When your partner, friend, sister, or other person in your life asks the question, it might seem as if the only appropriate answer is “No.” It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t moment because it’s also likely that if someone is asking you that question, she isn’t going to believe your answer anyway.
What you need to know is that the person asking the question isn’t actually looking for a yes or no. She may think she is, but there’s more behind the question, and it’s your job to help her figure out what she really needs: Validation? Reassurance? Love?
Here are five ways to approach answering the question:
- Don’t get stuck on the word “fat.” We throw that word around a lot to describe appearance, but your loved one may be automatically using that term when she really means something closer to, “Does this outfit look okay?” When you respond, try something like, “That outfit is flattering,” or “Actually, I liked the other dress better.” By responding with concrete comments about the clothing, and not your loved one’s physical appearance, it takes the negativity out. Another way to respond is to turn the question back to the person by asking, “How do you feel in that outfit?” Not only does this take the pressure off of you, but it helps your loved one to recognize her own power in deciding what clothes are appropriate for her own body. Not everything fits everyone beautifully, no matter what their body shape and size is.
- Consider whether your loved one is truly concerned about weight. If this question has come out of the blue, or if you have noticed a change in your loved one’s weight, but haven’t discussed it before, they may be asking your opinion in an indirect manner. Given that there are so many confusing messages out there about what is a “healthy weight,” your loved one may truly be looking for another opinion. A good answer in this case would be, “Are you concerned about your weight? I think the best person to help you figure out what weight is appropriate for you is your doctor.” Try not to get caught up in convincing your loved one that their weight is appropriate–you will not win the battle. Defer to a professional.
- Think about whether your loved one is looking for reassurance. A common complaint I get from my female clients is that their male partners don’t give them a lot of compliments, and they worry that as they age, they become less attractive to their partners. By asking the question, they may be trying to get reassurance that they are okay, that you still are attracted to them, and that your relationship is stable. A reassuring response in this case would be, “Are you really asking how I feel about you? You are fabulous!” A way to potentially avoid the “fat” question again would be to remind your loved one on a regular basis just how fabulous she is, and in ways that have nothing to do with appearance.
- Be mindful of what your partner may be feeling when asking the question. Feeling “fat” can mean a lot of things. For some people, it is literal. For others–especially those who struggle with body image concerns or eating disorders–“feeling fat” is another way to describe actual feelings, such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. You may have to dig a little deeper with your loved one to find out what is really going on. Asking a question like, “I think something else may be going on–can you tell me more about how you feel right now?” can help you get beneath the “feeling fat” statement. Eating disorder professionals espouse the statement, “‘Fat’ is not a feeling,” and they are right.
- Take a look at your own body image and what you say about yourself and others. If you are also critical of your own appearance, or are critical of others, your loved one is going to pick up on that. Watch your words, don’t ask your loved one’s opinion on your own appearance, and don’t make comments about the appearances of celebrities, people in the media, or friends and family. Keep your comments positive, and about things that have nothing to do with looks.