Has a compliment ever made you squirm?
More than once I have taught what I think of as a good class. I can tell participants are into it. Things are going smoothly. Then, afterward, instead of someone complimenting what I thought went well (my sequencing and my approach), I'm caught off guard with a statement about my body. It goes something like this, "I like your class. You actually look like a yoga teacher."
What does my body have to do with the yoga class I just taught?
As if I’d asked this question out loud, the explanation shortly follows. “You have some muscle tone and you’re not overweight. I went to another class recently where the teacher was at least twenty pounds overweight!”
I was speechless, which was awkward in front of people milling about. Nobody seemed that shocked, though—maybe they hadn’t been listening, didn’t mind, or were stunned into silence like me. I spluttered out something about everyone having their own preferences. There were so many things I wanted to say, but it is my nature to avoid conflict. Not to mention, I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t sure what the ramifications would be if I debated the statement.
The whole interaction took place in a privately owned studio where many members were well-connected to management, and, let’s face it, “The customer is always right.” In short, regrettably, one concern I had was that I would offend the participant and she would complain and get me fired—maybe I was being paranoid, but I was concerned for my livelihood. I felt horrible about the whole situation: someone feeling it was okay to comment on my body, the opinion that a certain body type is better than another, and the belief that it was appropriate to share judgment.
One thing seemed abundantly clear: Their seal of approval was conditional on me looking—and continuing to look—a certain way. And that’s really dangerous talk for a psyche like mine, and it’s downright unhealthy for anyone who struggles with body image. Here’s a bit more about my relationship with my body.
My Body Image Journey
I’ve been in a larger body, and I’ve been in a smaller body. I’ve been excessive about exercising, and I’ve restricted my diet too much in the past. In fact, long ago, I would have been fine with this student’s words. I would have thought I earned them, because I had worked to lose weight and keep it off. But these days, I work to not associate my body with my self-worth, and I find loaded compliments such as these upsetting.
Don’t get me wrong, if a friend or my partner says I look nice, I’m not offended. But when someone basically tells me that they’ll take my class and support my livelihood because of how I look, it gets really icky. I am in a place right now where I don’t want to think that I should be working out more, or to be more restrictive with my diet. I never again want to berate myself for days when I need to take it easy and be less active, or times when I eat whatever I’m craving.
I have worked my way up this slippery slope because I am strongly motivated to be a positive role model to two young, impressionable minds: my 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. As it is, my son has already gone overboard (in my opinion) with what he will and will not eat. I certainly didn’t predict myself begging him to eat a cupcake for a change, or wishing he would enjoy some downtime on our family holidays rather than trying to work in a 5k run every day.
I really hope that along my parenting path I did not convey to him that my love, approval, or support was at all conditional on him eating a certain way and exercising. Of course, I want him to be healthy, but I believe that everything can be enjoyed in moderation.
But, try as we might, parents can’t control external influences from culture. My son is finding, as I have experienced, that perceived healthy eating, exercise, and appearance all garner a lot of positive feedback. Extended family, friends, and family acquaintances praise my son for not eating the junk food many other 14-year-olds enjoy. His commitment to exercise is highlighted as a positive example. And with every comment, I worry that he is learning that he is accepted and approved of only if he eats particular foods, exercises to a certain degree, and looks a certain way.
I want people to think about that, about the harm of conditional approval, whether they are commenting on a 14-year-old boy’s lunch or an adult woman’s yoga class.
Positive words do not have to be related to people’s conceptions and idealizations of health, fitness, and/or body image. We have been acculturated to think that is the highest form of praise, but, honestly, deep down, many people just want to be seen and heard for themselves and acknowledged for many other reasons.
For example: Think my leggings are cool? Great. But don’t make it contingent on liking them if my legs are a certain size and shape. Like my class? Awesome—as long as the approval isn’t a highly subjective one based on the size of body and limbs and the way it looks in various yoga poses. Enjoy seeing a teenage boy with a passion for running? That’s fine. Just don’t filter your admiration of his passion for running through your conceptions around what it means to be healthy or not healthy.
So let’s be mindful about our compliments and consider feelings that people may have regarding their body image—as teachers, students, and as people in general. And when in doubt? Keep it simple. How about: “I love your outlook”; “I enjoy your presence”; “I always like to hear what you have to say, and your moments of quiet are pretty awesome too”; or “Your yoga class rocks”?
Kids can attach a lot of significance to what people say. So can adults, even yoga teachers. Awareness starts from within. And when in doubt about what to say? A genuine smile rarely hurts anyone.