7 Phrases You May Be Using That Put Other People’s Bodies Down

Weight bias and the thin ideal are so ingrained in our culture that these fat-shaming comments are totally commonplace.

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fat-phobic phrases effect all body types
Even self-directed comments like “I feel so fat” can perpetuate body-shaming culture.iStock (2); Adobe Stock; María Soledad Kubat/Stocksy

Fat talk is a huge problem in our culture.

An?article published in September 2017 in the journal Body Image (PDF) defines it as talk that degrades the body shape and weight of oneself and others.

Listen closely and you’ll hear it everywhere, all the time in conversation, entertainment, advertising, and other media. Sometimes it’s easier to identify: “I hate how big my thighs are,” or, “I need to lose some weight.”

Other times offhand comments, criticism, euphemisms, and jokes can be hurtful and shame bodies in less obvious ways.

“Body-shaming talk is so normalized in our culture,” says?Shrein Bahrami, a licensed marriage and family therapist and eating disorder specialist based in San Francisco, and the owner of Evolve Wellness Group. It’s so much entrenched in everyday conversation, you may even find it difficult to not engage in it, she adds. (Think: the scene in Mean Girls where Regina, Karen, and Gretchen take turns lamenting their own perceived flaws, then give Cady a dirty look when she can’t think of anything to critique about her own appearance.)

We asked body image experts and advocates to share stigmatizing, fat-shaming phrases that they hear all too often, explain why they’re harmful, and offer suggestions for what to say (or not say) instead.

1. ‘I Feel So Fat’

Although you might not think that complaining about your own body harms others, experts disagree. “When people say, ‘Ugh, I feel so fat today,’ it reinforces the idea to fat individuals that the body that they live in is fundamentally wrong,” says Caroline Burkholder, RD, who specializes in eating disorders and is the owner of RootED Nutrition and Counseling in Knoxville, Tennessee. Fatness isn’t inherently bad, but phrases like this imply that it is.

Plus, it’s not a very accurate way to describe how you’re feeling. “Fat is not an actual feeling or emotion,” Bahrami says.

What to Say Instead Instead of berating your own body (and demonizing fat bodies while you do it), she suggests identifying what feelings are present in the moment — maybe you’re feeling uncomfortable, insecure, anxious, bloated, or something else — and working to address those instead.

2. ‘You're Not Fat, You're Beautiful!’

“This phrase implies that fatness is in opposition to beauty,” Bahrami says. It’s stigmatizing to larger bodies, and can negatively affect one’s body image (regardless of what size or shape body they live in) by reinforcing that there are certain types of bodies that are beautiful and certain ones that are not.

It’s possible to be fat and beautiful. In fact, the two things are very different. The amount of fat on a person’s body is objective and measurable — although it’s not something you need to measure — whereas beauty is subjective, and each person’s perception of beauty is different.

There’s no denying that many people are uncomfortable with fatness and being fat, thanks to the fact that we live in a culture that glorifies thinness, Bahrami says. But saying, “you're not fat, you're beautiful” just reinforces the false idea that fatness is something to avoid at all costs.

What to Say Instead “Instead, you could simply say, ‘I think you’re beautiful,’” she says.

3. ‘You Look Amazing! Have You Lost Weight?’

“Commenting that someone ‘looks amazing’ after what you may perceive as them losing weight is very damaging, but unfortunately so normalized in our culture,” Bahrami says. “Unbeknownst to you, this person may be struggling with an eating disorder, illness, or severe stress that has limited their appetite.”

Even if they lost weight intentionally, associating that with ‘looking amazing’ can be harmful. “A comment like this promotes the stigmatizing and inaccurate belief that being thin is superior to having a larger body,” Bahrami says.

What to Say Instead According Bahrami and Burkholder, it’s best not to comment on someone’s weight or body size at all.

4. ‘I'm Going to Be Bad and Have a Cupcake’ (or Any Type of Food You Consider ‘Bad’)

Although this statement isn’t directly about bodies or body size, categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” is problematic. “This is rooted in fatphobia, because foods deemed ‘bad’ by diet culture are often associated with fatness,” says Sarah Glinski, RD, who is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

“This phrase is problematic because it moralizes food — in other words, it makes it seem like you’re a ‘good’ person for eating ‘healthy’ foods, and a ‘bad’ person for eating ‘unhealthy’ foods,” Glinski says. And, by extension, it implies that it’s good” to be thin and “bad” to be fat.

What to Say Instead Glinski recommends challenging your own beliefs about “good” and “bad” foods. And in the meantime, try to avoid speaking these beliefs out loud. Rather than berate yourself for choosing to eat a certain food, stand firm in your decision and enjoy it.

5. ‘I Don’t Think This Outfit Is Very Flattering’

Whether you’re talking about yourself or another person, body image advocates warn that the term “flattering” can be loaded.

The word “flattering” is nearly always used to suggest that the way we look fits the societal body ideal, however problematic, unattainable, and ever-changing that image is, says Samantha DeCaro, PsyD an eating disorder psychologist and the director of clinical outreach and education at The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Conversely, the word ‘unflattering’ perpetuates the falsehood that certain bodies are not attractive or acceptable in their natural state,” she says. Both words also minimize the importance of comfort, culture, accessibility, and personal expression when it comes to clothing.

What to Say Instead Of course, there are other reasons why someone may or may not consider an outfit flattering, like the color, the pattern, or how the clothing is cut regardless of how it fits. But it’s better to use more descriptive language, like, “I don’t like how this color looks with my hair,” or, “the way that this fits is uncomfortable,” instead of defaulting to flattering or unflattering.

6. ‘I’m So Out of Shape’

“As a physical therapist and barre instructor, I often hear patients and clients state their goals for their rehab or fitness journey as wanting to ‘get back into shape,’ or blaming their pain or an injury on ‘getting out of shape,’” says Caitlin Greenstein, DPT, the owner of Beyond Physical Therapy in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This is problematic because it equates fitness with being a certain shape or size, Greenstein says, which isn’t the case. “What does ‘in shape’ even mean? This statement has more to do with beauty ideals than it has to do with strength, mobility, or function,” she says.

What to Say Instead If you’re using this expression to describe your fitness level, it’s better to just say, “I’m not as fit as I used to be right now.” Or, be more specific and say, “running feels harder than it used to,” or “I can’t lift as much weight as I could this time last year. “At the end of the day, muscles get bigger and smaller, stronger and weaker, and focusing on an ideal “shape” will never correlate with creating a strong, capable, and resilient body,” Greenstein says.

7. ‘Once Things Settle Down, the Weight Will Come Off’

This one may not sound familiar to everyone, but?Alexis Conason, PsyD, a psychologist and eating disorders specialist based in New York City and the author of The Diet Free Revolution, says it’s relatively common in her field.

“I often hear [of] therapists telling clients that once they heal from their trauma, their body will naturally release the excess weight,” she says. “This implies that fat bodies are the result of trauma or other psychopathology, and that once the trauma is healed bodies will shift to a thinner state representative of psychological health.”

In a similar vein, there’s a myth in our culture — perpetuated by TV and film storylines, wellness influencers, celebrity weight loss stories, and more — that prioritizing self-growth also leads to weight loss or a somehow improved appearance. “This is obviously completely untrue,” Dr. Conason says.

“Fat bodies naturally exist whether or not they’ve experienced trauma and whether or not they’ve been in therapy and ‘healed,’” she explains. Being thin isn’t a sign of good mental health, just as being fat isn’t a sign of poor mental health.

What to Say Instead Weight loss isn’t a mental health goal; it’s best to just keep weight and body size out of these conversations entirely. “It’s unethical for therapists to promise weight loss to their clients, or to turn body size into a therapy goal,” Conason says.

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