My feelings are hurt, but I feel like the jerk in this situation
February 26, 2012 4:06 PM   Subscribe

What are my sisters looking for when they want to compare physical attributes and how should I respond?

First for a little background: My sisters, in the last several years, were making little snipes about my physical appearance- that I am too skinny- ridiculousness to the point where one of them gave me a shirt that was literally so small it would fit a one year old child. I am slim, but not petite- so it's not like I'm anywhere near child sized. My other sister started implying i had an eating disorder, I confronted her about it and she denied that she believed that, but continued with the behavior. And let me just say that I'm a healthy weight. I'm just active, quite tall and have the benefit of a relatively high metabolism. Also, let me say straight off that they are both attractive and slim women in their own right.

At first this all really got under my skin and I reacted badly. However, in the past year, I have been able to take a step back and can now just take their comments at face value. This ends up in me basically just not engaging and consequently the comments have diminished.

Then, this past holiday, although the skinny thing didn't come up, my sisters were continually comparing our bodies. It was usually self-deprecating, complaining about a particular body part, then pointing to the other person's as being 'better.' One sister apparently has better hair than the other. I'm tall, so that's better than being short, etc. I am totally mystified by this. I have no impulse to compare our bodies. I'm generally comfortable with my body. The idea of complaining about my cup size and envying my sisters DD's is just- well, it's not how I feel and it is not what I want to have a conversation about.

Because of their behavior in the past, I responded neutrally as I had trained myself to do for the other comments, but that wasn't received well. . .I can't really put my finger on it. I felt as though they were trying to engage me in some sort of ritual and I didn't know what the appropriate response was supposed to be.

Are they doing this as a 'fishing for compliments' thing? Are we supposed to be bonding over shared insecurities?

I want to connect with them, but I don't want to take part in some kind of 'I hate my body' fest. Also, it's hurtful to me to feel excluded because of things that I cannot change about myself particularly because they are my sisters. This is saddening, although I understand that these dynamics have emerged, not coincidentally, as they are both nearing forty and I am the youngest trailing behind.

What is the subtext here? Am I causing them to feel insecure? Please help me understand this behavior and figure out how to respond.
posted by abirdinthehand to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't overanalyze this. They could have plenty of reasons and be insecure, fishing for compliments, or just unhappy with their bodies. You are comfortable with your body, which is awesome! Say so. You shouldn't need to fake insecurities to get along with your sisters. I also wonder if you've had trouble relating to them in the past, or if this is a new phenomena.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:11 PM on February 26, 2012

Shut down the conversation with positive statements. "Hmmm...I think I look fine" (to a disparaging comment about you) "I disagree--you look great in that!" (to a disparaging comment about themselves): short, to-the-point statements to show you're listening, that shuts down the negative vibe, and then redirect the conversation to a different topic.

Good luck--this kind of talk is horrible for everyone involved.
posted by smirkette at 4:25 PM on February 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

When people go down that road around me, I just say, "Oh stop it! You're fine! Who cares?" Do you have kids? The other thing I say is, "I don't want [my daughter] thinking she needs to worry about
"fat" or her "boobs" or whatever. You're perfect--get over it!" You say they're attractive women--I would just say so and try to move on. That stuff really bugs me and I hate for my girls to hear it.
posted by biscuits at 4:27 PM on February 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

"Let's not do this body comparison thing. Please."
I have this in my family too and I feel like it's a pattern that women in groups regularly re-iterate. I position myself in a feminist way - that this commentary and enactment is detrimental to women's overall ability to talk about adult things that matter.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:34 PM on February 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

They're jealous and trying to make you "admit" that you don't like your own body. Then they'll feel better about the fact that they don't like their bodies.

I have friends who do this constantly and I refuse to participate. I will say "I'm fine with the way I look" and they'll (literally) reply with comments like "I don't beleive you" or "That's ridiculous you're not that good looking. Aren't you jealous of B? be is so pretty, all the boys love her, surely you know you can't ever be as attractive as B? ADMIT IT!!! ADMIT YOU'RE NOT AS PRETTY AS HER" These are women in their 40s, mind you. It's pathetic.

I pretty much made a rule that I don't discuss the way I look with them, or the way they look beyond making vaguely nice statements. It's ultimately impossible to be good friends with someone who is constantly trying to tear you down though. With the one woman I considered a close friend I sat her down and told her that and she's gotten a lot better. the others I just relegated to "sortof friends" but since they're your sisters you should probably spend some time trying to get them to see how uncomfortable this all makes you feel.

One thing I have noticed is that my "activity friends" (skiers, hikers, horse people) don't do this. It's only people who aren't very sporty and probably they have a totally different way of thinking about their body than I do. I'm happy if all the parts are working and I don't have any really noticeable bruises or cuts. I don't spend a lot of time examining my split ends though.
posted by fshgrl at 4:38 PM on February 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

It's your confidence they're jealous of btw.
posted by fshgrl at 4:38 PM on February 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

This issue continually comes up among my circle of female friends. I used to be REALLY bothered by it (for opposite reasons to you), but have started responding in the following way, which has worked wonders for me:
Whenever the self-deprecating one-upmanship begins, I simply say "I think you are all incredibly beautiful." (This takes care of the fishing for compliments thing), then I say: "More importantly, you're all fantastically smart/successful/creative/insert applicable (and genuine) adjective here" (This helps to not-so-subtly reinforce that there are more important values in the world than perceptions of physical beauty), and finally I say very plainly: "When you put yourself down like that, you actually make me (and other people around you) feel self-conscious. I know this is not your intention, but this is what happens." If the behaviour continues, I (literally) excuse myself from the conversation (or the room) until they begin to act like adults again.

Also, I agree wholeheartedly with biscuits that if these conversations are happening at family gatherings where children are present (yours or theirs), then you have even more incentive to try to publicly put a stop to it. Little girls don't need to have these thought patters and interactions modeled for them (they'll get enough of that elsewhere, sadly), and little boys don't need to be taught that these are the things that matter to women.

Speak up, speak clearly. Good luck!
posted by Dorinda at 4:53 PM on February 26, 2012 [28 favorites]

I think these suggestions are all good, and I don't think it exactly matters why they're doing it in the abstract, because they're hoping to get a rise out of you (at least a little bit) in the concrete present.

Here's my recommended response: a kind of distant/bored/not paying attention "Uh-huh?" followed up by removing yourself from the conversation, maybe with an excuse like "I'm going to go do the dishes" or "I need to check my messages" or "Do you need anything from the store?" as appropriate.

The baby shirt thing is bizarre... I think my ideal response would have been to ask for the receipt (I hate almost all joke gifts, really), thought I don't know if I would have thought to do so in the moment
posted by mskyle at 5:01 PM on February 26, 2012

I think fshgrl has a really good point -- I never hear this kind of talk from my friends who are active people, regardless of their size. (In fact, I'm thinking of a pair of friends who are very active. One's tall and slender and model-bodied, the other is shorter and curvier/rounder in places. I've never heard them engage in this kind of talk. In fact, I've heard them praise each other's attributes in very genuine ways.)

It is not something you're doing that makes them feel insecure. It's their own programming. You're doing nothing wrong here, and it is in NO WAY your fault that they engage in this kind of self-hating bullshit. I assure you, they'd do it whether you were there or not. It's nothing to do with you, because it's a very self-centered activity.

Keep refusing to engage. It may not be the most honorable tactic, but I have no problem getting passive-aggressive at family gatherings when the conversation turns to what we hate about ourselves -- since there are small children in my extended family, I have no qualms about saying, "Hey, you guys? Could we maybe dial down the self-hatred in front of the kids? It would just be awful if these sweet little girls learned how to hate themselves by watching you do it to yourselves." But then, I'm a loudmouth who doesn't play by my extended family's weird social rules, of course YMMV. But seriously, if there are young kids around, please speak up.
posted by palomar at 5:06 PM on February 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

One of my sisters was like that. She's a year older than me and brilliant but she talked about how she wanted to follow me around and do what I do for a day - eat, work out, etc. I'm the runt of the litter in my family - definitely the shortest, probably weigh the least, and while she is not a big person by any stretch of the imagination, she's taller than me, she doesn't like her thighs, and she doesn't work out. I think there's something about being sisters that makes you look at them and identify differences. It's the combination of "but we have the same genetic material" and the societal pressure girls all face to be thinner, cuter, sexier, etc.

I think refusing to engage/being positive is the best course of action.
posted by kat518 at 5:08 PM on February 26, 2012

Yeah, it's completely wrong, and you've got to redirect them. Doing so with kindness will help a lot, because you're right - this comes from a place of deep insecurity And it's a way of bonding, so it's doubly important to them. Dorinda's script is kind, loving, and right on!
posted by ldthomps at 5:45 PM on February 26, 2012

> I felt as though they were trying to engage me in some sort of ritual and I didn't know what the appropriate response was supposed to be. Are they doing this as a 'fishing for compliments' thing? Are we supposed to be bonding over shared insecurities?


And you're not playing, so they're doing a little bit of a mean girls thing.

It's fucking asinine, right?

I'd cut a little closer to the point than some other commenters, and point out that since we're all attractive and accomplished and intelligent, don't we have something better to do than yammer on about our bodies like some fucking infomercial/soap opera/sorority house hazing ritual?
posted by desuetude at 8:14 PM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

They're being gurls. Just tell them that you have them both beat in every department so that settles that, and move the conversation on to something else, with a big, friendly smile on your face, of course. Refuse to be baited unless you wish to spend the entire afternoon playing the game. I only had one sister and she died young, but my best friend had five of them and the conversation/s you describe were identical between those sisters, too - every single time any two of them got together. I used to wonder why they wasted so much time over such silly stuff, but they all just jumped right in each time they met.
posted by aryma at 10:19 PM on February 26, 2012

I'm a man, but I would agree with the feminist angle. Your sisters' conversation is tiresome and it is irrelevant. Your sisters' behaviour reminds me of one of my favourite quotations, from the 18th Century women's activist Mary Wollstonecraft:

"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."
posted by inbetweener at 2:12 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to connect with them, but I don't want to take part in some kind of 'I hate my body' fest. Also, it's hurtful to me to feel excluded because of things that I cannot change about myself particularly because they are my sisters. This is saddening, although I understand that these dynamics have emerged, not coincidentally, as they are both nearing forty and I am the youngest trailing behind.

Personally I'd just go for absurdity and contemplate who has the craziest looking butthole.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:47 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ugh, when I first went to college I remember thin girls talking about how fat they were, how much they just ate, etc. It felt like some weird bonding ritual that I just wasn't into "Oh my god I am so fat." "No, you are not, look at my stomach! I shouldn't have eaten mozzarella sticks last night." and on and on and on. All the frickin time. I think it's a behavioral pattern that self-conscious yet thin, attractive women fall into (you wouldn't hear a woman who's actually overweight saying "OMG I'm so fat"). But yeah, it's lame and boring to hear again and again.

I'd just ignore it as best as you can and try to steer the conversation topic to something else without being combative or sounding like you're narrating an after school special on body image. Maybe a lighthearted "Can we please gossip instead of talking about our breasts/stomachs/what have you? It's getting tiring." or "Shutup about your boobs for once and let's plan mom's birthday lunch/talk about cousin Joe's sex exchange/hear about your new job/insert actual interesting topic here"
posted by emd3737 at 4:34 AM on February 27, 2012

for whatever reason in the spectrum of personality in your family, you are in a different place to them. And they are closer to each other on the spectrum.

Your position comes across as confusing to them, different, and families don't tend to deal very well with difference.

In this case your sisters seem intent on trying to test the boundaries of your difference.

I don't think they way they are doing it comes across as reflecting well on where exactly on the personality spectrum they are.

you can either chose to try (once and for all in a very warm and non-threatening conversation) to outline that this behaviour really makes you uncomfortable and hope they accept your difference and/or simply stop responding to the ritualistic element with a "there you go again!" Eye roll, smile, no comment.
posted by Wilder at 6:00 AM on February 27, 2012

I hate to out myself on Metafilter, bastion of the nerdy, the intellectual, the un-concerned with culturally accepted aesthetics...but I think my perspective might be useful here, so here goes:

I used to do this. Sometimes I still do, though I have changed how I express it. And it makes me feel better about myself, about all that emotional baggage tied to my looks. Some of us really internalized those cultural standards about women's worth being tied very closely to our looks. It's hard to fight, even when you know it's wrong. Those emotions are powerful, and so very painful. I think many women connect via the ritual you describe of belittling their own bodies and looks, and expressing envy of others' endowments because that pain is hard to bear alone. This ritual proves that others feel the same pain. A shared burden is far easier to shoulder than one you carry alone.

All that said, the ritual tends to spiral downward, getting more and more negative and vitriolic. It's a terrible ritual. But it's purpose isn't so awful, and it's understanding the purpose of the ritual that might help you fight the negativity while still connecting with your sisters.

When I (or a friend) feel the desperate, insecure, psychological need to indulge in the ritual, I do indulge, but I've modified the structure (and this has helped me psychologically far more than repeatedly telling myself "looks don't matter," "this is sexist bullshit," "no one else would even notice that" while not allowing myself to indulge in the ritual at all. That usually ends with someone mad at me, or me stewing over all my faults internally. Both suck.)

The important aspects of the newly structured ritual:
1) Keep the mood of the ritual doggedly positive

2) Acknowledge that the negatives exist

3) Humorously point out the absurdity of caring too much about them.

4) Keep the ritual as short as possible using various conversation derailment techniques.

What this tends to look like:

Friend: Ugh I hate my legs. They're huge! I wish I could wear skinny jeans like you, but my legs just look like sausages.

Me: PSHH. Your legs are gorgeous and strong. Just because they're big doesn't mean they're ugly, you nutcake. I mean, I wish my legs were more shapely and less, er, chickeny, but what can ya do? If I had your legs I think I'd wear booty shorts every. damn. day. Even to the office. Because fuck it. *pause* I do have a nice rack, actually, so maybe I'll just walk around in my bra. You wear booty shorts and I'll be like "SUP. LOOK AT MAH BOOBIES," and we'll be all sorts of inappropriate and it'll be awesome. Man I want coffee. I need caffeine immediately or I may fall asleep on the sidewalk here. Where should we go?

And Scene.

I should add: no matter how much your sisters want you to, you do NOT have to participate, even in modified form. If this makes you feel crappy, then you can and should shut it down. Just shut it down kindly, with humor or distraction or something. It will help your relationship with your sisters.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 11:25 AM on February 27, 2012

"I'll be sure to keep that in mind if I ever want to look attractive to my sister."
posted by rhizome at 12:21 PM on February 27, 2012

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