Body image issues affect a huge proportion of people in the UK, and can sometimes be the foundation for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Many of us know a friend or two who is struggling with their body image, so here are some practical tips on what you can do to support someone, from expert consultant psychologist Dr Sue Peacock:
Start by listening
It’s tempting to rush in and tell your friend that they’re perfect as they are and that they have nothing to worry about. The problem is that this tends not to work. Your friend is more likely to feel as though you think they’re overreacting, and your advice might fall on deaf ears.
Sometimes, just being heard makes you feel a little bit better about things. So the best thing you can do at first is to be an open ear to them and let them vent their frustrations about their body.
Tackle negative thoughts and situations
While there is a place for opening up and talking about what’s really worrying you, it’s important not to normalise these negative thoughts in general conversation.
In other words, steer away from what you might call “fat-talk”. It might feel like a harmless way to laugh off your own body issues, but most people don’t realise how much it can damage your own self-image. We are already bombarded every day with society’s notion of the “ideal body”. Rather than internalising this, it’s better to focus on progress and positivity.
There are two ways to do this. You could be subtle and try to get the conversation onto a new topic. Or you could openly discuss why talking about being fat all the time is so bad for them. It depends on what you feel comfortable with doing, and how close you are to your friend.
It’s important to do this for negative situations as well as conversation. This means putting down the style magazine and getting out of the changing room with unflattering mirrors.
Talk through solutions
It’s not always possible to avoid negative thoughts about your body or the situations that trigger them. Nor is it a good idea to reshape your life around avoidance. A key part to overcoming body image problems is knowing how to deal with these thoughts when they occur.
As a friend, you can ask them how they feel about their thoughts – and how they cope with them. This can also be a good opportunity to open up the question of whether it’s worth seeking professional help.
Another way to offer support is to help them if they want to make a change. There is always a balancing act to be done here – you want to show them that you accept them as they are, but that you’ll also support them in changing. One way to do this is simply to not make a big deal out of it. If you’re going on a morning run, treat it as a fun activity to do together rather than a gruelling regime. If you’re going out to eat, look at the healthier option and suggest it as a place you’ve “always wanted to try”.
You can offer support with words, but treating yourselves can also make a big difference. Going out for a manicure, pedicure or spa day can be another good way to spend time together and leave you both looking and feeling your best.
In all of this, it’s also important to take care of yourself. Many of us play the role of the “listener” in our friendships and over time this can understandably be wearing. Setting boundaries on the support you give is partially about self-preservation, so that you don’t “burn out” from supporting someone altogether. However, it is also about responsibility. If your friend has severe body image issues, it may be worth signposting them to a professional. They may ultimately be able to provide the support and treatment that even the best friend in the world can’t provide.