There are some attacks on our body image and self-esteem that are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them. They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up. Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us. The series begins here on 3/28/12.
Today's Sneak Attack: The Back-Handed Compliment
We've all gotten this before, and it is a verbal attack. Some examples:
"You look so much better in makeup!"
"You would look much younger with that hair color."
"You're so brave to eat like that in public!"
"I wish I could just let myself go, you look so comfortable."
"That suit jacket is really slimming!"
The worst, in my experience is the ubiquitous "You look great, have you lost weight?"
These are phrased as compliments, with all the nonverbal cues that can trick you into thinking that the person is being nice. In fact, the implication of the backhanded compliment is always insulting. It often takes the form of "You have always looked/dressed terrible, which is why I'm so suprised to see you looking presentable on this one occasion (with the implication that it's a fluke). By acting surprised, I am reminding you that I think you generally look terrible."
The ones that presume some change assume that you were fully aware of how terrible you used to look and would naturally want to make some drastic change to your appearance: "You look great, did you change your hair/lose weight/shave differently/start working out". This is even worse when you haven't actually lost weight/changed your hair/started working out. It then implies that you really need to do these things in order to be acceptable.
Because of the confusing nonverbal cues, your brain may not throw up defenses against the insulting implications of the back-handed compliment and they will creep into your self-image. When you hear a compliment that refers negatively to your body in any way (past, present or future) or assumes changes, treat it with the suspicion it deserves. Take a second to really unpack it and respond appropriately. The person may not even be aware that they are really insulting you; they may be expressing some subconscious criticism of themselves and putting it on you.
You can accept the parts of it that actually are complimentary (I look great, these clothes fit me well, I must be feeling confident today and people are noticing). Consciously affirm these elements and reject/refuse to own the rest. If you look and feel good right now, the critical elements of what that person said can just roll off you.
They may also be playing a social game of persecution. They give you a back-handed compliment, you take umbrage at the subtext, they deny the subtext and get to be angry that you're "too sensitive" or "reading things into" what they didn't say. Their anger and feeling of martyrdom when they're "just trying to be nice" is an emotional stimulus for them that reinforces both their self image and their opinion of others.
In this classic mind game, the only winning move is not to play.* Deny them the stimulus and reinforcement they're looking for. Respond "thank you," and walk away or change the subject. You are blocking their attempts to make you play, and that makes you the winner in this exchange. If they want to keep attacking, make them do so openly where you can legitimately defend yourself.
*Bonus points to anyone who read that last bit in the little tinny computer voice from Wargames.