As a teenager, Karolina had serious eating disorders. To lose weight, she took drugs to curb her appetite. They proved extremely effective: she ate one dry smoked sausage a day, didn't feel hungry and lost 15kg in two months. Finally, she started to fit into fashionable clothes and go to parties. But her mental and physical condition was deteriorating rapidly. She started to suffer from insomnia, then depression appeared. Paradoxically, it was at the same time that she was hearing the largest number of compliments in her life. They confirmed her belief that she must continue to take these drugs and continue losing weight. No one saw what was going on behind the scenes of her change "for the better". The 17-year-old girl had to receive psychiatric support. After she stopped taking the drugs, which had already been withdrawn from sale due to side effects, she gained not 15kg but 30kg over time.
Karolina's story shows that compliments, especially those that are inconsiderate, often do more harm than good. Why? “The compliment is an evaluation”, says Dr Anna Januszewicz, nutrition psychologist, Head of Postgraduate Studies in Psychodietetics at the University of the Social Sciences and Humanities in Wrocław. “The very fact that we are judged can be very stressful. Even if someone says we look great, we get a signal that our appearance is being evaluated. And, even more so, if someone says: “Oh, you've lost weight! You look great”. It suggests that we were fatter before and looked worse.”
“The situation becomes more complicated when our compliments and comments about the appearance, even if positive, are addressed to a person with eating disorders. – In such a case, a compliment may serve as a trigger that exacerbates such disorders. People get rewarded for their unhealthy behaviour. However, these do not necessarily need to be compliments. Sometimes, some comments about the body, even if told out of concern can be enough. For instance: “You look very skinny, even unhealthy". A person with an eating disorder will mainly hear what they want to hear, i.e. confirmation that they look lean, which is the desired effect”, explains Dr Januszewicz.
Complementing someone who is close to us on their body, changed appearance, weight loss is often a natural reaction. Especially when we know that that someone has been struggling with being overweight or obese. Then it seems to us that noticing someone's weight loss will be motivating for them and that we will support them in their struggle.
According to Dr Januszewicz, apparently, there is a group of people who do not mind such compliments. Often they even expect them. However, in most cases, these are people who don’t treat their appearance so seriously. “Those who want to hide their extra pounds and have a problem with them will probably not want to hear comments about their bodies”, explains the psychologist. In such a case, the choice of words is very important. “I try to promote a neutral approach to body weight and appearance, at least from the perspective of specialists. The point is to talk about being overweight and obesity in a medical context. I do not allow myself to tell my patients how they look “, explains Dr. Januszewicz.
If we have a problem with other people's comments about our appearance, it is important to account, as early as during our own work on our bodies and insecurities, not for how we look and which jeans we fit into, but for what results we have, whether we feel good at our current weight and what our overall fitness is. Unfortunately, as Dr Januszewicz notes, such a solution would be ideal, but difficult to implement. “The cult of appearance is strongly rooted in our culture. It's very difficult to free yourself from its influence. Interestingly enough, maybe that's why we have fewer obese women than men in our society? This is, of course, a very cautious conclusion, because the reasons behind the differences between men and women are multi-faceted. It can be assumed that women are more focused on their appearance.”
However, this paradoxically positive effect of the cultural pressure related to the perfect look probably concerns only this group of women who, even if they feel the pressure of their surroundings, can cope with it. “In the case of people who are sensitive and have been repeatedly intimidated because of their appearance, the body comments are clearly detrimental”, stresses Dr Januszewicz. “When I listen to the people I work with and read the research, I can clearly see that what gives us the power to fight for health and a better life is not negative emotions, low self-esteem, poor sense of effectiveness, lack of support and stress. That's why I absolutely say NO to posters saying "Don't eat!" at bus stops!”
So how can we support our loved ones in their struggles against their bodies without commenting on their appearance and giving awkward compliments? “If we are dealing with people who are completely unmotivated, then instead of commenting on their appearance, we should look for shared benefits of change. Psychologists even recommend that those benefits should be short-term”, advises the psychologist. “Personally, when I want to encourage someone from my family to do something healthy, I try to figure out what we could do together and say that it's nice, not that in six months' time it will make them thinner. We can also cook a healthy dish together instead of commenting on unhealthy meals eaten by others”, advises Dr Januszewicz. And he adds, “On the other hand, if someone see the benefits of taking care of themselves and you don't have to explain it to them (and let's be honest, most people who have problems with their appearance feel this way), they are often people who simply can't cope mentally. Perhaps, they may need to be supported in seeking specialist help and changing their beliefs about what a healthy diet should look like.”
Summer is a period of increased body shaming and judging others by appearance. Now is the holiday season, known by many women as the "bikini season" horror. According to advertising campaigns, one should be ready in time for the "bikini season” – the fitness and fashion industries have set us the deadline. Anyone who hasn't managed to squeeze into the most fashionable costume within a month feels like a loser. Although it sounds funny, many people during their holidays – the period strictly related to leisure – are stressed about their appearance, afraid of unfavourable comments and prefer to hide under loose clothes because they feel that they do not deserve the compliments they dream about. When asked how to deal with this, Dr Januszewicz answers: “I suggest going to the mountains”, she says smiling. “I've often advised my patients not to go to the beach if they have any concerns about it. It is difficult, because our whole body, with all its advantages and disadvantages, is exposed and evaluated. Very often, when I ask patients who are obsessed with weight and body image what they are afraid of, they answer that someone might see their belly at the beach. Sometimes they accept themselves every day, but this beach scares them every year. I try to make them realise how many days per year they actually spend at the beach and ask: “Do you dedicate your whole life to looking good at the beach for one week?” Of course, in such a case, it is also important to work with the patient on greater body acceptance and appropriate distance to the issue of showing their bodies. But it is not an easy or quick impact project, so giving up on the beach for a while might a good ad-hoc solution. If someone doesn't feel comfortable in a bathing suit, why choose this type of holiday?”
Sex and a relationship with a partner is the area of life where it is impossible to avoid conversations about the body and appearance. “Meanwhile, the issues of femininity and female sexuality are always associated with embarrassment. I haven't met a man who would think anything of the following when a woman doesn’t want to have sex: “Oh crap, it's probably because my belly has gotten so big lately" or "Maybe she doesn’t like my hairy chest". However, in the opposite situation, the first thing a woman would start thinking is: “I have cellulite, I'm getting old, he doesn’t like me anymore, my breasts are saggy, I haven’t got back in shape after the pregnancy", says Michał Pozdał, psychotherapist, sexologist, lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, and founder of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Sexology in Katowice.
What is more, in the relationship between partners, there may often be words that can significantly affect one person’s self-esteem. “Nice curves", "Bones are for dogs not men" "Maybe you should try doing some squats" – there are plenty of such insensitive and hurtful remarks. “The women I work with often tell me that it is particularly unpleasant when their partners comment on the appearance of other women, which immediately becomes a point of reference for them”, says Pozdał. The topic he discusses every day in his office is men watching pornography. “Many women know about this and judge how they differ from porn actresses. It also has a great impact on their body insecurities.”
However, the sexologist points out that convincing women that their partners make gestures or say words that are intimidating may be appropriate, but not always. “I had one example in my office. A man was telling a woman that she "looked good” and, in her family, each time she put on weight, her mother or grandmother would say: “Well, you look good". This gave her the impression that her partner was letting her know that she had gained weight”, explains the psychologist.
This does not mean that appearance or a change in appearance significantly affects sexual life. Interestingly, weight change, even more often weight loss, can affect sexual desire in a relationship. It is very difficult to talk about this problem in a delicate way. Especially if the woman has a deep conviction that her partner despises her, has always disliked her and can leave her at any time. “There have been cases when men would say: “Honey, I really love your thighs, but if it's such a big problem for you, maybe I could help you somehow with this cellulite? There are different treatments, maybe I could buy you a voucher?” If, in response to such a message, we hear: “Oh, so you don't like my thighs after all" and the woman starts acting as if she finally has the proof that the man doesn't accept her, the therapy may be necessary, since well-balanced compliments may not be sufficient.”, says Pozdał. As he emphasises, it is one thing to convince a person who is a bit coquettish but knows that she is attractive and expects this conviction to be enhanced and another to talk to a person who genuinely thinks badly about themselves.
How should you support a loved one who has a serious problem with their appearance? “Let's say our partner is convinced that she is the ugliest person in the world. First, I have to stop denying what she says. I could say instead: “You look beautiful to me. I understand you think differently about yourself, but, in my opinion, it is not true.“ It seems to be a simple trick, but it helps a person with problems see that someone has a different perspective”, suggests the sexologist.
It sometimes happens that one partner in a relationship has to fight insecurities in their head and a distorted body image, while the other frequently and openly comments on their appearance with sincere praise. If the partner is not aware of the problems of their loved one, they may unconsciously touch upon this sensitive topic, e.g. the above-mentioned thighs, in intimate situations. “It's good to ask if we notice any tension related to body issues. We could say: “I see that whenever I comment on your thighs, you act weird. Is it OK for you if I talk about them?" If your partner asks you to stop commenting on this part of the body, you should respect that, but not forget about the topic forever”, says Pozdał. As he emphasises, you’re dealing with a real person who has their own needs – if talking about your adoration of your partner's body is important for them, you should come up with a common solution.
The type of such a solution depends on our own creativity. Some people turn off the light while having sex, cover themselves, stay in their clothes or use blindfolds. However, the sexologist stresses that these solutions are good for people who are facing a temporary crisis, for example due to sudden changes in their appearance after illness or birth. One should be careful not to allow such solutions to become a permanent part of the relationship, as it may lead to break up. “I've dealt with couples where the man couldn’t enter the bathroom when the woman was naked unless she was in the bathtub under a thick layer of foam. There was also another couple who had been together for 10 years, but the man had never seen his partner completely naked. The other party would often like to see, touch and caress their partner’s body and it’s important for them”, he adds. He also points out that the introduced solutions must not enhance the already existing insecurities. “When it comes to people who have body issues, their need for control is very often increased, which is accompanied by great anxiety. Tricks such as blindfolds may trigger anxiety and make it impossible for the person struggling with insecurities to fully relax.”
In the meantime, it may turn out that switching on the light in the bedroom in spite of our own insecurities may prove salutary for the body image in the context of our relationship. In the film I Feel Pretty, the woman struggling with insecurity, played by Amy Schumer, wakes from a fall believing she is the most beautiful and capable person on the planet despite her extra pounds. Contrary to expectations of how women like her may behave, she goes naked to seduce her shocked partner and insists on turning on the bedroom lights while having sex. According to Michał Pozdał, this scene perfectly shows that even though physical appearance is important to many people, our own conviction about our attractiveness is more important. “It always works – other people will also believe in this attractiveness and will actually see it. People who break the conventional beauty standards set by media, who are convinced that they look great no matter what, and who are in contact with their sexual energy are attractive”, says the sexologist. And he adds, “If we believe there is something wrong with our body, we non-verbally communicate this message to other people. We learn to hide it and embarrass ourselves. And, unfortunately, these are mostly women who intimidate themselves. Once I saw a theatre piece. Suddenly a beautiful actress entered the stage wearing a very short skirt. You could hear men sighing in the audience. Meanwhile, during the interval, I heard a woman talking to her husband: “She shouldn't be wearing such skirts with thighs like that".”
If there are favourable conditions, such intimidating comments about our appearance are ingrained, often since childhood, and translated later into our relationships with our bodies. The sexologist said that although we blame the media and show business for body shaming, when women come to his office, they do not complain about the images of women in commercials or Kim Kardashian, but about specific people from their immediate surroundings who have not shown appropriate sensitivity. “They talk about their parents and messages communicated within the family. For example, a mother who used to apply blush to my patient's cheeks when she was seven years old would say: “You are pale as a sheeted corpse". Another woman was constantly criticised by her parents for her looks, how much she ate and how she behaved, so, when as an adult woman, she would go home for Christmas, she felt her pounds increasing with every kilometre”, says Pozdał. According to the sexologist, a very important part of sexual education concerning body acceptance starts from an early age at home. “When we watch TV with children and somebody says: “This actress is an old hag, she shouldn't be on TV any more", that's sex education in terms of body image. The children who hear such comments about the body and physical appearance, instantly absorb them, especially adolescent girls”, he adds. However, as Michał Pozdał emphasises, the above does not concern only girls: “Boys also learn what an ideal woman should look like, based on what their mothers say about their own appearance and the appearance of other women. Speaking of physical appearance in the presence of our children has great influence on their attitude towards the body in the future.”
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