4 Ways to Encourage a Friend Who Struggles with Her Appearance

You and your friends are standing in line waiting on your coffee orders. To pass the time, you begin talking about your weekend when one of your friends mentions having nothing to wear… and then takes the next 5 minutes to list all the things about her body that make her unhappy.

You want to be supportive, but you never know what to say in these kinds of situations. How do you help her to see how wonderful she is without sounding dismissive?

According to a DOVE survey, 98% of women say there’s something about their appearance they’d like to change. This means that hearing your girlfriends complain about their physical appearance isn’t something that’ll change any time soon.

So how to you support your friend’s self-image the right way?

Here are 4 things you can try the next time your friend begins to talk down about her appearance:

1. Instead of ignoring her self-deprecating comments, lean in. If she talks about how much she hates her lips, ask her why. There’s a chance she’s never spoken the reason aloud before. Walk with her through the reasons why she dislikes particular features and see if the conversation leads to other issues that are the root of the problem. Is it because a guy she dated once commented on them? Is it because she’s the only one in the family without a full pout? Sometimes just probing with questions can help her work out why she feels the way she does, which is the first step toward either changing the issue she’s uncomfortable with or accepting it as is.

2. Model a positive self-image. There’s no better way to help your friend see her own beauty than for you to first see your own. Resist the temptation to lament the parts of your appearance you don’t like. Resist the urge to match her self-deprecation with your own. Since women have a higher level of agreeableness than men, it is normal for us to give a similar response to our friends’ remarks as a show of sameness and solidarity.

Recently, I made a complaint about my body to a close girlfriend. “Ugh, my thighs have seriously gotten so big! I mean, look at this,” I said, jiggling my right leg with my fingertips. Her reaction totally gripped me: “Girl, I have big thighs too and you know what? It makes it easier to grip on to my husband in the bedroom!” We bot erupted in laughter, but she was right. And seeing the joy she took in her body’s power made me view my legs differently.

3. Hug her. No, really. If she is heading down an especially dark spiral about how she looks, take the time to hug her. Among hundreds of recent studies examining the effects of this kind of touch, one finds that it can actually reduce anxiety in people with low self-esteem. Sander Koole who’s a researcher at VU University in Amsterdam found that it can have a temporary calming effect on those who feel isolated. For your friend’s particular complaints about feeling fatter, smaller, less attractive than everyone else, this can help her to feel connected and less alienated in her thoughts as she mentally separates herself from others in appearance.

4. Help her to practice body neutrality. This is a concept that has become popular over the past few years. It involves accepting that some days you’ll love your body and some days you’ll hate it (as opposed to body positivity, which encourages women to consistently remain in a state of loving their bodies). The movement of body neutrality also inspires women to focus less on their bodies’ appearance and more on its abilities. SO, for example, a new mom would be encouraged to stop obsessing over her body’s new stretch marks and, instead, to delight in the fact that it formed and birthed another human being.

But here is how my friends have affirmed me.

When I am drowning in a wave of self-criticism, I’m met with eye contact and words that remind me that my new shape is normal. Instead of blatant denials (What? Your weight hasn’t changed a bit) or hollow encouragement (“You’re beautiful! Stop!”) they listen to me and meet my reality with an empathetic ear, and the “tough love friends” in my life have responded in the following ways:

“Yeah, and I’ve got that too. I guess it happens after we have kids but I’m working on accepting this as my new shape. I mean, our bodies are f*cking powerful, right? That helps me not to get caught up in in the bullsh*t of fixating on how my stomach changed.”

“If you want, we can go to the gym in the mornings together and work on toning up.”

“Okay, so here’s what I do: I started buying loose blouses and tucking them into my skirts. It still keeps me looking sexy after my stomach kind of got that “new mom” shape. Want me to show you the site where I got my new clothes?”

Every friendship is different, sure. But for me, it helped to have female friends who didn’t deny my reality, who encouraged me to take action instead of letting me wallow, and who helped to shift my perspective when I was held captive to self-loathing. They reminded me of my beauty and potential.

We live in a distorted reality, and our Creator thinks we are masterpieces. We need our girls to hold a figurative (and sometimes literal) mirror to us and remind us of that. We need our friends to remind us when we’ve lost sight of the truth.

We need our friends to remind us when we are set back by a new scar, fluctuations in our weight, a belly stretched (or scarred) from pregnancy and delivery, new freckles or aging spots, and acne. We need women who say, Yeah I see the blemishes. But you are so so beautiful, sister. And you are so much more than clumped mascara and numbers on a scale.

Tough love doesn’t run for those uncomfortable moments. It sticks around and waits a while, because she needs us to hear her out… then bring her back to life.

--GIAR Sisterhood Staff

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