How to be part of the solution
Wouldn't it be great if women could cultivate a sense of self grounded in more than the way we look? The million-dollar question is, how? Clinical psychologist Rita Freedman, PhD, and psychotherapist Phyllis Cohen offer smart ways to handle common scenarios.
When your sister says: I hate my thighs—you're so lucky you didn't get Mom's legs. Your automatic response: Don't be silly. Your thighs are fine. A better response: I don't think there's anything wrong with your thighs, but I know how you feel. I used to obsess over my arms, and then I realized I was wasting a lot of energy on something I couldn't do much about. Now I do push-ups a couple of times a week and leave it at that. Do you think maybe pants with a different cut would make you feel better? We could go shopping next week and then see the show at that new gallery downtown.
(This kind of empathetic answer acknowledges your sister's feelings, offers a potential solution, then shifts the conversation to a new topic.)
When your daughter says: Do I look fat in these jeans? Your automatic response: No. But maybe if you combed your hair, you'd look better. A better response: I don't think you look fat, but it sounds like you feel uncomfortable. Is there something about the jeans you don't think is flattering? Show me what you see in the mirror. [Stand with her in front of a mirror, so you're both looking at the same image.]
(You want her to know you're taking her concerns seriously. Don't be afraid to give feedback. If she says, "My stomach is hanging over the top of these jeans"—and it is—you can say, "I see what you mean" and make a suggestion about a style that might work better.)
When your colleague says: That woman [nodding at a passerby] doesn't have the figure to be wearing a wild print. She looks like a piñata. Your automatic response: That's exactly why I own five black suits. A better response: I don't know about the print, but at least she has great posture. We should all walk with such confidence.
(Steer your colleague away from judging other women by showing her that there are things to admire other than an enviable figure.) When your mother says: You'd feel so much better if you lost 20 pounds. Your automatic response: Actually, I think I'd feel better if you stopped commenting on my weight. A better response You may think so, Mom, but it's not helpful for me to hear that from you, so let's not discuss it.
(You should be clear about how her remarks make you feel. And next time, because there will be a next time, reiterate your position—"Mom, remember, we're not going to talk about my weight"—and change the subject.)
When your teenage daughter says: I'm going to get my tongue pierced. Your automatic response: Oh no you're not! A better response I'm really glad you told me. This isn't something I want you to do, but it's your body, and you're the one who will have to live with the decision. Can you explain to me why you want to do this?
(Your daughter is trying to separate from you by taking ownership of her body—and piercing herself, getting a tattoo, or dyeing her hair magenta are fast ways to do that. Prohibiting her from doing these things is the best way to invite her to do them; instead, ask her about her motivation and tell her how you feel. You don't want this to become a power struggle over her body because you will lose.)
When your friend says: That's it—I can't stand these droopy lids anymore. I'm getting my eyes done. Your automatic response: Oh, please! You don't need surgery. Besides, it'll hurt like hell. A better response When I look at you, that's not what I see, but I understand that you want to do this. Why do you feel you need it?
(Take your friend seriously, but impress upon her that you don't think she needs to alter her appearance. Encourage her to examine her motivation—it may have more to do with her relationship, her career, or her emotions than her eyelids.)
Changing your responses can have a big impact, but your own feelings about your appearance and how you communicate them do too. Silence your inner critic, engage in compassionate dialogues, and you'll give rise to a chorus of kinder voices.
From the June 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.