The old children’s rhyme goes like this: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.” I beg to differ.
We live in the Internet Age. There are a lot more words at our fingertips now. Comment sections for every picture and post, and it seems everyone’s got something to say. I share photos each day with nearly 400,000 people so I’ve seen it all. Luckily it’s made me immune to the power of negative comments. I learned early in my career that what Sally says about Sue reveals more about Sally than it does of Sue, a lesson I’ve never forgotten. So when people discuss whether or not they like my body in response to my posts on Instagram @wayofgray, I typically shrug it off.
A recent one: “She looks so anorexic.” I read it, and I was deeply agitated. Not because I personally live with anorexia (I don’t) but because anorexia is not a body shape or size. Anorexia is a disorder that can affect anyone. Man or woman. Young or old. Large or small.
I may have learned to shrug off thoughtless comments and allegations, but I don’t enjoy them. And I know similar words get pointed at others—others who may not have a reflex to easily disregard them. Comments the author may have typed without a moment’s reflection. Nonetheless those words can be heavily loaded, harsh accusations that can sting in unfathomable ways.
In the words of the National Institute of Mental Health: “Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, feature serious disturbances in eating behavior and weight regulation. They are associated with a wide range of adverse psychological, physical, and social consequences.”
Eating disorders are serious. How can we think looking at a photo on our phones gives us proper authority to offer a medical or psychological diagnosis?
I’ve witnessed a growing habit of people coopting serious conditions into casual descriptors, applied to strangers, friends and even said of oneself:
“She’s such a psycho.”
“I am so bipolar.”
“I’m like so depressed.”
Maybe you meant she’s frazzled, or you’re moody or indecisive or stressed or bummed out? But you said psycho, or bipolar, or depressed. And the more loaded meaning could have been completely unintentional. But the remark could pack a punch, particularly if said in the presence of an individual who is living with mental illness.
I’m not here to send you on a guilt trip. We’re all (myself included) guilty of sometimes lacking sensitivity when we speak. But we can be more mindful moving forward. Consciously choosing our words. Opting for a vocabulary that expresses our meaning without making light of the struggles of others.
Next time you catch a deprecating comment in formation, pause to remember that you never really know who is listening, who is struggling, and how your words may affect them.