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Is Bad Body Image Contagious? [Body Blog]


Remember that scene in Mean Girls, when all the plastics park themselves in front of the mirror and start listing all their flaws? “God, my hips are huge!” “Oh please, I hate my calves.” “At least you guys can wear halters, I’ve got man shoulders!” And LiLo’s character Cady doesn’t know what to say, so she awkwardly admits that she has really bad morning breath?

That scene is so quotable and memorable (like most scenes in Mean Girls, let’s be real) because every woman has seen something like it. Sure, it’s hilarious, but it also hits home. Even if you haven’t complained about your physical flaws out loud to your friends (you probably have), you’ve almost certainly thought about them, or listened to your friends criticize their own appearances.

This kind of self-criticism is a powerful social norm. Think about it: how would you react if you heard another woman walk into the room and say, “I look fantastic today!” You might admire her confidence, but it’s more likely you’d be throwing her some serious side-eye. That kind of open confidence is seen as vanity. It makes everyone feel more comfortable to compare flaws. Bizarre, but true.

Ladies, it’s time to find a way to change these conversations. You know intuitively that they’re negative, and now there’s some serious scientific evidence to back that up. A recent study from Canada’s Mount Allison University showed that college women often adopt their friends’ body image issues. Regardless of your own features, if you’re talking to your friends about weight issues or appearance and speak negatively about your bodies, you’re likely to start seeing your own body in a more negative light. The more your friends criticize themselves, the more it hurts you. And the more you criticize, the more it could hurt your friends.

So how can you avoid dragging down your body image and all your friends’ along with it? Experts say that, when you refer to yourself, you should try to avoid negative statements. That’s pretty obvious, but it can also be a tough thing to do. Luckily, there are some productive statements you can make as well. The study actually found that women benefited from talking about their healthy habits, like visiting the gym or making positive food choices.

Moral of the story? Instead of groaning, “Ugh, I hate my flabby stomach!” try to think of the things you’re proud of. For example, “I had a great workout today! I felt strong.” Don’t pull a Cady and join the plastics.

Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.

    Dancer, choreographer, personal trainer, and freelance writer based in New York City. More here.