I have this one friend who I always feel worse after seeing. It's like she can't stop herself from making some kind of comment that compares our bodies and places hers as 'better'. We get along great apart from this, but I can't handle the constant comparison and I don't know how to make her stop, any advice?
Let me start by saying BEEN THERE BABE. In fact I think most of us have been in that situation at one point, either as the person being compared or doing the comparing (myself included).
Shortly after I started my eating disorder recovery I reconnected with an old friend who I'd known since childhood. I was 16 and had basically missed two years of teenage socialising: sleepovers with boys, parties, first sexual encounters. She taught me about all of it and soon we were an inseparable pair. But it didn't take long for things to start getting competitive, especially since such a huge part of our bonding was getting attention from guys.
I remember her repeatedly referring to me as 'the bigger one', completely aware that a year earlier I'd been battling anorexia. One moment I'll never forget is her holding up a pair of underwear I'd just bought to show a boy over webcam and laughing about how huge they looked, even though I was right next to her. I spent a long time believing that she said those things just to be cruel, but looking now I understand that's not the case.
When we're raised in a culture that teaches us to place so much value on how beautiful we are to others, and our definition of beautiful is so very narrow, we're conditioned to always be in competition. If there's only one kind of beauty, we have to fight for it. If our entire self-worth is based in being visually attractive, we have to fight to be the most visually attractive. This is particularly true for women and girls in our heteronormative society (where heterosexuality and gender binaries are assumed to be the norm), and it's male attention we're taught to compete for. The relationship I had with that friend is a perfect example of this.
We'd both learned to measure our value in how sexually appealing we could be to others. We believed that beauty was the best we had to offer and our self-worth became a reflection of how that beauty was perceived. Those comments that reinforced our sense of competition were completely natural responses to years of patriarchal conditioning that pitted us against each other for the prize of most visually attractive. Ultimately, neither of us won. Because there isn't enough outside validation in the world to make you believe that you're worth something if you can't believe it for yourself first.
Point being, it might seem easy to paint her as a bad friend and call it a day, but maybe by understanding where those comments come from you can explore it together. Maybe then she'll realise that you should be seeing each other as allies in this, and not competition.
The next time she comments negatively on your body, try responding with something like, 'don't you feel like there's already so much pressure on us to look a certain way without treating each other like competition as well? It would be amazing if we could work on lifting each other up instead of comparing.' or, 'I don't want to compete, you can feel good about yourself without me having to feel bad, you being beautiful doesn't have to mean I'm less beautiful'. Open up the conversation about beauty standards, body image and self love.
If it carries on, and letting her know that those comments hurt doesn't change things, then it might be time to put some distance between you. Especially if you come away feeling worse about yourself every single time you see her – you deserve better than that.
I'm not friends with that person anymore, but I don't blame them for those comments or how our friendship went. I hope that now they've found all the other parts of themselves that truly make them a valuable human being, because they were always so much more than they thought.
And to anyone who's ever felt like I was the one placing us in competition or comparing our bodies: I'm sorry. There was always room for us all. Hopefully by unpacking this, future generations of girls will know that from the start.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.