For Americans With Negative Body Image, the Wrong Comment Can Make It Even Worse

Body Image during the holidays illustration

Verywell / Joshua Seong

For this edition of the Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker, we discuss how body image issues may be exacerbated in social situations.

To find out what previous surveys said about the state of mental health in the U.S., check out our previous releases.

If you're seeing friends and loved ones over the holidays and beyond, you may want to think twice before commenting on their appearance, whether or not your intentions are pure. According to data from Verywell Mind's latest Mental Health Tracker survey, your comments could make them feel worse, even if they are meant to be positive. For folks who struggle with body image issues, the wrong comment could be an added stressor on top of everything else we're dealing with.

Body image is not a new problem, with 30% of Americans feeling negatively about their appearance overall. But as with many things relating to our mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse for some. Half of Americans have been worrying about their appearance at least weekly over the last month, and 22% worry about their appearance more than they did before the pandemic.

Navigating the Holidays

In general, Americans have eagerly awaited a return to normalcy and everything that entails. While we may have enjoyed opening the dresser and pulling out only soft pants every day for the better part of two years, the thought of seeing friends and family against has served as a bright light at the end of the tunnel. While the Omicron variant has provoked some anxiety that another wave is coming (and that the tunnel is getting longer by the day), vaccines have led many to feel enough comfort to gather as they normally would.

This renewed social excitement, however, is far from universal. While there is plenty to like about all the trappings of large holiday gatherings, those struggling with body image issues may feel added pressure and judgment in ways that can negatively affect their mood. Our survey showed that the majority of those who already feel negatively about their bodies may have extra concerns around the holidays:

Think Twice Before Telling Someone How They Look

Those seeing some friends or family members for the first time in two years may have been insulated from some of the comments or unintentional judgments from people who don't realize how triggering those comments can be.

In fact, when people receive more comments about their appearance, it seems to amplify how they already feel about their bodies, regardless of the tenor of those comments. Those who feel negatively about their appearance are more likely to feel negatively following comments about their appearance, and vice versa.

In other words, even if you tell someone they look great, their feelings about that comment may be negative if that's how they already feel. Body image is a subjective perception of one's own appearance. You may feel like you're helping, but there's a chance you could be contributing to a cycle of negative body image:

  • 76% of people who receive body comments once a week or more worry about their appearance at least once a week, compared to 38% amongst those receiving fewer comments.
  • 33% of those getting more comments worry about their appearance more than they did before the pandemic.

Our data shows that 70% of people who receive regular comments about their appearance will in turn comment on other people's appearances at least once a week, compared to only 17% amongst those who receive fewer comments. Body image issues may lead to something of a body negativity cycle.

Generational Gaps in Body Image

As with many other elements of mental health we've observed over the course of the last year, it seems that younger adults are struggling the most with body image issues:

  • Over the last month, 72% of Gen Z and 67% of Millennials have worried about their appearance at least weekly, compared to 54% of Gen X and 31% of Boomers.
  • A third of Gen Z (35%) worries more about their body image now than before the pandemic compared with 22% of millennials and 16% of Gen X.
  • Gen Z and Millennials are most likely to receive comments about their appearance at least once a week (57%) compared to just 30% of Gen X and 14% of Boomers.

It appears social media use could play a role in this generational divide; 38% of those that use social media multiple times a day report feeling somewhat or very negatively about their appearance or how their body looks. This is especially true of Gen Z, with half of those who use social media once or more per day reporting signs of poorer body image.

Coping With Negative Body Image

If you are looking for ways to improve your body image, there are a number of strategies that can help. Body neutrality, for example, is the idea of accepting your body as it is and appreciating it as a functional vessel. Some of the ways you can begin to practice body neutrality are:

  • Acknowledge the ways your body works well, and even the ways it may not work as well.
  • Consider intuitive eating, a non-diet method of eating that teaches you to listen to your body about what and when to eat.
  • Choose exercises that make you feel good. Focusing too much on a goal like weight loss can contribute to body image issues.
  • Be mindful of conversations about physical appearance, whether they involve your body or someone else's, and learn to steer such conversations in another direction.

That last point is a crucial one to remember even if you're someone who doesn't struggle with body image issues. As you navigate this holiday season and the beginning of 2022 with friends and family, remember that your comments about someone's appearance may have a more significant impact than you think.

Methodology

The Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker is an ongoing measurement of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors around their mental health. The survey is fielded online, beginning April 28, 2021, to 4,000 adults living in the U.S. The total sample matches U.S. Census estimates for age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region.


By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.