When is it ok to comment on another person’s body?

When is it ok to comment on another person’s body? Spoiler alert: Never!

By Elisha Carcieri, Ph.D.

As a relatively new mom of an 11-month-old, I’m on the tail end of almost two years of a complete metamorphosis. In nine months my body grew to accommodate another human, delivered that human into the world, and has since been slowly returning to its original, albeit changed, form.

Something bizarre happens when you’re pregnant. For some reason, people take this as an opportunity to comment on physical appearance, especially size and weight, perhaps more so than they do with non-pregnant women. Most don’t mean any harm, and most of the time no harm is done. But even so, I ask…why do it? And I beg…please stop! For the most part, commenting on another person’s body size is, at the very least, unproductive and unhelpful, and at worst a triggering assault on the already high-jacked consciousness of an eating disorder sufferer.

Oftentimes pregnant women will receive comments such as, “looks like you’re ready to pop!” or, “any day now, huh?” But what if that’s not the case? Saying this to a woman who has many months of pregnancy ahead of her has the potential to bring up all sorts of emotions and uncertainties. I recall a stranger stopping me on the street to give me her business card for prenatal water aerobics. She asked me how far along I was and promptly added that I was “showing early for being only 6 months along” and could therefore especially benefit from her services.

As a society, we’re generally obsessed with weight loss, wellness, thinness, and, with regard to pregnant women, “bouncing back.” I think there is an assumption that if you’re saying someone is small or thin, then its fine. But my caution against body comments rings true for comments about thinness or smallness just as much as it does for fatness, largeness, bigness, etc. It can be difficult to understand how comments about smallness might affect someone. We all want to be thin, right? But for a woman carrying a baby, being told you’re looking small can be scary and can bring up unwarranted uncertainties and fears. I can recall being told at the end of my pregnancy that I looked small. “What a tiny baby bump,” “you don’t even look like you’re about to have that baby.” (Mind you, this was the same body that elicited the above “big for 6 months” comment.) These comments came after my doctor told me that I was, in fact, measuring small during that particular week of pregnancy. It took some work to cope with and wrangle the anxious thoughts running through my head. I went on to deliver a 9lb baby…further illustrating the fruitlessness of sharing our flawed perceptions of another person’s size or shape.

The truth is that you just don’t know what another human is dealing with at any given moment. You’re also not likely to be telling them anything they don’t know already. So what’s the point?

Experiencing these comments on my body during and after pregnancy has had me thinking about how difficult it would be to tolerate for someone with an eating disorder, and how difficult comments on body shape and size must be for those with eating disorders even in the absence of pregnancy. I do want to clarify here that no eating disorder is caused by comments made by another person or even necessarily by the negative body image that can result from being on the receiving end of body-focused comments. We don’t know what causes eating disorders. Eating disorders are likely the result of a myriad of genetic/biological, social, and psychological factors. However, we do know that for many men and women suffering from an eating disorder, there is often a core overvaluation of weight and shape in the person’s overall self-concept that places them at risk for engaging in efforts to control their weight or shape. This dieting or extreme restricting food intake can result in binge eating and subsequent control behaviors such as vomiting/laxative use/over-exercise/further restriction of food intake, resulting in a vicious cycle.

For a person in the throes of an eating disorder, a positive or approving comment on weight loss can serve as fuel to the already burning fire that is the eating disorder mindset. Also, what is the message we are sending when we comment on another person’s appearance with approval only when there is an observed weight loss? Isn’t the underlying message that that person is not worthy of approval when their weight is higher? Why would you want to send that message to a loved one? Alternatively, for someone in any stage of recovery from an eating disorder, comments on weight gain can be difficult to manage. I’ll also say that even for those of us who are neither suffering from an eating disorder or in recovery, fielding, and processing these comments simply sucks.

So, the next time you feel compelled to comment on another person’s body shape or size, no matter the circumstances, just don’t! Ask them about themselves, share something about yourself, tell them how great it is to see them, or comment on the weather if there is nothing better to talk about. There is little to gain and much to lose from body-focused comments, no pun intended.

LACPA Eating Disorder SIG upcoming events (Fall 2014)

I am excited to announce the next 3 upcoming meetings of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association Eating Disorder Special Interest Group (LACPA ED SIG).  We have amazing speakers lined up.  The LACPA membership year begins in September, so now is the time to join or renew to maximize your benefits.  SIG events are open only to LACPA members, but are FREE.  For information on membership, see the LACPA website. www.lapsych.org.  One does not need to be a psychologist to join LACPA; other professionals may join as well.

Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld
Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld

Date: Thursday, August 28th

Time: 7-8:30

Title: Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight

Presenter: Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D.

Location: The office of Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD (2001 S. Barrington Avenue, Suite 114, Los Angeles)

BIO: Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, licensed to practice in New York and California, who treats patients with eating disorders, anxiety/depression, substance use issues, and relationship difficulties. A certified group psychotherapist, she has worked at Columbia University Medical Center in NYC and at UCLA in Los Angeles and is a member of three eating disorder associations. The author of the highly-praised Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight, inspired by her award-winning blog of the same name, she is often interviewed by media outlets as an expert in the field.

Dr. Rosenfeld is also the founder of the LACPA ED SIG but will be leaving the group in the fall due to relocation.  This will be a unique opportunity to hear her speak and also to acknowledge the contributions she has made to the Los Angeles community during her fruitful three years here.

Maggie Baumann, MFT, CEDS
Maggie Baumann, MFT, CEDS

Date: Tuesday, September 16th

Time: 7-8:30pm

Title: Pregnancy & Eating Disorders: Journey Through the Facts and Recovery

Presenter: Maggie Baumann, MFT, CEDS

Location: The office of Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD (2001 S. Barrington Avenue, Suite 114, Los Angeles)

Bio:  Maggie Baumann is a psychotherapist in Newport Beach who specializes in treating people struggling with eating disorders, including pregnant women and moms with eating disorders. She is a former board member for the Orange County Chapter of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP) and serves as a committee member on the national IAEDP certification board.

Maggie has been a featured guest on nationwide talk shows and TV segment profiling pregorexia and moms with eating disorders. She was a mental health blogger for Momlogic.com, where she shared her own story of suffering from pregorexia over twenty-five years ago. Additionally, Maggie serves as a guest eating disorder expert for KidsinTheHouse.com, a video parenting resource. She is also authoring a chapter on eating disorders and pregnancy for an upcoming book on Eating Disorders in Special Populations (publication date: 2015). Now, Maggie has partnered with Chicago-based residential treatment center, Timberline Knolls, in hosting their Lift the Shame eating disorder support group the first web-based support group for pregnant women and moms with eating disorders. Lift the Shame, is a free group and has members from across the US and abroad.

T-FFED
T-Ffed: Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders

Date:  Thursday, October 23

Time:  7- 8:30 pm

Title: TRANSforming Eating Disorder Recovery: Deconstructing the Overrepresentation of Eating Disorders in Trans and Gender Diverse Individuals, and How Healthcare Professionals Can Better Serve Our Communities

Presenter:  Dagan VanDemark

Location:  The office of Dr. Lauren Muhlheim (4929 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 245, Los Angeles)

Bio:  Dagan VanDemark is the Founder and Executive Director of the pending non-profit T-FFED: Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders, based in LA but quickly gaining national reach. Dagan, a genderqueer trans boi, battled bulimia/EDNOS for fifteen years. They have a B.A. in Gender Studies from CSULB, a certificate in Grant Writing and Administration from CSUDH, and they are enrolled in both the Non-Profit Management certificate program at UCLA and a transgender leadership initiative through Gender Justice LA. They speak on university panels about gender variance and sexual diversity, and write/blog extensively about transgender communities’ experiences with eating disorders.

Please RSVP for any or all of the 3 events to drmuhlheim@gmail.com