How To Respond To A Loved One Talking Negatively About Their Body

On a daily basis, we have thousands of thoughts that are positive, neutral, negative, or anywhere along the vast spectrum of opinions and perceptions we experience about pretty much everything. We hear other people express their thoughts and opinions, too, and when it comes to our loved ones we are likely more attuned to what they say because we care about our friends, family members, and those closest to us. When it comes to our own inner dialogues about appearance, you've probably heard the advice, "Don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to your best friend." But when a loved one expresses negative thoughts about their body, knowing how to respond can feel like an emotionally charged quandary.


It's no secret that the fashion, beauty, and modeling industries have had a huge impact on how people compare their bodies to ideals marketed by global companies, and through social media, the average person's exposure to filtered and altered images is far more profound than it has been in the past. The toll these images and advertisements for products promising to alter one's appearance can impact the emotional and mental health of consumers (via Mental Health Foundation). The result is ultimately decreased self-esteem and lower levels of confidence as body shaming and negative body talk increase. Hearing someone you care about engage in negative talk about their body can be frustrating, upsetting, and disheartening given the beauty you see in your loved one. Here's how to respond when this happens.


Acknowledge their feelings

The first thing you should do when a loved one says something negative about their body is to acknowledge their feelings. While you may not agree with the negative things they've said about their appearance, the best way to open a dialogue about their negative body talk is to recognize their feelings and let them know you're here to support them. According to Healthline, negative body image may be fueled by underlying feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, or mental health conditions. Saying to your loved one, "I hear that you're feeling insecure about your body. Can you tell me more about the emotions you're experiencing right now?" It could be that negative body talk is a way to take energy off of something else they're dealing with at the moment, or they may be exhibiting anxiety over another aspect of their life by taking out their frustration on their body.


Other times, poor body image is the result of conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder, which may require assessment from a mental health professional. By acknowledging your loved one's experience, you can open a conversation about other outlets that may be beneficial in shifting their body talk from negative to positive. You can supportively let them know about more thorough treatment avenues, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which change self-critical language and harmful narratives through working with a qualified practitioner. Let your loved one know that you want what's best for them.

Redirect mutual bonding over negative body talk

There are several ways negative body talk can sneak its way into conversations. Therefore, it's important to examine the larger context in which a loved one's negative body talk is occurring. It might be occasional gloomy remarks about their body, an ongoing habit of defeatist body talk, or it could be that your relationship with them is partially founded on mutually pessimistic body talk and a dynamic that includes both of you speaking poorly about your bodies as a way to bond. A 2015 study published in Body Image found that engaging in what researchers termed "fat talk" with other people can lead to undesirable outcomes, such as greater dissatisfaction with one's body, lower self-esteem, increased pressure to alter one's body to reach an ideal, and distortions in cognitive perceptions around one's body for both people.


If you find that you and a loved one are routinely using negative body talk to fill the time spent together, then discussing this awareness with your loved one and setting boundaries can be a positive way to deconstruct bonding over fat talk. You might try to suggest new conversation topics or activities that the two of you can use to replace the time previously spent bonding over negative sentiments about your bodies. Consider using a code word to hold each other accountable when someone begins to veer into fat talk territory and redirect the conversation. Be certain to prioritize your wellness in the relationship.

Use affirmations to hype up your loved one

Whenever you hear someone you care about say something negative about themselves, your first thought is likely to boost them up and insist that they are one of the most amazing people on the planet because that's exactly what you think of them. You probably want to make pom poms magically appear so that you can literally be their cheerleader, but there are ways that you can encourage your loved ones that don't require the apparition of pom poms. Affirmations, which are positively-framed statements repeated to oneself, can be powerful in changing thought patterns and increasing self-esteem, per Healthline. Affirmations work in tandem with the brain's neuroplasticity and shift the way a person perceives and responds to various situations. It's important to note that you can't change your loved one's neurological perceptions, but you can encourage them by gently presenting positive phrases that hype them up.


Affirmations are as unique as the person for whom they're intended, but you can start with something simple like, "You're a great friend and your body is perfect the way it is right now." You can also promote the benefits of shifting from a negative to a positive body image, like improved confidence that can benefit professional endeavors, relationships, and peace within oneself (via 80TwentyNutrition). To cheer on your loved one with affirmations, consider writing positive statements on notecards to gift your loved one or send them regular texts reminding them of their really awesome attributes.

Create gratitude rituals

Similar to encouraging your loved one to utilize affirmations to create positive thought patterns around their body acceptance, you can suggest a gratitude ritual or even implement one in your relationship. For instance, you can ask your loved one if they would like to begin a routine of each sharing something you admire about your own bodies and accomplishments. Having a mutual practice of gratitude that is undertaken together can make approaching new thought patterns easier and lead to a positive foundation in your relationship. Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine reports that engaging in practices of gratitude within friendships can lead to greater cooperation, deeper connections, and leads to an increased sense of value for both the other person and oneself. Therefore, creating a gratitude ritual within your relationship with your loved one can not only encourage them to build positive associations with their body, but the gratitude ritual will have benefits for you, too. That's a win-win.


Once you've established a gratitude habit, adding on elements of mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing can fuel positive patterns, per Choosing Therapy. In other words, when your loved one begins to speak negatively about themselves, encourage them to change their language by telling a positive story about their life since speaking negatively about themselves can negatively impact mood while speaking positively can have the opposite effect.

Have alternatives ready

When you hear a loved one say something negative about their body, you likely automatically respond by asking them to stop speaking poorly about themselves. But if all you do is tell your loved one to stop their negative body talk, then the result may be awkward silence or a shift to speaking negatively about another topic. Instead, have alternative conversation topics or activity suggestions ready to redirect the focus of your interaction. Montana State University recommends asking your loved one about things in their life not related to their appearance to initiate conversations that can positively reflect back to your loved one their recent accomplishments at work, positive contributions to their community, or anything else that they're doing really well at the moment. This is a good time to compliment your loved one and let them know what you believe makes them amazing.


Another form of redirection is to find activities that can take your loved one's mind off of their body (via Choosing Therapy). Healthy activities include going for walks to get fresh air and the boost of energy that comes from physical activity. Household chores like sweeping or dusting shelves are ways to move around and redirect attention, with the added benefit of creating mood-boosting organization. On the other hand, playing a card game or doing a craft are positive alternatives, and if you're lacking materials then play a game like "I Spy," which requires nothing more than the environment around you.

Lead by example through prioritizing your wellbeing

One of the best ways to approach a loved one's negative body talk is to understand that you can't change another person, but you can lead by example by improving your own relationship with your body. Consider this experience an opportunity for you to examine your own relationship with your body, from the beliefs you hold and why you hold them to ways you may be able to improve your own inner dialogue (via NEDA). Ensure that you're practicing healthy forms of physical activity and creating balanced meals that aren't focused on dieting. Taking phrases associated with diet culture out of your inner and outer narratives are effective ways to shift your own thought patterns and show your loved ones examples of how to shift body talk from critical to confident and optimistic.


Practicing self-love in a situation with constant negative body talk might mean distancing yourself from the relationship either temporarily or permanently, especially if your loved one's pessimistic dialogue becomes toxic and begins to negatively affect your own well-being. It's possible for secondhand body shaming to rub off on you if you're exposed to it over time, and you may find yourself doubting your own self-image. Instead of ghosting your loved one, explain to them why you feel like your dynamic isn't mutually supportive and voice what you need to be your best self in a relationship (per OurEveryDayLife). Prioritizing your own well-being is a healthy way to lead by example.