Comments about your body

I want to tell you that everything you have heard about comments about your body or ethnicity are probably false. And I’m going to share with you a boundary I’ve established with regards to comments about my body and it may in fact guide you in your decision on what to do when someone makes a comment about your body.

When a person makes a comment to you about your body it most likely has something to do with your ethnicity. The two are linked because one of the building blocks of ethnicity is bloodline which then makes up your body substance (physical features)1.

Comments about your body – excluding verbal violence (i.e. threats, bullying) – are usually subtle and disguised as being conversational. Whether that’s the intention or not, often comments like these don’t feel good to us.

“I don’t get as dark as you in the sun.”

“You’d be prettier if you had a different nose.”

“I thought you were vegetarian.”

Comments about food are about the body and in turn, are also about your ethnicity as one of the building blocks of ethnicity has to do with who we eat with1. Regardless, food is essentially is about the body because it goes into the body. Comments about what you eat are the same as comments about your physical features.

Let’s check your current boundary around comments about your body:

  • Is it okay for some people to make a comment about your body (i.e. family members) and not okay for others (i.e. acquaintances) to make a comment?
  • Do you make comments about other people’s body?
  • Do you only make comments if the other person comments about their own body first? (then giving you permission to make a comment)
  • Do you think it’s okay to make positive comments (how you perceive them as positive) and not ok to make negative comments about their body?
  • Is it okay to make comments about celebrities? about their hair? If they’ve gotten Botox, the diet that they’re currently on?

I used to make comments about celebrities, thinking it’s okay because they won’t hear them. I had a lot rules like these and what’s interesting in setting up a boundary like this is that is actually doesn’t help you feel better or even better about your body.

It seems the biggest falsehood was that having rules like the ones mentioned above were the biggest source of my misery. I decided I needed to have only one boundary – I don’t make comments on other people’s physical features. Period. No celebrities, not my best friend.

Now, it doesn’t mean I don’t tell someone they look fabulous or amazing. I do. But I don’t make a comment about their body or a physical feature like:

“You look fantastic, that dress suits your skin tone.”

It clears up my head. Knowing that there is no need to focus on anyone’s physical feature to complement them will free up a lot of the mind drama in your head.

So what does that mean when someone makes a comment about one of my physical features, like the three real life comments from above?

What does it mean to you is the exact question you need to ask yourself. What does a comment about your body mean to you? When these comments were said to me I made it mean a lot of things in my head. My mind would circle and circle with negativity chipping at my self-worth. How?

Well, someone saying that my skin is dark is only a negative thing until I decide it is. Which I had done so. I interpreted my physical features due to my ethnicity as negative – my dark skin, nose and the fact that I ate meat.

And then I needed to have a boundary around what I said to myself about my physical features regardless of what others said. I refused to think and believe that my physical features meant something negative. No matter what someone’s intention was I stopped attaching meaning to their words.

I took their words at face value, as they said them. So indeed my friend thought I was vegetarian. And it stops there. And indeed, my family member thought I would be prettier with a different nose. It stops there. I wasn’t going to add that that meant I was ugly. Because it didn’t.

And by allowing other’s to have their comments I could then see how I had my own negative comments about my physical features running inside my head. And that was where the real boundary needed to be. Not with what others said.

Today, can you make a comment about the food I’m eating. Absolutely. Can you make a comment about my thick, wavy hair? Absolutely. Can you make a comment about my skin tone? Absolutely.

There are now only two boundaries about comments: what I say to people (or rather what I don’t say) and how I interpret those comments to mean something about me.

I speak more about this in the podcast episode 13 Boundary: Ethnicity.

1Nash, Manning. The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

What makes you interesting to others

It’s not a question you can ask, can you? It would be weird even if you asked a friend what makes you interesting. Not because you asked but because their definition of what makes you interesting wouldn’t be the same as yours or mine.

So, then why bother discussing this? Well, when you can understand how people define their interestingness of another, you have an opportunity to show them how unique you really are.

And not because you’re trying to change how the other person sees you but because it offers you an amazing opportunity to relate and connect authentically in your relationships.

Let’s back track a bit to meeting new people. When you meet new people you often find yourself in the question and answer type of conversation (small talk), much like an interview a journalist does.

And once someone hears a bit (a tiny bit) of your story, they latch onto a certain element of it that stands our in their mind. For example, as a person of colour with Indian ethnicity, non-South Asians find my ethnicity very interesting. Even when I’ve known them for a while.

I get questions about the meals I cook at home to what kind of traditional dresses do I have and how often do I wear them. What are the holidays I celebrate, etc.? You get the point.

This type of questioning happens when your circumstances are in contrast to the other person or group. They could latch onto to your profession or your family, etc. because it’s natural to pay attention to the differences.

Our brain notices a difference, focuses on it and then needs to somehow understand it enough to have it fit into one of the narratives they already are familiar with. Otherwise, it will cycle around in the brain causing a bit of distress until it gets resolved.

That’s how you can sort of know what makes you interesting to others. The questions they ask to you are sometimes a reflection of what they perceive as interesting about you.

Now, when I get questions about my ethnicity, do I think it contributes to my interestingness? Before, I would’ve said Yes but now I believe it’s not our circumstances (like my ethnicity or job or the city I live in) that make me interesting. Why? Well, there are close to 1,5 billion Indian people in this world. That makes me, well, kind of boring.

So, what do you do, when someone finds an aspect about your life that’s interesting and you don’t?

My race is not the most interesting thing about me; in fact, it’s the least.

For starters, we aren’t going to change how the other person behaves but what we can do is change how we respond to questions. Changing our response changes how we feel in the conversation and even offers a wonderful opportunity to share our most authentic and interesting self.

Let’s take the question: Do you cook curry?

It’s a Yes/No question that we often answer with an explanation of why our answer is Yes or No. For example, “Yes, it’s what I like to cook and know how to cook.”. Yet, again, cooking curry is not exactly interesting. It’s still commonplace.

And what more, is that it isn’t really sharing anything about me to lead to a better dialogue. So, let’s rewind.

Person: Do you cook curry?

Me: I don’t cook curry and I love to cook, I’m a self-taught cook and I’ve been introduced to recipes by Lorraine Pascale and Curtis Stone and love trying new stuff like…

That’s my true story and if I did cook curry I would still share more elements of my journey with cooking. By answering the question this way, I don’t reduce my story to a Yes or No and I let it take space (by adding in a few details in 2 or 3 sentences).

Your story has a right to take space and so does everyone else’s.

I’ve used this technique in answering “common” questions that I get and what happens about 90% of the time is that someone (let’s say you’re in a group) will connect to some part of what I said.

So, in the curry example, someone might also enjoy Lorraine Pascale’s cookbooks or they may like some the dishes I mention, etc. People have an opportunity to relate to me because I’ve given them the opportunity to do so.

I share more about this in podcast episode 3: What makes you interesting to others?

Questions about your ethnicity

Where were your parents born? or What’s your background? Questions that are referring to ethnicity in subtle ways. Yet, with all these questions, what does ethnicity really mean?

Not being an expert myself, I recently read a book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, called “The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World” and watched the EPIX docuseries entitled “Enslaved” featuring Samuel L. Jackson and came to an unexpected idea about ethnicity, something that surprised me and maybe helps you look at questions (and your answers) about your ethnicity in a new light.

First, it may seem like questions about your ethnicity are more direct than “Where are you really from?”. And well, although it may be closer to the person’s intention of understanding why we don’t look or sound like them, it’s actually a very complicated question.

How would you answer the question: what’s your ethnicity?

By the time you’re an adult you’ve probably answered it by choosing a box on an official, institutional form (Black, Asian, White, etc.). Maybe it’s “Other”, maybe you choose it if you’re mixed race or adopted or don’t know. And today, in some countries (i.e. United Kingdom) you can even write in your own ethnicity.

Which brings me to two ways we can actually view ethnicity:

  1. How institutions/governments or others (friends, co-workers) define your ethnicity.
  2. How you define your ethnicity.

When others (including institutions) define your ethnicity it comes from a reference point (based on historical policy). It’s how they (policymakers) view and group people together to create a narrative that serves multiple purposes.

At a societal level, it allows for resource allocations (time and money) and research inquiries and policy formation (law and order). Often, efficiency and self-interests interfere with societal effectiveness.

At a personal level, our brains want efficiency as well. It organises information about others into common stories or narratives. This allows the brain to do its one job: running efficiently. This helps us survive while riding a bike, thinking and conversing (and today using our hand held devices).

It’s, by far, more efficient for the brain to notice a difference in another and fit it into a predetermined narrative than it is for it to spend time and energy to evaluate all the differences it comes into contact in one day. And then decide if this difference is “safe” for our survival. And to do so for similar “differences” we encounter multiple times would run the brain amuck.

This is what happens in mundane, small talk conversations where questions like “where are you from” or “what’s your ethnicity?” create an efficient (and instant) way of determining who the other person is (erroneously linking ethnicity to our identity) and thereby determining safety. When our responses to these questions match societal standards, our brain also benefits from responding in familiar patterns.

But what is your reference point? That’s maybe the more salient question before deviating from society standards.

No doubt, it’s been influenced by society, culture, history, those official forms I mentioned above, media, and our family and experiences. We learn various reference points all throughout childhood and early adulthood.

Deciding how you reference your own ethnicity is, in essence, your power, your story. Your reference point is for you, not for anyone else. You get to decide knowing you can choose your reference point consciously and that you don’t need to condense it for someone else to hear your story better.

Your reference point might be the test you took to find out your lineage, it may come from the stories of your parents or it may come from your earliest memory of home.

However you choose your reference point, your story can be a part of the “everyday” narrative in society. It may not matter to the person asking the question but your story with all its differences has a place in all parts of society, ultimately to become part of the everyday narrative in society.

When we’re asked the ethnicity question, we can consciously choose to answer how we want. We can, then, change the dynamic of any conversation for ourselves. When we’re enabled to influence organisations in their reference points for the betterment of humanity, we change the world in which we experience.

I discuss the ethnicity question in relation to my personal experience and my learning from the book by Manning Nash as well as the docuseries, Enslaved, in the podcast episode 2: What’s your ethnicity?.