How often do you criticise your body? Once a week? Once a day? Let’s face it, most of us make comments about our bodies, out loud or in our heads. In fact, for more than 90% of people, negative body talk is a routine occurrence. It’s a habit we share, a pattern to which we’ve grown accustomed

Each day we’re exposed to critical commentaries on appearance. In the media, we see slim, tall, and athletic bodies described as ‘beautiful’, ‘healthy’, ‘desirable’, while we’re reminded by advertisements that the stretch marks, scars, belly rolls, and body hair we all have are ‘flaws’ we should erase.

Among our peers, we often engage in self-deprecation, speak of our ‘beach body’ woes, the trauma of ‘unflattering angles’, finding commonality in our insecurities. As a culture, we are bonded by the shame we feel towards our bodies, unaware of how normalised this discontent has become. But though verbal assaults and discursive attacks are practically instinct for our aesthetic-centred imagination, there’s no denying their devastating impact on our mental wellbeing.

Body dissatisfaction is reaching endemic levels in the UK, with more than 60% of adults reportedly harbouring negative feelings about the way they look. Around two-thirds of Brits are dieting to lose weight most of the time, and approximately 1.25 million people are believed to have an eating disorder.

The pressure to meet society’s far-reaching standards of beauty has caused a ripple of insecurity across the population – one that is costing so many of us our happiness and self-esteem. As more and more people find themselves vulnerable to the toxic messages within body talk, it’s time we paid attention to how our language affects us.

What is body talk?

woman wearing head scarf

Body talk refers to the ritualistic conversations we engage in about our own or others’ bodies or bodily characteristics. The concept first emerged in the work of two linguistic anthropologists in the US, who explored the interaction between language and body image in young women. Through their research, they showed that women who discussed body weight and size often showed lower self-esteem and greater body dissatisfaction, and were more likely to diet and engage in disordered eating behaviours, than women who didn’t discuss their bodies. Body talk is also associated with diminished cognitive performance, due to thoughts being eaten up by body hatred.

The role of body talk on mental health can be attributed to a phenomenon known as linguistic relativity, which, simply put, is the idea that language shapes our thoughts and ideas. How we speak about certain things ‘primes’ us to think about them in those terms. For example, studies show that changing a single word when questioning witnesses about a crime they saw, changed the way they remembered it. This demonstrates just how powerful language can be. It can even go so far as to influence our perception and memory.

Body talk and beauty standards

When we engage in body talk, we make bodies a determinant of self-worth. We tell ourselves, and the world around us, that our value lies in the way we look, not in what we do or how we behave.

The more we speak about bodies, the more we reinforce their importance, and start to frame ourselves as little more than ornaments. Repeated over time, this leads to self-objectification, causing us to dissociate from the internal connection we have with our bodies. Those who self-objectify feel less in tune with how they feel, both physiologically and psychologically, posing a huge risk of depression and disordered eating.

Beauty is arbitrary. The standards we aspire to are designed by industries to sell fixes for the insecurities they create. Objectively, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ body, no such thing as a ‘flaw’ or ‘imperfection’. Yet, with girls as young as six stating a desire to be thinner, it’s clear that messages of shame are being received loud and clear very early in life.

Language is contagious, and the way we talk about bodies transfers negative beliefs. When looking at the relationship between mothers and daughters, and how they behave, for instance, studies found a positive correlation between parental body talk and teenage dieting. In the same way we learn a language through listening to others, we also learn the beliefs and behaviours that accompany what we say. And so, for as long as body talk remains at the core of cultural conversations, poor body image and low self-esteem will remain a problem for future generations.

Shutting down negative body talk

If we keep using negative, critical, derogatory language to describe our bodies, then, naturally, we will continue to look at our bodies as enemies we have to punish and resent. But the good news is that we have the power to change that. We can watch our words and start a kinder conversation with ourselves, and others around us.

1. Check yourself

Man smiling with crowd of people in background

First things first: pay attention to your language. Notice when you talk about your body, or when others around you do. Notice what you say and how you feel when those things are said, then work on checking negative words before they’re voiced out loud.

2. Show yourself compassion

I’m not saying it’s easy to challenge body talk. Far from it. If it’s something you’re accustomed to do often, of course, there will be times when the comments just come out. If you slip up, don’t see it as a setback. Be compassionate, counter yourself with a compliment, and simply aim to do better next time.

3. Don’t follow the crowd

Negative body talk might feel like a social obligation, but that doesn’t mean you have to participate. If your friend starts berating the way they look, if a colleague makes a critique about their weight, you don’t have to engage. You don’t have to say ‘me too’, and share your own insecurities. You can simply do what’s right for your mental health, and walk away from the conversation.

4.Swear to silence

If you can’t walk away from certain situations, then make a pact to avoid all body talk. Let your friends know how this affects your mental health, and vow only to comment on positive properties within your control – such as creativity, thoughtfulness, and generosity. Let this be a reminder that you are so much more than a body, and turn these instances into an experience of appreciation.