Picture this. You are shopping with a girlfriend. She comes out of the dressing room, turns to you and says, "Does this dress make me look fat?"
Your first impulse might be to immediately say, "No." You cringe and feel backed into a corner. It's a no-win situation. Before you answer, think about this advice. Consider what she is really asking. Don't take this question literally.
1) Appearance. In the dressing room scenario, what she may be actually asking is, "Does this dress look nice?" So, try not to get roped in by the word "fat." "Fat" is an extremely loaded word that can hit people emotionally on so many levels. A better way to answer is, "That outfit is really nice on you." Or, "The other dress is more flattering." Even better: "How do you feel in that outfit?" If she tries to push you back to the original question, stick with this strategy. Sometimes it's unconscious. Men and women say this phrase automatically without really thinking.
2) Reassurance. Let's look beyond the dressing room situation. Now, imagine that it is your spouse or your child asking, "Do I look fat?" Sometimes the question comes out of the blue and isn't referring to clothing. This is often seeking something very different. It's looking for reassurance. Essentially, your loved one is asking, "Do you think I am okay?" Or, fill in the blank with any other word that fits such as attractive, loveable, great etc. Your response: "Are you asking how I feel about you? I think you are amazing." When you have a solid self-esteem, you can typically work past self-doubt by yourself. When you don't, you often need a little help. Consider if this person may benefit from more verbal feedback and validation from you in general.
3) Healthy Weight? Yet another version is really asking, "Is my weight unhealthy?" It's understandable why he or she may be seeking another opinion. There are so many confusing messages about what is a healthy weight. A fashion magazine may make you feel overweight but you may be the thinnest person in your family. If you feel this is what is really behind the fat question, reframe it to, "Are you worried that you are overweight?" Defer to a physician. "You may want to ask your doctor. The doctor can help you determine a healthy weight for you."
4) Self-Esteem. What if you are constantly asking, "Do I look fat?" Again, this is a red flag that you are possibly asking for reassurance not exactly validation on how you look. Remember that your significant other can tell you until they are blue in the face that you look great, but really, only you can make these words stick. When you don't really believe it yourself, it doesn't matter what others say.
5) Feelings. Finally, imagine that someone who has body image issues or an eating disorder asks if they look fat. This is often a sign of anxiety. Getting into a debate about "fat" completely misses the boat. In this case, try "When you ask me that it tells me you are worried about something. What's wrong?" It might be concern over appearance. But, often it's about feeling something uncomfortable like too full, overwhelmed or stressed out. Focus on the feeling.
The lesson: When you or someone else asks the question, "Do I look fat?" don't answer with a "yes" or "no." Instead, consider what they are really asking, reframe the question and put it back in their hands. More often than not it is signaling a need for reassurance. Let's stop perpetuating the use of the word "fat" to express things that can be clearly and more accurately stated in other ways.
Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful, and Mindful Eating 101 and is a Huffington Post blogger. Her books have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, O, the Oprah Magazine, Natural Health, Self Magazine and on the Dr. Oz T.V. show. Visit Albers online at http://www.eatingmindfully.com