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Body Image: Shifting Language to Shift Perspectives

Words hold power. How do the words we use about our bodies influence us? Columnist Angie Ebba explores her personal journey with learning to use less judgmental language when talking about herself. 

How We Can Use Words to Transform Body Image and Ideas About OurSelves 

“Ugh, I can’t wear that. That dress shows all my squishies.”

Those were the words I uttered to my daughter, only six years old at the time. It was my birthday party, and full of enthusiasm, she was helping me pick out what dress I should wear to go out dancing. She’d pointed out a form-fitting dress that was pink, strapless, and gorgeous. But without even thinking about it, the words came out. 

Suddenly time stopped, and I imagined myself as my daughter. How would those words sound to her? What would they mean to her, and how would they impact her as she grew up? As she became a teenager and then a young woman in this world, would she remember the times her mom had spoken in such self-deprecating ways? Would she begin saying those words about herself, about her body?

I immediately stopped getting ready and sat with her as we came up with a list of all the things we love about squishes. We danced around the room jiggling and wiggling and laughing (an experience that later led to the development of my burlesque act “Squishy List”). I wore the dress she picked and vowed at that moment that I’d work to change my language around my body, both for her and my other child, but also for myself. 

Breaking Free

It is incredibly hard, though to change the ways we speak about our bodies and our selves. We are steeped in judgment-based language from the day we are born, inundated with media telling us to change who we are and how we look. From a very young age, our bodies are seeking validation from and being shaped by the expectations of our society. Susie Orbach argues in her book Bodies that our culture presents the body as something which needs to be fixed and transformed and that these messages are becoming more and more frequent. In fact, these messages are so supersaturated into our everyday lives that Orbach states: “There has only [ever] been a body that is shaped by its social and cultural designation.”

What did that mean for me, what does it mean for us, on this journey to unravel the ways we think and talk about our bodies? It means that we’re not just trying to work through a few years of messages about our bodies, nor our adult years full of messages, but our entire lives. We’re trying to undo what companies and media and social norms have been building for the entirety of our existence. 

It takes hard work. It takes time. 

Shifting Language

Over the last several years, since that moment with my daughter where I vowed to be more aware of my language around my body, I’ve realized just how often I use words full of judgment towards myself. On a day where my chronic pain was bad, I’d exclaim ‘My body hates me today’ or tell a friend that my body was revolting against me. When faced with a food choice, I can’t even count the times I’ve said things such as, ‘I shouldn’t eat that,’ or ‘I’ll just cheat and have this today; I’ll be better tomorrow.’ When winded during hiking I complained that I was ‘out of shape,’ and when my lover reached over to touch my belly I pulled away, saying I was ‘gross.’

These may seem like little things, but words have power. They have the power to shape the way we view the world and ourselves. Every time we say we should or shouldn’t eat something, we reinforce the idea that eating and food choices are a moral act. Every time we talk about our bodies hating us, we reinforce the idea that we are pitted against our own selves in a battle we are trying to win. When we use these words towards ourselves that have negative connotations or are steeped in judgment, we reinforce those messages over and over again. The words aren’t just things we say. Rather, they become things we believe about ourselves; they become us. 

So how do we reframe these words? How do we begin to move from judgemental language to that which is neutral or even affirming?

body image

Sticking to the Facts

Recently my partner said to me, after I’d uttered something negative about my worth, “Stick to the facts, not the values.” Sticking to the facts causes me to completely shift the way I talk about myself and my body. 

  • My body doesn’t hate me; my body is in pain and needs self-care.
  • I’m not cheating or shouldn’t have this food; I’m choosing to eat this because I want it. 
  • I’m not out of shape; my body is tired from a strenuous hike.
  • I’m not gross; I’m feeling self-conscious.

By moving from statements with embedded value judgments in them to fact-based statements, I’m able to move away from being critical and self-deprecating. I’m no longer judging myself. I’m simply stating facts. 

Changing my language in these ways requires me to be constantly conscious and aware of the words coming out of my mouth, and is a lot of work. However, every time I change the way I speak about myself, I unravel just a little bit of the tangled web of harmful body messages I’ve been caught in for years. And every time I do that I feel a little bit more empowered, a little bit more confident, a little bit stronger in who I am. 

In the foreword to Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body, Rebecca Walker writes: “To look at the ways we judge and contort ourselves is a radical and self-affirming act in a culture where altering oneself for admission and approval is the norm.” I remember these words as I move through my days, working to learn to love this body and self that our society has said needs changed and fixed in order to be loved. 

I encourage you to also remember Walker’s words as you move forward. I encourage you to begin to leave behind the judgmental language, to radically embrace the facts, not the values. I encourage you as each day you learn new ways to love yourself. I am on this journey with you. 

And by all means, when it comes time to go dancing and you’re faced with that pink form-fitting dress (or jeans that hug your butt, or the slinky top that shows your scars, or whatever your version of my dress is)…wear it. Wear the dress and know that you are beautiful. 

By Angie Ebba


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