the HAES® files: The Art of the Backhanded Compliment

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Jenny Copeland, PsyD

Mainstream media sources are up to their subterfuge again. Whether it is non-retouched ‘selfies’ or summer anthems, they seem to be missing the target. It brings to the forefront the question of why attempts to promote body positivity and make each other feel better may be doing more harm than good.

In July 2014 Robyn Lawley, a “plus-size”model posted an unretouched photograph of herself via social media and the world erupted. Some called it “cray cray” she is considered a part of that category. In a CNN commentary piece LZ Granderson proclaimed that “Lawley, for all her bravery, should not be considered among them.” The general public was far more relentless in their reactions: “You are not plus sized. You are a regular sized individual. No more, no less. It is an insult to people with real weight issues that you title yourself with this. #getreal;” or, “If u are plus size I’m a whale…this world is sick.”

The summer anthem from Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass,” was written to create an opportunity for those in larger bodies to embrace themselves. The lyrics include the notable gems:

I’m bringing booty back
Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that
No I’m just playing I know you think you’re fat
But I’m here to tell ya
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.

 Trainor’s (however well-intentioned) lyrics actually work against the body positive purpose at its core, as does the commentary on Lawley’s selfie. Lawley herself has spoken about her discomfort with the plus-size label in the past due to a fear that others will compare their bodies to hers and feel uncomfortable. Hannah Ongley responded the best: “sing it, girl. But telling people to stop using the term “plus-sized” is like telling a kid at a slumber party not to stand in front of the mirror and say “Candy Man” three times. They will literally be unable to help themselves.”

Chloe at Feministing offered the following rebuttal:

…it’s like it’s scientifically impossible to write a song about how great it is to have curves that doesn’t insult people who don’t. Being thin doesn’t make you a bitch, being thin doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Being thin doesn’t make you “slutty.” Being thin means you’re just that: thin, and adhering a little more closely to the impossible-to-fully-meet expectations of what our bodies should look like…If every inch of you is perfect, curvy women with boom boom and junk, then every inch of the skinny girls is too. They just have fewer inches.

The common thread through Lawley and Trainor’s work, and the reactions to them, is the degradation of one group to build up another. It seems to be an ongoing mandate enacted by society. And it is invalidating to body acceptance journeys at their core. The end result is akin to the body checking behaviors often observed among those with eating disorders. It is one of the more enduring (and harmful) thinking patterns. Surely this was not the objective for these efforts?

If we are searching for the answer to the question of body positivity, the problem was not the picture that was posted or the song that was blasted. Rather, the issue is in the reactions themselves. Perhaps a more important question is: whose mess is it? Whom do we hold responsible: the person making the effort (with good intentions, but lacking in execution) or ourselves for how we react to it?

The principles of non-judgment and acceptance are vital to understanding how to be productive in these situations. In yoga, for example, one must focus on their own practice – no one else’s. Others may be doing differently than me in their practice today, but that will only have a substantive impact on my personal practice if I allow it. So yes, these problematic efforts are strongly influenced by society’s emphasis on the thin ideal. But we cannot do anything in the immediate future to radically change the way society as a whole perceives bodies. We have far more power over how we are reacting and changing our thinking around it. In other (Tara Brach’s) words, “it doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to the experience.”

How we feel about our bodies cannot be altered by looking at another’s reflection or by judging their journey to acceptance. Such actions only serve to perpetuate the problem and ignore the deeply personal journey each person must undertake. Be aware, however, that comparison making and body checking behaviors are unlikely to bring peace. Instead, cultivate an attitude of curiosity and examine your journey in the context of your own circumstances:

What are you truly responding to? The picture and song? Or the discomfort you feel in your own body? It is often the case that our strong reactions are only scratching the surface of our perceptions. Consider, what else is lurking there?

What are you responsible for? You cannot immediately change the fact that these efforts happen – you can only change how you react to them. You have a choice: to focus on something you are powerless to change (thereby becoming defined by your helplessness in that context) OR shift your focus to what you are thinking, feeling, and doing to achieve transformation.

What will both honor your journey and challenge you to continue growing? It could be that it is examining your experience through advocacy efforts to change the conversation. It could also be that it is time to take another look at your comfort level in your own skin even if you believe you are comfortable in it. Only you know the answer – if you are willing to ask the difficult question.


I can be changed by what happens to me.
But I refuse to be reduced by it.

~Maya Angelou~

4 Comments to “the HAES® files: The Art of the Backhanded Compliment”

  1. I chose to enjoy Meghan’s song for its catchy beat and intended body positivity message. Yes, there are issues with the song. I would love it if the whole “skinny bitches” bit wasn’t in there at all. What I don’t appreciate are the numerous blog posts and comments complaining the Meghan isn’t “fat enough” like she needs more fatty street cred or something before she has the right to sing her own song. That line of thinking doesn’t help anyone. Obviously she’s not as far along her journey to body acceptance-all bodies, not just curvy one-as some of us but that’s no reason to treat her as if she’s single handedly set the movement back 50 years.
    Anyone who can write a commercially viable song that embraces all bodies, ability levels, genders, and sexual orientations without offending, appropriating, or excluding any race, culture or ethnicity should step up and do so. I’ll be right here waiting and ready to dance.

  2. Although I commend the higher consciousness and self-referencing described by the article, the fact remains that much of the developed world hates fat. Period. For whatever the reasons, be it fear of becoming fat, or poor self image, the overwhelming message is that fat is bad.

    It is essential to deal with our reactions to this constant message, but at the same time, the public conversation about fat-fear and fat-hate needs to have the volume turned way up that this is not acceptable, period. It is discrimination at its most vile, and hurts everyone whom others put into that category. It costs people jobs, advancement, relationships, and, regardless of how strong our self esteem and personal practice of self-love, it costs us visceral hurt and endangers the lives and futures of our children.

    So, maybe what we need to do is to step up the public discourse about body concept and fat acceptance, forcefully challenge ANY and ALL attempts to let others’ judgments control our lives, finances, and health, but keep the conversation at a level of hitting the target of discrimination: ignorance and fear.

  3. This blog is really troubling. It seems to go to that New Age put down of those without thin privilege: love yourself that’s all that matters. If lower weight people in ASDAH are only concerned about lookism vs the much more severe and damaging ADDITIONAL higher weight stigma, you’re NOT allies to fat people; you’re thin privileged folk concerned only with lookism that affects you and those like you. Anti-activism says you can’t do anything now so don’t start the long journey of making change and calling out oppression. I’m not down for that.

    • RE: Rev Dr E-K Daufin’s comment.

      I greatly appreciate your feedback. That certainly was not my intention in this writing. My challenge was that the reactions to these efforts, both in the general population and in academics, seem akin to the symptom of body checking often seen in eating disorders. It was this thought that stuck out to me after being exposed to these efforts. I think it’s an interesting point of reference, as we continue to compare bodies which thereby continues the hierarchy of power related to bodies. My thought was to stop and think about what we are truly reacting to in these situations before moving forward. For some people, moving forward means advocacy – but that does not work for everyone. To me that is embracing activism at every level (i.e., both individual and community). Such an approach can only improve our advocacy efforts as it focuses them to the real issues underlying these efforts. That is, it draws our attention to the root problem – not the symptom.

      I hope this helps clarify. I look forward to additional conversation on this subject!

      Dr. Jenny

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