The Subtleties of Body-Shaming (Explained by a Therapist)

Featured Illustration: Sherrin George

grey-line-png-6

Do I look fat?”
“You’re so skinny, you should eat more!”
“You’re not fat, you’re beautiful.”
“Real women have curves.”
“She looks pregnant.”
‘You look so skinny in that dress!”
“Did you lose weight? You look great!”
“Have you been working out? Your butt looks so big!”

You might be surprised to learn that the above statements share a common factor: they are all examples of body-shaming — a term that you have likely heard before. Let’s take some time to understand what it means.

Body-shaming is the act or practice of humiliating someone by making mocking or critical comments about their body shape or size. People generally engage in body-shaming in three ways: 1) By criticizing their own appearance (“I’m so fat”), 2) By criticizing another person’s appearance directly or indirectly (“You should eat more, you’re so skinny”), or 3) Criticizing them behind their back (“That outfit is not flattering”).

Being fixated on others’ bodies isn’t just detrimental to those being shamed, it can also be damaging to the ones doing the shaming as it perpetuates a cycle of negative thoughts. Research shows that body-shaming is associated with increased mental health issues like anxiety, depression, low self-worth, and eating disorders. These issues can also lead to serious somatic concerns such as metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels.

In 2021, social media makes this even more complex with apps that promise to make you look thinner or curvier in the “right” places. There seems to be a fascination with things that appear aesthetically healthy, rather than habits that actually lead to a healthy lifestyle. Consider this: how many times have you thought someone is in good shape if they look slim without knowing their habits surrounding diet and exercise? On the other hand, you might see someone who is overweight and automatically think that they’re unhealthy. But the truth is, it’s impossible for us to know the details of anyone’s health, habits, or life circumstances.

Even after understanding the damaging impact that body-shaming can have, why do people continue to engage in this type of behavior? Social scientists have found that some people tend to criticize or shame others as a way to manage feeling intimidated, annoyed, or upset. For example, when we feel betrayed by a friend, it’s easier to target a physical trait about them  (that everyone can see) rather than expressing what’s going on inside of us emotionally (that no one can see). By doing this, body-shaming temporarily distracts us from difficult feelings by creating a “flaw” in another person to focus on instead.

If this has ever been you, it’s important to understand that this is typically a defense mechanism, which is a complex internal process you may not always be aware of. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, but it could indicate a need for more self-love and acceptance, among other insecurities. If you recognize that this is a pattern for you, then it may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional to understand why this is happening at a deeper level. Here are some tools that you can use to start managing this:

  1. Get in the habit of recognizing why you are upset about a situation. For example, it’s unlikely that you’re mad at a friend because their hair is frizzy or their clothes don’t match, and more likely that you’re upset about feeling rejected or insecure about the relationship. Whatever is really going on, practice thinking it, and eventually, verbalizing it to hear yourself out loud.
  2. Find a way to “confront” the people who perpetuate you to engage in body-shaming. Is this something that you see your friends or family doing to you (or others)? Try challenging them or take a step back in participating and see how it makes you feel. It’s not easy, but if you can, try discussing why it’s problematic and hurtful.
  3. Identify things you like about yourself (physically or otherwise). Whether it’s your hair, mind, humor, resilience, or determination, celebrating the little things about ourselves has a big impact on our well-being.

If you’ve experienced body-shaming from others, it’s important to recognize that feeling hurt and angry are normal responses to the situation. You may have heard people close to you say, “don’t let it get to you,” but this is easier said than done. When this happens, here are some tools you can use to protect yourself:

  1.  It’s okay to take space from people who put you down, even if they are close to you. You might feel tempted to confront or even educate someone on their actions, but it’s not your responsibility to educate people. If doing this helps you, great; you can say, “Thanks for your comment, but I try not to talk negatively about bodies,” or, “I don’t understand why people feel they can judge others’ bodies.” If someone shames you online, feel free to block them.
  2. Find someone trustworthy and warm that you can talk to about your feelings. It’s hard to keep difficult feelings inside, so if you have a close friend, family member, or colleague that you can trust, reach out to them. If there isn’t anyone, contact a mental health professional to discuss how body-shaming makes you feel.
  3. Curate your circle, whether that’s your friends or social media. The people (or profiles) we see on a daily basis have a huge impact on our well-being. Surround yourself with people who are body-positive. Figure out who doesn’t make you feel good. Unfollow accounts that trigger you and add the ones that uplift you or make you feel accepted.

As human beings, it’s likely that we will occasionally say the wrong thing to someone even if we have good intentions. Here are some tips to keep in mind no matter who you are:

  1. Commenting on others’ weight is off-topic. Regardless of who they are and your relationship (partner, colleague, neighbor), avoid making a statement about their weight unless they have asked for your advice. If you’re concerned about a problem associated with their weight, make the conversation about their health and not the numbers.
  2. Ask yourself: is it necessary and is it kind? Most people don’t have poor intentions when they comment on someone else’s body, but the truth is, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
  3. Accept and love yourself. When you respect yourself, you’re generally filled with positivity and it doesn’t feel good to engage in things that could put someone else down. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough love for yourself, it’s not easy to share with others.

I would love to hear ways that you have managed body-shaming, or any thoughts you have on the topic. You can share with me at @your.being.