When trying to achieve some semblance of body positivity, it's important to begin by looking inward. However, a good part of feeling better about our bodies can also come from learning how to be body positive towards others. Body positivity is for all intents and purposes a solo operation, of course. You cannot rely on anyone but yourself to cultivate self love and feel good about yourself. But it's important to be conscious of how you treat others, and it's vital that you recognize your own privilege along the way. The reality is that if you're white, cis, straight, able-bodied, and middle class, you likely have a huge head start concerning all things in our society, including a healthy body image.
It's way more difficult for marginalized groups — like people of color, trans people, people coming from lower income families, or fat people — to embrace body positivity, thanks to less encouragement from the media as well as less access to things like mental health care. It's important to keep in mind that body positivity is not a privilege that everyone has access to.
By making sure your body positivity is intersectional (just like your feminism), you can start to eliminate the little ways in which we perpetuate oppression and ideas of body negativity toward all humans. Here are some ways you can achieve this in your everyday interactions.
1. Try Not To Use "Skinny" As A Compliment Or "Fat" As An Insult
Body positivity has a lot to do with radically breaking down societal definitions and language. We all know that it's common to hear the word "skinny" being used as a compliment and a goal, while "fat" is used as an insult and something to avoid at all costs. We also know it's crazy distressing to rank certain body types over others, and stigmatize the humans attached to them.
Ideas perpetuating fat-phobia are why we need a radical shift towards body positivity. We can help dismantle this attitude by refusing to accept "skinny" as a compliment, and shutting down people who tragically muse about how fat they're feeling that day. Even more subtle but just as effective is redefining these words for yourself, and never using them for their typical oppressive purposes. There are a million other ways to compliment people that don't include drawing attention to their weight.
2. Don't Bring Attention To Their Eating Habits Or Joke About Eating Disorders
It's impossible to know if the people in your company have struggled with eating disorders, or are triggered by mentions of dieting or food, like "I ate way too much," "I can't believe you finished that whole thing," or, "She looks anorexic." So it's certainly best to avoid comments like these.
Besides being considerate to your friends, using language that doesn't stigmatize food or eating is great for everyone's self esteem. We've all probably felt the pressure to diet or be ashamed of our eating habits at one point or another, thanks to our lovely media messages. But we can try to stop perpetuating those messages.
3. Be Understanding Of The Bodies Of Others On Public Transit
Very commonly, I hear people joking or complaining about the way fat bodied people take up space in public spaces, like movie theaters and airplane seats. However, I've never seen this more aggressively reflected than in the New York City subway system, where people are notoriously and perpetually angry on the best of days.
As a New Yorker, I understand getting frustrated over those who refuse to be courteous by removing bulky bags from their back. And don't get me started on the ever-annoying "manspreading" phenomenon. It's understandable to condemn that sort of disregard for courtesy, sure.
Penalizing people for their bodies, however, not so much. Time and time again, I've seen people roll their eyes or even LOL when people's bodies are not small enough for the often fat-excluding size of the partitioned seats. This is the fault of our fat-phobic society, though, not the fault of the people who are subject to these kinds of daily oppressions. So try to give every person on the subway the personal space they deserve sans judgment.
4. Don't Assume Someone's Gender Based On Their Gender Expression Or General Appearance
In our cisgender-washed society, we are often taught that girls must look feminine, and boys must look masculine. Historically, our society's conversation about gender has left out those who are transgender or fall somewhere in the middle (be they genderqueer or androgynous).
But even in circles where the validity of trans and non binary identities is acknowledged, there is still a lot of misgendering going down. People often assume pronouns based on how others look, combined with what they're wearing and the way their body appears. This, my friends, is wrong. Misgendering can be damaging for so many reasons, one being the self-conscious attitude it can breed about our bodies and way of dressing. You can respect the gender identities of everyone and people's right to present however they choose by asking for pronouns first.
5. Try To Remove Gendered Adjectives From Your Compliments Repertoire
Transphobic language in compliments, like congratulating an AMAB (assigned male at birth) person for successfully executing a red lip or "pulling off" looking feminine, is very disrespectful to trans, queer, and non-binary people. Femininity and masculinity belong to anyone who claims them, and just because you're an AFAB person doesn't mean you own femininity more rightfully or successfully than your AMAB friend (and vice versa).
Of course you can tell your friend their lipstick looks good, but try not to sound surprised about it. That can make anyone feel self conscious about their body. Boost your friend's self esteem without calling their gender into question.
6. Don't Solely Compliment On Physical Aspects
It's important to keep your compliments varied, and use universal adjectives. For example, it's better not to say things like, "Wow, your boobs are so big," "That outfit looks so expensive," or, "Gosh, you look like you've lost weight!"
Of course, our preferences surrounding language vary from individual to individual. But to be safe and to avoid triggering other humans, it's often best to stick to things like, "You look so regal!" or, "I love that top," or, "That lipstick is a beautiful color." Less vocabulary that implies perfection, defined muscles, thinness, class, etc. is often the safest way to go.
7. Don't Question Your Feminine Friends When They Shop In the Men's Department (Or Vice Versa)
I've been made to feel self-conscious about my gender while shopping on multiple occasions, usually as a combination of my friends and sales associates quickly alerting me that I am venturing into the "wrong" department. Please don't do this. Gender norms are a construct, and everyone has the right to dress however they choose without feeling obligated to perform a specific gender. Try to be a body positive ally to your friends and aware of genderqueer and trans identities by not being the gender police on your fun shopping day out (or ever).
8. Try Not To Ask To Touch Someone's Natural Hair
... and definitely don't touch it without permission. I can't count the amount of times I've heard white folks ask their friends of color (and often strangers) if they could touch their hair. This can be incredibly inappropriate, especially when concerning someone you don't know. As Bustle's Justin Robert Thomas Smith wrote on growing up "exotic" and on people's desire to touch and comment on his hair, "Do you realize that you're alienating me right now by treating me like some sort of zoo animal? But most importantly, do I even know you?"
Imposing your fascination with the bodies of others by invading their personal spaces is never the way to go. Try to avoid compliments that can "other" the person, like, "Wow, I love your skin! It's so dark and exotic." Monitoring any racist microagressions that you're prone to is super helpful in being more body positive towards others.
9. Don't Ask To Touch Someone's Tattoos, Either
Invading the personal spaces of others to feed your fascination is ultimately body negative, if not just odd. Asking someone, especially strangers, whether you can touch their ink can feel super violating. Tattoos are one of many personal choices that are regularly considered to be alternative (including other body modifications like piercings, and personal maintenance habits like body hair), but that doesn't mean everyone with a tattoo is asking for constant attention and questions.
While it's certainly acceptable to tell someone you love their ink, try to gauge whether the person you're talking to is someone who values personal space and not being touched before asking to feel their ink. Also, try never to touch that person's tattoo without first asking.
10. Be Respectful Of People With Disabilities
In a post for FWD/Forward, a group blog written by and for disabled feminists, blogger Annaham taps into "abled privilege." She notes that "being stared at or questioned about (with varying degrees of invasiveness) his/her/zie’s disability or condition by strangers" is one of the many examples of able-bodied privilege. Even if you think you mean well, asking a person in a wheelchair or someone with burns or scars to recount what has happened to them (or straight up staring at them) is not only rude, but body negative. Resist your curiosity by avoiding ableist tendencies and asking invasive questions that might make your friends feel self conscious or triggered.
11. Call Out Body Negativity With Your Friends
Most importantly, it's essential that you stay conscious of all the ways you can possibly be body negative towards others. As much as it's your responsibility to be kind and body positive to your friends, it's also important to point out when your friends are being problematic.
If a conversation is rooted in tearing others down or making judgments about people's bodies, simply change the convo. Encourage others to consume less body negative media, and call out the bad sh*t together. Having conversations about body positivity and the intersectionality of it all can help us all be better humans. Not to mention that it can motivate us to fully understand the value of self love for both ourselves and others who do not have the same privileges as we may have.
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