Picture this scene from the movie Mean Girls: the four "Plastics" gather together in Regina's room, staring at themselves in a mirror. “My hips are huge,” Karen squeals. “Oh please. I hate my calves,” says Gretchen. “At least you guys can wear halters. I've got man shoulders,” Regina chimes in. Then of course, there's the lead, Cady, who hilariously brings up her morning breath.
It's funny because we’ve all been there at some point—listening to one of our friends pick apart every aspect of her anatomy, criticizing even the most seemingly absurd flaw. In fact, according to one 2011 survey, 93 percent of college-aged women engage in negative discussions about their own bodies and others'. While it may seem harmless at times, research has linked this type of "fat talk" with body dissatisfaction—not only for individuals who engage in it, but also for those who hear friend's critiques. However, research has also shown that when friends intervene, they can help prevent negative self-image.
So what should you say or do when a friend starts complaining about her man shoulders? We spoke with experts to learn how to effectively respond to a friend who’s always way to hard on her body.
Don’t reject her complaints
When you hear a friend criticizing herself, your immediate reflex is probably to tell her she's totally delusional. While this may seem like the right thing to do, silencing her concerns could actually do more harm than good, says Emily T. Troscianko, PhD, Humanities Division Research Associate at University of Oxford, and author of the "A Hunger Artist" blog. “It could easily seem like you're judging or belittling her, by essentially accusing her of making up a problem where there isn't one.” As a result, she’ll probably stop expressing her concerns (at least around you) and internalize them instead—which could be even more problematic for her mental health.
Don’t bring yourself down to build her up, either
If your first instinct is to dismiss her complaints, your second is probably to counter with some of your own insecurities. To a certain degree, this odd form of empathy can be helpful, because it shows you understand at least a little of how she feels, says Dr. Troscianko. But you should still try to steer the conversation toward the positive no matter what.
For example, you could talk about your own body image struggles, but instead of focusing on how much you hate this or that about yourself, try talking about how you fight back against that negative urge. You could even ask, "What would you tell me if I said that about myself?" to help her view those criticisms from an observers' perspective, Dr. Troscianko says. And “if you feel generally good about your body, tell her so, and perhaps have a talk about some of the ways you protect your own self-confidence."
Do discuss her concerns
A more effective approach than contributing to the negativity is to discuss where her body hatred comes from. “You might ask her, for instance, whether she compares her body to those she sees on TV or in magazines, and if so, whether she thinks such comparisons are helpful or based in fact,” advises Dr. Troscianko. While it can be challenging, Dr. Troscianko emphasizes how important it is to remind your friend (and yourself, for that matter) that the perfect, airbrushed images you see in the media aren’t reality.
Do not fear the reality check
Once you nail down where your friend’s concerns come from, it’s time for a serious reality check. "We live in a culture that favors certain body sizes and shapes, however that [image] changes over time,” adds Judy Scheel, PhD, and eating disorder therapist. “In a funny way, the body part a person is complaining about now may be what’s desired in ten years.” For example, today the media is popularizing big butts, but in a year totally flat butts may be trendy.
Another reality is, genetically, certain popularized figures may not be attainable for all bodies, explains Dr. Scheel. Bring this concept to your friend’s attention, and ask her "Do you think it makes you feel better or worse about yourself to say these things?" Help her put her concerns into perspective and question if she really wants to let her self-image be defined by fickle fads and other people.
Don’t over-compliment her looks
While compliments are great, insincere ones are generally pretty easy to see through, says Dr. Troskiano. So don’t overdo it by telling her she’s the most gorgeous woman on the planet—even if you believe that’s true, she’ll likely brush off the comment immediately. And avoid going overboard with the frequency of praises as well: “If compliments about physical appearance, even genuine ones, come too often,” explains Dr. Troskiano. “They'll reinforce her belief that her appearance matters hugely.”
Do gush over her talents
Trying to help your friend refocus attention on things she does love about her body is a worthy goal, Dr. Troscianko says. But even better is helping her see how great she is outside of how she looks. For example—compliment her athletic ability, her incredible cooking skills, or how valuable she is as your friend! Any of these affirmations will not only make her feel good, but also remind her that physical appearance doesn’t define who she is as a person.
Do help her re-discover what her body can do
Think about how amazing you feel after you work out: There's nothing like crushing 3 sets of squats to make you forget what others think of your jiggly thighs. If you think she could use a dose of empowerment, help her re-connect with how awesome her body is for what it can do. One way to do that: offer to join a sports team or mind-body fitness class with her. Stick with an option like yoga or Pilates that “requires developing a more sensitive awareness,” advises Dr. Troscianko. This could help your friend realize there’s more to her body than just the way it looks.
Finally, if you're worried your friend's comments may indicate a bigger issue, such as body dysmorphia or an eating disorder, you can find more resources at the National Eating Disorder Association.