So U.S. Thanksgiving is around the corner, and with it comes a potential litany of worries. Some may worry there won’t be much of the kind of food they eat(vegan, gluten-free, etc.) at family celebrations. Some worry about travel, and lost sleep, and being forced to take time off of work (Everyone is stressed out about an extra day off, right? Oh- so just me? DAMN).
I feel like the unspoken thing *so many* folks (especially female bodied folks) come up against when they see people that they haven’t seen in awhile is body talk. It can be negative body talk that throws you off your awesome-mental game, but sometimes it can be positive body talk too. In this article, Nichole, (whom I truly admire!) drops a little food for thought on the damaging nature of compliment culture. I think it is perfectly timed before Holiday family gatherings, and I hope you will, too. Enjoy!
The Dangers of Compliment Culture
Written by Nichole Dinato of Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack!
In the U.S., most successful college-aged women say they’d rather be hot than smart. It’s easy to see why. We all, regardless of gender, receive messages from a young age that our looks are important and remarkable, a lesson which is reinforced throughout adulthood.
Compliments and Disordered Eating
We have a strange compulsion in our culture to constantly comment on each other’s looks, to the point where it’s considered rude if we don’t mention a friend’s recent haircut or weight loss. But at what cost? In reading eating disorder recovery stories, and in living through EDs and body image issues of my own, I’m always struck by how many people mention that compliments were the trigger for their EDs.
Lacy mentioned recently that compliments on her weightloss after a difficult breakup were a driving force behind her restrictive eating morphing from a symptom of her grieving to an eating disorder.
I started dieting in 8th grade after noticing that I seemed “bigger” than other girls. I was more developed than them, with large breasts and curvy hips, which was especially difficult to process because I was a year younger than everyone else. I remember the feeling of my self-image warping, distorting my view of myself in the world, which persists to this day.
When I began losing weight, instead of asking me how I was achieving this all my own, or why I was choosing to diet at such a young age, my mother, my teachers and other students all told me how great I looked. As a kid who preferred to be invisible but who also had been neglected for most of her life, I started to crave this external validation. No one noticed that something had changed in me, something I desperately needed help with. I started to believe if I hit my goal weight, I would achieve happiness and ultimate control. I would be worthy of love and attention. What started out as a diet became a monster that still lives under my bed.
Compliment culture shows us that people mistake how you look with how you feel, which is an extremely dangerous lesson for someone who may be self-harming. It teaches us it’s easy to hide the dysfunction by putting on makeup or nice clothes. We learn that people will only look at the surface and not see the uncomfortable truths underneath, allowing us to escape detection and get further into our dark places than we may have otherwise.
I think most of us in the Super Strength Health community understand the potential dangers of complimenting someone on their weight loss, especially if we don’t know their mindset, and of representing weight loss as the end-all-be-all achievement.
Remarks on our weight can trigger eating disorders or body image issues, but constant remarks on our appearance, even in a positive light, can also create weird fixations that we wouldn’t necessarily have had otherwise.
I’ve developed a fear of looking old because I receive so many compliments on looking younger than my age. Counterintuitive? Not when you think about it. I never cared how old I looked, until I hit my late 20s, early 30s, when (apparently) I crossed a threshhold where looking young became the ultimate goal. Now I have dreams where gray hair grows in pairs on my head overnight, and plucking them just makes them grow back stronger. It’s shameful to me that I care, but I do, because I have been taught that my youthful appearance is an asset in the public eye.
When we receive a repeated compliment on our looks, we learn our value, and we fear losing it.
For those of us who have struggled with EDs, body image issues, and body dysmorphic disorder, there is a real danger in receiving physical compliments when trying to discuss our disorders.
Obsessing over your weight, looks or a physical feature is unhealthy. Hard work has to be done to escape from that snake pit. One thing that is very hard for me, and was impossible up until recently, is talking openly about my dysmorphic demons. To my disappointment, those hard won steps have been met with well-meaning but intensely dangerous compliments about my appearance.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this. If you have an ED and you try to speak about your struggle, loved ones probably are quick to let you know that you don’t need to lose weight, that you look great, or that it “isn’t that bad.” If you have body dysmorphic disorder, you probably often hear that the physical feature you hate is distinctive, attractive or, again, not as bad as you think.
With this, everyone is reinforcing that your obsession is, in fact, every bit as important as you think it is. It implies that pain only belongs to those who don’t look good enough to opt out. It demeans the very real nightmare that these conditions can become, reducing them down to something that can be cured with a simple compliment and not something that requires courage, possible therapy and gobs of self-care to conquer. It undermines our struggles, dismisses them with the wave of a hand, instead of validating our experience and teaching us to move beyond obsession with the physical to address the underlying emotional and/or mental root cause.
Changing the Culture
As the holidays roll around and a lot of us will be seeing friends and family, keep in mind how you interact with your loved ones. Praise little ones for kind gestures, offers of help, and perseverance in problem solving. Encourage interests. Ask them questions and then thank them for talking with you. When they ask you questions, compliment them on their curiousity. Tell them that you love them, that you miss them, that you enjoy spending time with them.
Instead of telling the adults in your life that they look good, say you love their expressive sense of style, that their faces feel like home, or that they have always been a beacon of strength for you. Simply saying, “I’ve missed you” can be more than enough.
If you are on the receiving end of compliment culture woes, don’t be afraid to start having conversations with people around you. It will take a long time, but I’m hoping together we can start to change the world by creating safe spaces around us. It’s ok to let someone know you are trying a new thing, where you don’t talk about people’s looks and they don’t talk about yours. You can be honest and say comments on your body are scary and triggering, and ask them to help you feel safe by refraining.
That’s not to say we can’t ever give each other compliments on our looks, but I think we need to be much more careful about when, where and what value those compliments have.
Let people know their value in your life. Let them know that you are looking past the physical, to truly see them, and ask them to see you back.
Nichole Dinato is one-half of the Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack! podcast, a show she creates with her business partner, Callie Coker.
VWPA publishes one podcast episode every week that takes an in-depth, unflinching look at difficult vegan issues, and a weekly advice column that answers questions from vegans and the veg-curious alike. Dedicated to creating a welcoming community and being as intersectional as possible, the girls tackle tough issues with love, humor, brutal honesty and an open door policy to everyone.
This was written for all people that have struggled with food and body image. It is for those who have had diagnosed anorexia or bulimia, sure, but it is also for the compulsive exerciser, the emotional eater, the chronic dieter, the person with a constant loop of mean body self talk. I use “eating disorder recovery” in the loosest sense of the word. This was written simply for those who have added stress around food and body during the holiday time. I love you all, and together, we’ve got this.
For the rest of my life, I will consider myself to be in eating disorder recovery. Although it has been years since I actively practiced any of the behaviors that made me categorically “sick”, the first thing that happens when I am tired, sad, or stressed, is that I notice myself having shitty dialogue with myself about the way I look. My brain remains very quick to judge my body, and although I do not accept the crap it comes up with, it’s still there. Holidays drive me batty for this reason.
This Thanksgiving I watched my dialogue around food and body rise and fall. I made a big and beautiful pile of greens for the potluck I attended and I felt happy and positive and strong. I arrived to my party and saw a gigantic table full of piles of food and I felt incredibly anxious and tired. I acknowledged the anxiety was still there (YES, after all these years, after all my skillz, after all my self love and teaching my clients to do the same) and I told myself that I could eat what I wanted, without emotional repercussion. I made myself a plate of food fit for the awesome weight lifting vegan lady that I was. I ate until I was full, and then I ate a little more. Dessert came and I had pie, because I wanted some, and because my brain told me I shouldn’t and I was so angry at the shoulds that I felt I had to. I felt sad. My stomach was not stoked. I was simultaneously proud of myself for enjoying the food with my friends, and pissed off that it was difficult to deal with my over full-ness in stride.
When I looked around after the meal my friends and I enjoyed, I saw that most people were really full. They were laying down, and watching movies, and doing puzzles, and farting tofurkey farts. No one looked sad about their fullness. In fact, an hour or so later the whole cohort went out to get pints of coconut ice cream. It boggled my mind. My friends ate as much as me and were in fact, more than fine. They were happy! Comfortable and hanging out and stoked.
That’s the thing about eating disorder brain. It takes you right out of your life and into your head. All through the meal I was only able to be half present because of the negotiating I was doing. ME. Been-in-recovery-for-a-long-ass-time-ME. Damn, that sucks.
The difference between in-the-sickness-recovery and in-the-wellness recovery is my ability to notice what’s going on and my ability to make changes going forward. I plan to do Christmas differently, because it is in my best interest to fucking love the people I’m with instead of having an argument with myself that no one will ever win. Here are a few tried and true methods of mental wellness that I am happy to remind myself of.
1. Make a gratitude list
Gratitude saves my ass on a constant and regular basis, and is the simplest thing that I often forget to do. Taking ten minutes to write things down that you’re grateful for straight up changes your disposition. I am spending my Christmas with my family first, and my partner’s family second. I plan to take a moment to not only write down everyday things that I appreciate, but also things I appreciate about all the people I am seeing. At the core of holidays is the desire for togetherness, so I am focusing on the people I am surrounding myself with.
2. Participate in whatever exercise doesn’t fuck your shit up.
Move your body, and keep your goals in mind. (If you are in recovery for anorexia and underweight, do not do high intensity interval training, for example.) When I am anxious, the first thing I want to do is go for a run. I allow myself that luxury because it doesn’t mess with my recovery overall, but I also take time to stretch and breathe deeply when I am done. The goal is to do whatever you need to do to remind yourself that you are on your body’s team. That might be walking, it might be yoga, it might be lifting, it might be a sprint. Do what you need to do, but do it because you’re trying to love yourself, not come out on top of a calorie calculation.
3. Tell someone
So much of what keeps people eating disordered, body dysmorphic, or self-hating is secrecy and shame. Because we live in a terribly fucked up society, chances are someone you know is struggling in the same way. Opening your mouth gives you the opportunity to support and be supportive.
4. Be assertive- with yourself and with others.
If someone is pressuring you to eat more or less, don’t take that shit. You are the boss of you, and you don’t need to be afraid to say so. For those concerned with how to gracefully decline more when you’re at capacity, a simple “No, thank you!” is totally great.
If you are pressuring yourself to eat more or less, that’s another opportunity to take charge. Do what makes your body feels best, do what makes you feel most connected to yourself and your socializing, and if you catch a mean thought, just let yourself marvel at it. “Who would say such mean bullshit?!” you can think. Then have a good laugh. Not you! No way, no how.
Please be kind to yourself and your body this holiday season. Let yourself talk out your internal dialogue, be a listening ear, and remember that I am just an email away. The chaos will end, just like it does every year, and when it is all done, you’re still going to be standing. How cool is that?!