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The Art of the Backhanded Compliment

by Jenny Copeland, PsyD

Mainstream media sources are up to their subterfuge again. Whether it is non-retouched ‘selfies’ or summer anthems, they seem to be missing the target. It brings to the forefront the question of why attempts to promote body positivity and make each other feel better may be doing more harm than good.

In July 2014 Robyn Lawley, a “plus-size”model posted an unretouched photograph of herself via social media and the world erupted. Some called it “cray cray” she is considered a part of that category. In a CNN commentary piece LZ Granderson proclaimed that “Lawley, for all her bravery, should not be considered among them.” The general public was far more relentless in their reactions: “You are not plus sized. You are a regular sized individual. No more, no less. It is an insult to people with real weight issues that you title yourself with this. #getreal;” or, “If u are plus size I’m a whale…this world is sick.”

The summer anthem from Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass,” was written to create an opportunity for those in larger bodies to embrace themselves. The lyrics include the notable gems:

I’m bringing booty back
Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that
No I’m just playing I know you think you’re fat
But I’m here to tell ya
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.

Trainor’s (however well-intentioned) lyrics actually work against the body positive purpose at its core, as does the commentary on Lawley’s selfie. Lawley herself has spoken about her discomfort with the plus-size label in the past due to a fear that others will compare their bodies to hers and feel uncomfortable. Hannah Ongley responded the best: “sing it, girl. But telling people to stop using the term “plus-sized” is like telling a kid at a slumber party not to stand in front of the mirror and say “Candy Man” three times. They will literally be unable to help themselves.”

Chloe at Feministing offered the following rebuttal:

…it’s like it’s scientifically impossible to write a song about how great it is to have curves that doesn’t insult people who don’t. Being thin doesn’t make you a bitch, being thin doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Being thin doesn’t make you “slutty.” Being thin means you’re just that: thin, and adhering a little more closely to the impossible-to-fully-meet expectations of what our bodies should look like…If every inch of you is perfect, curvy women with boom boom and junk, then every inch of the skinny girls is too. They just have fewer inches.

The common thread through Lawley and Trainor’s work, and the reactions to them, is the degradation of one group to build up another. It seems to be an ongoing mandate enacted by society. And it is invalidating to body acceptance journeys at their core. The end result is akin to the body checking behaviors often observed among those with eating disorders. It is one of the more enduring (and harmful) thinking patterns. Surely this was not the objective for these efforts?

If we are searching for the answer to the question of body positivity, the problem was not the picture that was posted or the song that was blasted. Rather, the issue is in the reactions themselves. Perhaps a more important question is: whose mess is it? Whom do we hold responsible: the person making the effort (with good intentions, but lacking in execution) or ourselves for how we react to it?

The principles of non-judgment and acceptance are vital to understanding how to be productive in these situations. In yoga, for example, one must focus on their own practice – no one else’s. Others may be doing differently than me in their practice today, but that will only have a substantive impact on my personal practice if I allow it. So yes, these problematic efforts are strongly influenced by society’s emphasis on the thin ideal. But we cannot do anything in the immediate future to radically change the way society as a whole perceives bodies. We have far more power over how we are reacting and changing our thinking around it. In other (Tara Brach’s) words, “it doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to the experience.”

How we feel about our bodies cannot be altered by looking at another’s reflection or by judging their journey to acceptance. Such actions only serve to perpetuate the problem and ignore the deeply personal journey each person must undertake. Be aware, however, that comparison making and body checking behaviors are unlikely to bring peace. Instead, cultivate an attitude of curiosity and examine your journey in the context of your own circumstances:

What are you truly responding to? The picture and song? Or the discomfort you feel in your own body? It is often the case that our strong reactions are only scratching the surface of our perceptions. Consider, what else is lurking there?

What are you responsible for? You cannot immediately change the fact that these efforts happen – you can only change how you react to them. You have a choice: to focus on something you are powerless to change (thereby becoming defined by your helplessness in that context) OR shift your focus to what you are thinking, feeling, and doing to achieve transformation.

What will both honor your journey and challenge you to continue growing? It could be that it is examining your experience through advocacy efforts to change the conversation. It could also be that it is time to take another look at your comfort level in your own skin even if you believe you are comfortable in it. Only you know the answer – if you are willing to ask the difficult question.


I can be changed by what happens to me.
But I refuse to be reduced by it.

~Maya Angelou~

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