Body Shaming: A Talk We Need to Address
By Sijé Vargas
reviewed by Juliana Ascolani
Despite being a slim person (which some people may believe is #bodygoals), people often comment on my physical appearance: for example, you are too skinny, your legs and arms are too long, your fingers are weird, you are too brown, etc. When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what that concept was called, I was only aware that it affected me every time someone commented on my body. After a long time, I understood that all that bullying was called body shaming.
After talking to other friends, I realized that they were also held to certain standards that no one could meet. I am tall and thin but not like the models in magazines, my friend was medium height but not as tall as society expects, and another one had acne, so her skin was not considered perfect. None of us were perfect in the eyes of society, so I asked myself, who is perfect? I even started to feel likeI didn’t deserve to feel good about my body.
What is body shaming?
Body shaming is the act of ridiculing or mocking a person’s physical appearance. The scope of body shaming is broad and can include, but is not limited to, shaming for being overweight or being thin, height, hairiness (or lack of it), hair color, the color of a person’s skin, body shape, or muscularity (or lack of it). It can even include shaming for some physical illnesses or for physically scarring diseases.
Body shaming affects women differently than it affects men, but it is also important to remember that it affects everyone who does not meet the beauty standards imposed nowadays.
- LGBTQI+ community: When it comes to fitting in one gender category, the LGBTQI+ community faces a multitude of barrires, especially transgender people. Many of them face gender dysphoria, which refers to the feeling of dissatisfaction regarding the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender they are. Also, body dissatisfaction in transgender people tends to be higher before experiencing gender confirmation treatments. Another obstacle they face is the way their bodies are idealized to cisnormative beauty standards. People who break gender norms are often criticized for the way they dress, talk, or look. The pressure to “pass” visually as cisgender can be destructive for those who currently have negative thoughts about who they are and their body.
- People with disabilities: According to Bradley University, people with disabilities face a daily struggle to be perceived as “real” people, since society may perceive some disabilities as undesirable or abnormal.
- Elderly: Losing hair, reduced mobility, and even poor eyesight can be some of the effects of aging. Even though these are natural changes that all human beings experience as we age, it is still not easy to adapt to them. Elderly people can develop their own personal insecurities regarding their appearances and physical capabilities. Body shaming in elderly people can exacerbate their anxieties.
According to a study conducted by the University of Victoria about body image perceptions in our society, for women, attractiveness is associated with thinness, while for men, it’s being muscular. The same study shows that ideals of appearance are often unattainable and that every day, these standards become more complicated and difficult to achieve.
Experts believe that this evaluation is linked to sociocultural expectations and influenced by mass media. The theory of sociocultural argues that media influences the individual’s perception of the ideal body. Those that do not match the imaginary idea are not perfect and are considered unattractive. Therefore, the perception of society’s appearance standards contributes to the dissatisfaction with our body image.
What about Black/Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) ?
As a person of color, I must mention the problems we face, since the ideals of beauty do not include us. What do I mean by this? My brown skin has been a factor of body shaming and discrimination, and it has not only happened to me, but to multiple people of color. Skin tone plays a significant role when we speak about body shaming. The perfect body image is a western construction, where my thick hair, my brown eyes, and my mixed-race features are not included as beauty but are sometimes seen as exotic. Most of the measures about bodies are related to middle-class white women standards, while BIPOC measures and features are completely wiped out.
I have discovered that body shaming and body image is related to racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. For this reason, if we want to move forward and celebrate all body types and forms, we must reshape, deconstruct and seek intersectional beauty (where everyone is included!). Beauty should not be limited to a certain category; beauty is bigger than any category.
How can body shaming affect your holistic health?
Although body shaming refers to physical appearance, this type of bullying can negatively affect mental and physical health. Body shaming in many cases can cause a person to reconsider who they are and how they want to look, which can affect their mental well-being and social health.
- Eating disorders: Psychologist Dr. Zimmerman explains that eating disorders are probably one of the most lethal diseases that many body shaming victims experience. He adds that dieting plays a significant role, especially since it can result in comments such as ‘you look great,’ emphasizing that only by dieting and starving would they have the perfect body.
- Depression: Constant negative comments can cause low self-esteem, which leads to feeling lonely and sorry for oneself. This can develop into a state of depression. According to a study, teenagers defined as obese had a 40% higher relative risk of depression. The main reason is that teenagers’ weight is socially stigmatized, leading to multiple forms of weight-related discrimination and bullying (such as teasing and rejection).
- Social isolation: Weight stigmatization and negative stereotyping, such as being lazy or unmotivated or lacking willpower, lead to prejudice, including social rejection, unfair treatment, or discrimination. This type of behavior can lead overweight individuals to social isolation. They are often subjected to discrimination in certain public places such as their workplace, school, and/or hospitals.
7 ways to overcome body shaming
There is really no formula for controlling what other people say about our bodies. However, in some situations, we can create boundaries to protect ourselves. Learning to stand up for ourselves positively and healthily is important. Here are seven ways that can help you overcome body shaming:
- Prioritize your comfort: If you find yourself in a circle where “jokes” are being made about your body or other people’s bodies that are making you uncomfortable, you can either say something or just walk away. Remember: your comfort is important and you should feel safe around people you love.
- Mainstream media: In mainstream media, we often see that thin, white, non-disabled bodies are the most desirable and perfect. For example, a study reported that 12th-grade girls’ perception of body shape was influenced by magazine pictures, and 47% report they want to lose weight because of magazine pictures. For this reason, it is very important that you use social media wisely, and follow people who represent you.
- If possible, set limits: I recently came across an image on Facebook that says, ‘the family tree can also be pruned.’ Often, we keep people close to us because they are family or very close friends. But keep in mind that if those people bring you negative feelings or just criticism, it’s not wrong to protect yourself.
- Surround yourself with people who support you: It has been proven that social support is utilized for buffering the adverse effects of stress on mental health and may reduce the negative health consequences of body shaming. So, identify body positive people within your circle or in the places you often visit. Think of those people who celebrate their body for what it is, treat it well, and don’t comment on other people’s physical appearance or their own.
- Seek a professional: Seeking professional help in situations we can’t control is a good approach. It is completely normal to feel vulnerable, especially if we have received negative comments about who we are, but remember that asking for help when going through a difficult time is not something to be embarrassed about. It doesn’t mean you are weak; it makes you strong because you are able to identify when you need help and know what is best for you.
- Practice self-love: For a long time, I refused to wear certain types of clothes that showed my legs. Thenone day, I fell in love with a dress, bought it, and kept it in my closet for a year. After several fights with myself, I decided to wear it. I decided to face my fear. Then, I determined that at least once a week, I would wear a dress or skirt. For me, it was a way to care, honor, and appreciate my legs. Facing my insecurities is an everyday hurdle, and so is practicing self-love. There are days when it’s harder to love my legs or even my skin color, but my body is who I am. “Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.” — Serena Williams
- Promote the acceptance of all bodies: The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders suggests that one way to fight back against body shaming is by using our platforms (social media). If you feel ready, do not hesitate to share your experience in posts or even in blogs. A simple action such as posting a picture of you being yourself can help others build confidence and acceptance of their own bodies.
There are still many stigmas that we must address, and for that, it is necessary to work as a community, as a society, and as individuals. We can start little by little, by taking care of ourselves (self-criticism is also considered body shaming) and recognizing our own beauty before recognizing the beauty of others. It is important to acknowledge beauty regardless of expression, disabilities, age, or gender identity. Aiming to achieve body positivity is also aiming for better holistic health for ourselves. I don’t know about you, but my friends and I always felt we don’t belong in this world; we deserve not to feel this way, and so does everyone else.
Through different social projects related to Human Rights, my education background in Literature and personal experiences as a migrant I came to the conclusion that words can help us to move forward and heal. I use writing as a method to spread the word about topics that help us imagine alternative ways of living where we are all included. I highly believe that in order to have an inclusive world we must focus on communicating the importance of holistic health and wellbeing as a key part of achieving a better life.
I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.
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