As the saying goes, perception is reality. And when it comes to battling body demons, new research published online in Sex Roles suggests that women’s perception of their friends’ body image concerns influences how they feel about their own bodies.
Researchers asked 75 pairs of college-aged female friends how often they talked to each other about four weight-related topics: nutrition, weight loss, appearance, and exercise. They also assessed the women’s body image and the pressure they felt to be thin. Conversations on these topics were related to feeling dissatisfied with their bodies—but, surprisingly, less so when they talked about exercise.
Bad news for the less confident: It turns out that the women who were hung up on their bodies assumed that their friends were, too, and their body image concerns mirrored what they perceived their friend’s concerns to be. The more they thought that their friend was dissatisfied, the more dissatisfied they became, says Louise Wasylkiw, Ph.D., study author and psychology professor at Mount Allison University in Canada. “For example, I think my friend feels bad, therefore, appearance is really important and I should feel bad, too,” Wasylkiw says.
Wasylkiw says the finding that perceptions matter wasn’t entirely surprising, but she was excited to discover that talking about exercise had a positive effect. “Our initial thought was that talking about exercise orients women to thinking about what their bodies can do rather than focusing on what their bodies look like,” she says. “If friends shared their physical activities with their friends, it may very well have a positive impact on both the friendship as well as on each woman.”
So the next time your friend tells you that she went to the gym, ask her how her workout went—you might be doing both of you a favor.
In the meantime, here are 6 other ways to combat negative body image.
1. Acknowledge (and Stop) Fat Talk
“Women are notorious for passing the baton when it comes to body image,” says Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., body image expert and author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls. Silverman calls it fat talk.
“If a woman says ‘I’m so fat,’ the other woman might feel like she has to say ‘no, I’m the fat one. Have you seen my thighs?’” Silverman says. “Then there’s this back and forth over whose body is worse to elevate the other person.” The problem: Even women who don’t feel negatively about their bodies will engage in this behavior and eventually, it can make them feel worse.
If you and your friends are prone to fat-talking, Silverman suggests that you jokingly say something like, “Isn’t it amazing that when women get together, ‘fat’ comes out of our mouths?’ We are successful, smart, amazing women and this is what we have to talk about?” Then change the subject. You could even establish that your friendship is a fat talk-free zone.
If a friend can’t stop, discuss it with her. “The discussion you should have is ‘I really love having you as a friend. Every time we’re together I feel like this is a conversation that we wind up having and I think it makes us both feel bad. What do you think about that?’”
2. Put Action Before Appearance
Shift your focus from what your body looks like to what it can do, Silverman says. “Instead of saying ‘I hate my thighs,’ ask yourself: What do your thighs allow you to do?” she says. “Maybe it becomes ‘my legs allow me to take Zumba class, which makes me feel awesome.’
“When you can talk positively about yourself in terms of what your body can do, you start to view your body in a very different way,” she says.
3. Identify Body Parts You Love
Make sure you’re also focusing on the things that you love about yourself, Silverman suggests. “Some people look at themselves in the mirror and say horrible things. If they’re saying it out loud, then they’re hearing that—they’re underscoring the problem.” Pick a body part that you love—your breasts, your shoulders, your butt—and talk out loud about it. “In the same way, if you’re saying ‘My butt looks great in these jeans,’ then you’re hearing that, too.”
4. Bust Out the Post-Its
Changing how you talk to yourself is a habit that you have to both break and create, so expect it to take a month before positive self-talk feels like second nature. “If you’re struggling with it and you think ‘I feel like I’m lying to myself,’ ask your friends for help.” The next time a friend or family member pays you a compliment, ask them to write it down, then tape it to your mirror. (Or, if you’re too embarrassed to ask, just do it yourself in secret later). “Then you’re getting the statements of positive people in your life who make you feel really good to combat the negative things that you think about yourself,” she says.
5. Name Your Body Bully
Negative self-talk can feel like it’s your voice, but it often isn’t, Silverman says. She suggests that you try to figure out who or where it came from. For instance, a boy named Joe who made fun of your nose in the 8th grade. “If you have a negative thought, you can say ‘Joe, you’re not welcome here.’ You then take it off yourself and put it on an object,” Silverman says. “It’s not your voice, it’s not the truth, and it makes it so you can heal and move forward.”
6. Hold Yourself to A Higher Standard
Why not be as nice to yourself as you are to the people you love? “Think to yourself, ‘would I say this to my best friend, or my sister, or my mother?’” Silverman says. “If you cannot imagine another human being who you love saying this to themselves or someone else talking to them that way, then how are you talking to yourself in that manner?”
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