Why hurtful comments stick with us for life.
Posted Nov 20, 2020
Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. Over the past several months, I have been interviewing athletes and individuals with eating disorders to talk about formative experiences that contributed to them to developing poor body esteem or engaging in behaviors that led them to an eating disorder. Almost everyone had vivid memories of a single hurtful comment, typically uttered by someone they respected, that opened the floodgates to poor body image.
As people recalled these experiences, I was struck by how the memories of these moments seemed to be frozen in time. People remembered what they were wearing, what was happening around them, what the other person was wearing, what they looked like, and their internal response when the hurtful comment was made. I call these hurtful comments that cut you to the core Velcro comments.
If you've ever taken a very close look at Velcro, you’ll have noticed that it is made up of millions of little hooks on one side and millions of little loops on the other. We all know the familiar sound of the two sides being ripped apart as each little hook gets yanked from the loop it was stuck in. We also know how hard it is to unpeel the hooks from the loops. After all, that’s the point, to stick. Just like these hurtful comments.
Priscilla (Frederick) Loomis, Olympic high jumper well-known for her purple hair, recounted a scenario when her mother took her to a New York modeling agency. Priscilla recalled an elegant, attractive, smartly dressed African American woman at the agency who looked her over from head to toe, then looked at her portfolio and said, “You have a fat face.” That moment was frozen in time for Priscilla. Fortunately, her mother pulled the plug on a modeling career after that comment, not wanting to subject her daughter to that kind of body scrutiny. A second Velcro comment occurred later during her track and field career, when she was in peak physical condition. While she was eating an ice cream with her coach, another coach (not involved with her training) walked by and said, “You don’t need that.” Soon thereafter a random man approached her in a bar and told her that if she dropped a few kilos, she would jump better. As if as an athlete, her body was public property that anyone had a right to comment on. Three moments, frozen in time, each one chipping away at her body image.
Rachael Flatt, US National Figure skating champion and Olympian who was well known for her consistency and mental toughness in competitions, was told that her body looked like a sack of potatoes. She has vivid memories of what she was wearing, which skating rink she was in, and even the exact time of day when the comment was made. She recalls being simultaneously angry and completely dejected because the comment crystallized her awareness that she did not "have the look" to be as successful as she wanted to be in figure skating. After that she started wearing compression pants and tops to look thinner and “elongate her line” so she could hide her shape as much as possible. Fortunately, like Priscilla’s Mom, Rachael’s parents did their best to shelter her from the Velcro comments, but they still stuck. She remembers them distinctly to this day.
Two elite athletes at the top of their game, with amazing bodies that could do amazing things, not being praised for what they could do, but rather being criticized for how they didn’t look.
Occasionally Velcro comments may not be malicious in intent, but more often than not, they are insensitive and inexcusable. Commenting on someone else’s weight, shape, or appearance is a boundary violation and can do life-long harm. The woman who told Priscilla that her face was fat probably has no recollection of the incident. But for Priscilla, it ignited a decade long struggle with coming to terms with having a body shape that was different from other high jumpers. For Rachael, it was perplexing that being at the top of her game, landing triple jumps consistently, and winning gold medals wasn’t enough—because her body just wasn’t right.
Especially when we are younger and when the person who delivers the Velcro comment is someone we respect, we can’t be expected to have the presence of mind to tell them that our body is none of their business. And even if we are able to respond in the moment, those hooks can still get under our skin.
So the best solution is for people to stop saying thoughtless things about other people’s bodies. Especially now as we will be (cautiously) reuniting for the holidays whether face-to-face or digitally, make a commitment not to comment about how other people look. Tell family members and friends how great it is to see them, but put the brakes on if you feel compelled to comment on their size, or shape, or hair, or appearance. Unfortunately, the nature of human beings is that we remember insults more readily than we remember compliments. Insults and criticisms are stickier. We are far less likely to freeze moments when someone compliments us than when someone criticizes us.
It’s never too late to take inventory of the Velcro comments that you carry around with you that influence your self-esteem and body esteem. Reliving those moments with greater clarity and hindsight may not erase them, but can empower you to push back against them in your own mind. Doing so can pave a path toward greater self-compassion and boost both your self-esteem and your body esteem.
For more on this topic, see Bulik, C.M. (2011) The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are. New York: Walker.
Interview with Rachael Flatt on athlete mental health.
Interview with Priscilla Loomis on body image and dealing with hurtful comments about shape and weight.