Look… I know it’s normal. We’ve all faced the following scenario:
We meet up with someone we know. We are even slightly nervous, unsure what we will talk about or how the other person feels seeing us, but we are also excited to see them and feel glad. To ease into things, we want something to say and we want the other person to feel welcomed, seen, acknowledged. What comes out of our mouth first? Maybe “Hello”. Then, perhaps, “it’s so good to see you,” or, “how are you?” But, after that, it’s often something like, “you look [insert comment about appearance here: well, tired, great, different, healthy…].”
Why. Do. We. Do. That?!?
First, know that at so many levels - I get it. Comments about appearance are easy, they show we are paying attention, and they are normal in our culture. But that’s the issue – they are heavily influenced by our culture, which is currently a culture heavily influenced by marketing, media, celebrity, constructed identities, and dieting ideals that suggest strong, and unrealistic value is attributed to appearance, and [dare I say it?] weight.
These comments, if you think about it, sound evaluative when you hear them. They subtly (or not so subtly) are saying: you LOOK/APPEAR “good” or “bad”. They may not actually be received as the sign of interest, concern, support or care that we intended when saying them.
And this works both ways – the compliments AND the criticisms both cause harm. An appearance-based compliment suggests that the person receiving it is successfully upholding the (diet/appearance-driven) cultural values upheld in our society (i.e., “wow, you look great” = “wow, you’ve made yourself look more in line with the projected ideal, that is ‘good’”). By contrast, shying away from such compliments, or even making a lightly (or overtly) negative comment suggests that the person receiving it is failing to meet the cultural standard (i.e., a comment as well meaning and innocent as, “you ok? You look tired…” [often] = “something must be wrong because you don’t look like a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ person [versus natural aging, norms for that person’s body, etc.]).
And so, if that’s the case, and if you’re reading this and realizing that’s just how those kinds of comments feel to you, take a moment to recognize the impact of that! If you meet someone and feel immediately evaluated as a success or failure, as good or bad, how does that make someone feel? Self-conscious? Ashamed? Embarrassed? Uncertain? Pained? Angry? Hurt? Dismissed? Diminished? Any or all of these things? Of course… that’s what evaluation, or judgement, does.
Now, I fully admit that getting away from this dynamic is…. well, hard. It’s soooo automatic. And it’s not meant to cause harm. I catch myself doing it too. And that’s OK. But if you DO want to work toward changing this habit, there are a few things that can be done.
(1) Set a new intention for how you want people to feel when you greet them – what DO you want them to feel? What is it you’re trying to do with your comment, and is there a non-appearance way to do that. For example, you might want people to feel welcomed, seen, and know that you are curious about them or interested in them, in which case saying something like, “hi, how have you been? I’ve been thinking about you.” or “hi, how are you feeling? Your expression seems sad, are you OK?” might be potential alternatives…
(2) Have a few go-to alternatives for greeting people, based on the intention you create (just like I modeled, above). Need some additional thought-starters?
· From your posts, it looks like you’ve been up to a lot lately, how’s life?
· What’s going on these days?
· What are you excited about these days?
· How have you been feeling?
· What’s been going on?
· I’m excited to see you!
· I’m so thrilled to hear how things have been going!
· It feels so good to be around you again!
Or… simply stop at “hi!” and then get into the conversation, without as much set up.
(3) Know you’ll slip into it still sometimes, because we all do. And instead of shaming and blaming yourself for it, acknowledge it, recognize the influence that diet- /appearance – culture has over all of us, and recommit to being an example of change or peace in the face of that.
Still not convinced that such comments are all that bad? Well, here’s other thing to consider. You never know who is struggling with their body, eating, weight, or shape. Remember, you can’t tell based on someone’s appearance.
And if THAT is the case for someone, if they have an ED, any comment about one’s body or appearance can often be interpreted as a distorted sign of their success/failure, as a sign that they are doing good/bad – to an extreme degree. Compliments trap them in feeling obligated to keep engaging in ED behaviours to maintain a body shape that gets compliments. Negative slights or criticisms cause such immense pain and shame, that they are part of what makes EDs grow, thrive and continue… or worsen.
To highlight this, read this account from a client (with permission and altered to conceal their identity). This reflect highlights the relationship that someone with an ED might have with their body. They may be struggling with in silence, but they are still thinking about and evaluating their bodies all the time. So, appearance-based comments tend to draw attention to the body that they are already struggling with and over-value.
WARNING: POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING CONTENT FOR THOSE WITH AN ED. SKIP/DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT FEEL SAFE. VULGAR LANGUAGE IS ALSO USED.
I wake up. Disappointed. The first thing my mind does is become aware of my body… and I am sad, instantly. I am still faced with the body I had to fall asleep with. It didn’t change. I often dream it did… that it can. But it’s still there. And I still hate it.
I get up… I think about going downstairs, making coffee... but then I think about him being downstairs. I think about how disgusted he should be to see me in pyjamas. To see my arms protruding from my sleeves… looking… well…not the way I’d like.
I put my big, fluffy housecoat on. I cover up. I hide. Now, maybe… perhaps… it’s safe enough to go downstairs… at least for coffee. Waking up like this… I don’t deserve to eat… at least not just yet. Fucking body. Fucking stomach. Fucking legs. Fucking disgusting… I struggle with thoughts about whether or not to add cream to my coffee. I hate it black. But is it safe to have cream?
He is there when I step into the kitchen. Fuck. This is common, but it’s still disappointing. Not him. HE is not disappointing. His presence simply means I can’t just forget my body. ANY person being there means I can’t forget. Any person seeing me makes me so subtly, yet absolutely aware that I am in a body. A disgusting body… I fight back thoughts… fears… terror… that he might make a comment. Or, could this even be worse…? I’m so. very. terrified. that I will look in his eyes and see sock, or distain, or aversion of any sort to my body. What if he comments on my housecoat? Or says I look rested, healthy? Or that I look ‘well’ today> All of these comments tell me – they he is looking at me. He has opinions about how I look. He sees my body…. MY DISGUSTING BODY. I can’t hide… I need to hide.
I walk to the register. She smiles at me – I don’t trust a smile like that. I tremble, slightly. I place the sandwich on the counter. She looks at it. I’m filled with shame. Just ring it through… please. I silently beg. Pray. “I like your shirt.” She says. Fuck. She’s looking at me. And does she even mean that? I wore this shitty shirt because it still feels loose. It’s old, and grubby. She can’t mean it. She’s mocking me. I smile dryly. “Do you want that heated up?” she asks. Still fucking smiling. I picture cheese melting over crusted bread. Gooey. Oozing. Inviting. “No, thank you,” I say. It’s too much to keep standing up there. No way I can wait for the sandwhich to warm. There are people behind me. Seeing me. I want to sit down. If I’m sitting – they might not notice me. For now, I’m still standing there. Waiting. Plus, I shouldn’t even be eating the sandwich so who cares if it’s warm or not. I turn. People look. I feel their eyes. I feel them assessing me. Sit. Sit now.
“Hey! It’s been so long! You look great,” she beams. I flush. I haven’t seen her for weeks now… I know what she really means as she says these words. She means I look “healthier”... fat. She’s gloating. She knew I was cheating before. I wasn’t REALLY that thin. Now she has proof. I’m a fraud. A failure. I really am disgusting. I really was not, and never have been, as good as I seemed. What a fucking fool I am. And now she knows… She’s fucking gloating. I feel ill.
“Hey. Yeah, it’s been a while,” I say back. Trying to crack a sideways smile I struggle to keep my thoughts on the conversation. To keep my thoughts away from noticing her wandering eyes. Seeing how they shift and scan over my flesh. Searching for flaws are we? She shouldn’t have to look very hard…
I take my coat off in the foyer. I leave it on the bench. It’s safer that way. That way, I don’t risk catching a glimpse of myself in the mirrored hall closet. Might that bring some peace? I look down to take my boots off. I notice my thighs. Fucking disgusting. I wince. I kick my boots off. I desperately try to shake the image from my mind. I hurt… in my heart… I’m so. so. so. sad. Why… why must those be my thighs?
Just forget. Try to forget. You are home. Alone. At least for an hour or two – you don’t need to think about being in a body. You don’t need to feel all that. Sit. Read. Smoke. Sleep. Loose yourself. Do whatever it takes to forget….
He’s home. You’re excited. You’ve missed him. You’ve missed someone who knows you. Who you can let go around… even a little. You walk to the door. He smiles. You kiss. “Hey pretty…” he says.
There’s that pain again. I forgot… my body. He thinks I’m pretty! Am I pretty? No, this body. I don’t understand. Forget…. Forget… it was so much easier to forget…. How do I forget now?
I smile, tell him I love him, walk away. I go back to read. I can’t be loved. Bodies are loved. I can’t be seen… held… Bodies are seen, held. I need to forget. It’s already been too much today.
The ache grows. And grows. It’ll swallow me. It’s too much. I can’t. How the fuck to forget. I tingle, then throb. I can’t sit. I should move. Make dinner. DO something. FIX this…
… the voice is back, “Eat. Just eat. Stuff it down. Forget. Give up. It’s too much for you. Eat…”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. No. Forget. I don’t know what to do. He’s here. He sits at my feet. I pull the blanket higher. Talk to me. Love me. Just don’t see me. Please, please. Don’t let him see. Please don’t let him notice how disgusting I am…. No wonder his touches are so rare… who would ever want to touch me….
“You OK?” he asks. It seems genuine… But how to answer. How could I ever explain all this. And if I even could… then he’ll see. He’ll know. If I tell him, he’s start to realize I’m gross. Repulsive… He’ll go. “Fine. Hungry? Want fish for dinner…” I smile. Distract. Appease. He’s excited. He feels loved. I make it. I’m terrified. I shovel it down. Ask about his day. I don’t know what to say when he asks about mine, but I try.
Time to change. I have to go to bed… I should shower. Maybe tomorrow. Too much skin. I can’t face all that… skin. flesh. body…. I can’t face it tonight. I bring my clothes into the bathroom. I change in the corner… away from him. I gather some courage… ‘Maybe it’s not as bad as I think… maybe it’s all in my head” so I look, I stretch myself to see – but the mirror betrays me. Or perhaps, it’s more of a friend than anyone else has been today. It’s showing me the truth. Disgusting. Well, now I know. I have to do more. I have to work harder. I want to cry… I think… but I’m too angry. I hate too much to cry. But what is it… who is it I hate?
I add layer upon layer. Cover up. Shield. Ready for bed. Ready to share a bed. Protected. Protecting him… from this…. from this repulsive, uncooperative, disgusting body.
How do you imagine someone with all of that in their head receives a comment about their body? What good does it do? What harm?
I know their disorder, their way of thinking is not your fault, nor is it your problem – but if your intention in greeting them is to help them feel good, welcome, cared about, you may want to consider if that’s actually what you’re achieving in the way you greet them.
The prevalence of diet culture and good/bad appearance-based cultural norms is not any one person’s fault. But it is easy for all of us to make comments about appearance.
I hope this account, and these perspectives, have helped you think twice about appearance-based greetings and have inspired you to consider a few new, more meaningful ways to greet someone.