likely to make poor health choices over time. They are more likely to lead sedentary lifestyles and make poor nutritional choices. The opposite is true for girls and women who feel OK about their bodies. It shows in their actions. By body policing or criticizing people’s bodies, we are never promoting real health or fitness. We are promoting body anxiety, fixation, and shame. Never let an excuse of “concern for her health” be a shield for body shaming, and when it is, point it out. You never know who else is watching, reading or listening that needs to hear what you have to say. You have a greater influence than you realize.
Be conscious of the gifts you give girls. Give gifts that don’t put girls in a pink, objectified box. Media and toys targeting very young girls — even those ages 3 to 5 — emphasizes a dangerously thin and sexualized ideal to a degree never before seen. Recognize when dolls, games, toys and movies emphasize a girl’s appearance above all else. Steer clear of makeup, vanity sets, sexualized dolls, and anything else that limits girls to mere objects to be adorned, rescued, and looked at.
Talk to girls about more than how adorable they are. This one is HARD. Because they’re just so adorable. Especially when you aren’t around kids very much, or you haven’t seen that adorable little girl since she was an adorable baby, you’ve gotta put some effort into diversifying your compliments and conversation topics with adorable little girls. Even if you are compelled to comment on her perfect little face or how beautiful she looks in her dress, pair that with a question about what books she has been reading, or a comment on how sweet she was to help Grandma pick up that napkin. ANYTHING* other than how adorable she is. We need to teach girls they are valued for much more than what they look like, and that starts with how we talk to them.
Skip the yo-yo dieting or bingeing and focus on moderation. Don’t forgo exercise just because you ate too much and you know that stuffing will still be there taunting you for a week. Don’t eat the entire cheese ball just because you already had 1/3 of it and your self-respect is gone. It’s easy for that all-or-nothing mentality to creep in over the holidays and do some serious damage. Also go ahead and also skip the disordered eating talk – “I’m gonna have to skip dinner for a week after all the crap I’m eating today!” You never know who is listening.
Be a healthy, confident example for all the family and friends watching you. Even if you’re not feeling so great about yourself, and maybe you haven’t been taking that great of care of yourself, just own it. Don’t bash yourself. These holidays are all about love and gratitude, so why not show some thanks to your body this season? It’s functioning well enough to get you this far in life, and that’s commendable. Especially after that Halloween candy feast/fiasco. To give thanks, do the best thing you can possibly do for your body, which is be active. It’s hard over the holidays, so set a realistic and achievable fitness goal. You can choose anything you want to work toward, whether that is running a mile in a set time, doing a certain number of push-ups or sit-ups, walking a certain distance every day, etc. When you set a fitness goal and work toward it, you will find you spend less time thinking about the way your body LOOKS and more time focusing on what it can DO. Reminding ourselves and encouraging others to engage in physical activity as a means for improving physical and mental health, rather than a strategy for achieving unattainable beauty ideals, is vital.
A major part of being a good example for others is quitting the negative self-talk. Research and real-life experience make it clear that when women and girls speak negatively about their bodies and their appearance, they negatively impact those around them. That goes for moms in front of kids, girls in front of their friends, all of us. Start today with a goal that you will never again say something negative about your appearance aloud, and soon the negative self-talk that floats through your mind will become less and less prevalent, too.
Appreciate beautiful reality all around you. Family and friend gatherings are a great time to look people eye to eye and really see what beauty can and does look like. We rarely see women over 40 in mass media, and when we do, they’re villains, crazy, Photoshopped, and/or selling anti-aging products and procedures. But many of us will have the opportunity to see a few of the older women we love around the holidays. Notice the attributes that exist everywhere in reality but almost nowhere in ever-present media: lines on faces – from smiling and frowning, being in the sun, years of working and loving and living. Natural silver, gray, white, or salt-and-pepper colored hair that brightens up complexions and sparkles in the sun. Changing body shapes. We see a one-dimensional form of tall, very thin, white, young beauty in media. Even when we do see older women, their body types most often reflect the thin ideals we’re immersed in through all genres of entertainment and advertising. Bodies that don’t fit those ideals are the norm. They are normal.
A wide range of different body types, shapes and sizes are normal and natural, and are NOT the unhealthy, sub-par, abnormal embarrassments we’ve been trained to view them as. Before tabloid body snarking obsession took over in the past two decades, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected a woman’s body to look the same post-pregnancy as it did before. With “baby-bump” mania and the commodification of motherhood, there are countless industries that profit off of women (and men) believing they must achieve pre-pregnancy weight/appearance within months or weeks of giving birth – think the $90 billion diet and weight loss industry, the hugely popular “mommy makeover” cosmetic surgery package, women’s “health” magazines that fly off the shelves with promises of immediate and easy weight loss. Our perceptions of normal and healthy are so out of whack that we don’t know how to accurately view our own bodies, let alone everyone else’s. But somehow we spend lots of time doing just that.
Finally, forget yourself! Sometimes the best way to improve our self-image is to forget about ourselves for a while. Get out and volunteer to help someone who needs a friend or who needs a hand with jobs around the house. Serving others fills us with love and light that radiate from within. Cheesy but true. You know it is. There are countless lonely people who need a visit, underprivileged families who need food, clothes, and love, sick people who need a reminder that you’re thinking of them, and lots of others who could use a boost. Redefining beauty is about more than seeing outward beauty in a more realistic way, it’s also about getting the focus OFF of appearance and instead living and acting in a more beautiful way. The holidays are an ideal time to join this movement and spread Beauty Redefined to those you love. Now get out there and be Beauty Redefined!
*But don’t talk about politics. It might not hurt your body image, but it will ruin family dinner.