Body descriptions: To euphemize or accurately define?

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post corrected a description of a man from “thickset” to “muscular.” I started to wonder how we’d all feel if we started to self-correct when we slipped into judgmental body words.

From “thunder thighs” to “chicken legs,” there are so many pejorative words people use to describe their bodies and those of others. Mia, a new client of mine, never thought much about referring to her stomach as her “Buddha belly.”  She was surprised when I targeted this apparently Zen nickname when we broached the topic of self-compassion in our therapy sessions.  “Come on, you shrinks analyze everything,” she pleaded.  We decided to experiment a bit with words, and for the first time, by replacing her judgmental words with more factual descriptions, she felt more accepting of her appearance. By the way, “Buddha belly” is normal weight.

Approximately 80 percent of women feel unhappy with the way they look. More and more, men are opening up about feeling self-conscious about their appearances too.  Feeling bad about the way you look can lead to feelings of anxiety and sad, as well as eating too little or too much. Dr. Christopher Fairburn, a professor at the University of Oxford, has spent decades researching binge eating.  Interestingly, he found that feeling bad about the way you look often leads to emotional eating and binge eating – not healthy weight loss efforts.  Dr. James Gross, an expert in emotion regulation at Stanford University, argues that a key strategy to change an emotion is to change your appraisal. In other words, thinking you look like “chunky ” may trigger feelings of shame.  To feel less shame, you need to catch the word “chunky.”

We so routinely use words like “curvy,” “full figured,” and “big boned,” and these body euphemisms imply there is a norm on how a person “should” appear from which most of us deviate.  In addition to potentially being inaccurate and painful, body euphemisms are also so hard to make sense of.  What does curvy even mean?

Furthermore, when someone is overweight, which words are the most appropriate? Where do we draw the line between calling a spade a spade and shaming people?  Years ago, Evan begged me in a session to acknowledge he was overweight, as many health professionals seemed to want to call him “heavy set” – albeit a vague and unscientific term. As a competent adult, he wanted to be spoken to in words that were accurate.  When I plugged his height and weight into my body mass index (BMI) calculator, I said kindly without judgment, “Evan, you are obese.”  Calling someone obese who meets criteria for obesity may seem like a cardinal faux pas. Yet Evan quickly replied, “Thank you! Finally, someone is speaking to me like I’m an adult, not a child.” Using euphemisms to describe weight implies a form of judgment, as though the blow needs to be softened. Accurately describing Evan’s weight actually galvanized his weight loss efforts.

To begin to change your relationship with your body, start by accurately describing yours and also practice describing others more truthfully.

1. Notice you’re judging

So often we automatically judge and hardly notice we are judging. If you notice you are judging, acknowledge the fact that you are. For example, if you have the thought that you have “flabby arms,” note the judgment, and then, don’t beat yourself up for it. It can take some time to let go of old habits, and optimal learning requires patience.

2. Replace judgments with facts

You may state something like, “I am 5’3” and weigh 147 pounds.” You may even observe, “I am having the thought that I look bad,” which may provide some distance and perspective.

3. Expand your awareness more broadly

Rather than scrutinizing your appearance and fixating on certain parts, widen your attention and take in the rest of your experience; like your breath or sights and sounds around you.  A lot of faulty judgments stem from faulty perspectives.

4. Get some social support

If you and your friends feel like critical gossip columnists when describing yourselves or others, you might want to commit together to experimenting with using kinder speech and focusing on more enjoyable topics.