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Is It Possible To Help Friends Through Their Body Image Issues?

We all have body image demons, but some of us host demons that are louder than others. Some are lucky enough that their demons only appear on universally hellish occasions — like when standing in front of a 360-degree mirror, trying on swimwear. But my friends demons accompany her to everything she does, all day, every day.

My friend tells me she feels guilty and "fat" every time she orders dessert at a restaurant. She refuses to go into clothing shops because she dreads the crushing feeling of her "failure" to lose weight. When she does deign to go shopping, she leaves feeling upset and even worse than she did before. She asks me if she "looks fat," like her parents apparently tell her she does.

Of course, my self-esteem often wavers, too, but my friend's behaviors clearly exceed a normal amount of self-consciousness. These thoughts and feelings are ruining her life and are therefore a problem, but she doesn't see them that way. She's used to this experience: These feelings are a daily fact of life for her.

As not only her friend, but as someone who strives to be an aware, confident, feminist woman, I've felt a duty to help her. I have suggested she accept herself for who she is right now. I have told her that her weight and size are not nearly as important as is her health. I have offered to put her in contact with a great counseling organization and tell her that these thoughts shouldn't ruin her life or control every second of it. I have offered to go swimming together, but know that while I suggest this to focus on health, she only agrees because she thinks doing so would help her lose weight. In fact, she told me she’d feel better after losing a couple of pounds, then quietly admitted she knows it won’t make her feel any better in the long run. She feels that she will never be thin enough.

I hope that I have given her a little hope, but feel frustrated that the only things I can think to offer — my words of encouragement and support — seem ultimately powerless to overwhelm the thoughts in her head or to thwart the damaging messages all women are bombarded with daily.

So, one day, I steered her into a bookshop full of other people's words. I showed her Laura Bates’ fantastic book Girl Up, which contains sections on body image and other useful topics. She laughed at the dancing vagina illustrations and said she would probably find it on Amazon. I wasn't convinced, so bought myself another book in order to conveniently snag her that one at half price. I handed it to her, feeling powerless but hopeful that it would help.

I really hope she reads it, that it’ll get through to her where my words couldn’t. I hope I wasn't being pushy. I realize that one can offer to help someone else but, in the end, the hard work has to come from within them. I have racked my brains for ways to make her feel better, but her self-image is a product of forces that are much more powerful than I am, from the media, to her mother, to other experiences. It’s hard to help empower someone to accept their body, to experience something so deeply, uniquely personal.

I have concluded that this dynamic will always be a part of our friendship but have resolved to persist anyway: to always offer her an alternative perspective, to encourage her to eat what she wants, to accompany me to the gym in order to feel healthy, and to curse like a sailor at anyone who dare say anything hurtful and immature about her body. I have accepted that I can’t fight her body image demons for her, but as someone who is also struggling in her own way, have resolved to focus on something even bigger. I promise to fight the harmful body shaming culture in which all of us are still so immersed in these days.

Who knows? Maybe one day my friend will come protest with me.



More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Feminism
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender bias, Discrimination
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Gina S
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