When I was obese, I encountered my share of body shaming. I was oinked at. My food choices were scoffed at. I was presumed to be lazy... among many other things. Some people even defended their hurtful words by saying they were performing some kind of “health activism.” But, to me, it felt like bullying, pure and simple, and it only served to feed the self-hatred I already felt.
Eventually, I did lose weight. While I can say with confidence that my personal fitness journey was not motivated by aesthetics or other people’s opinions regarding my physique, a part of me thought that, as I became smaller, the constant commentary on my body would end. Instead, I found the opposite to be true.
... a part of me thought that, as I became smaller, the constant commentary on my body would end. Instead, I found the opposite to be true.
Instead of finding that I had “made it,” I discovered a whole new list of attributes to achieve, and a longer list of “flaws” to address. My shame about my body before was simple. I thought I was “fat” and that was bad, so I needed to be “thin,” which would be good. In my new “thin” body, people constantly asked me if “I missed my boobs.” Personal trainers at the gym told me that I “looked pretty good, but I still needed to lose the gut.” Well-meaning co-workers told me not to lift too heavy or I would look like a man, and to “be careful to not lose my butt while I worked on my stomach.” All of this commentary felt exactly the same as someone oinking at me as I walked down the sidewalk. It all sent the same message: “What you look like is up for public commentary, and to be clear, you don’t measure up.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had previously watched my sister go through body shaming in an extreme way. She struggled for many years with exercise bulimia and anorexia. At the peak of her disease, people in her life treated her terribly. She was constantly told that she needed to “just eat a freaking sandwich.” Strangers stared at her and made comments that she was “gross.” Again, some people defend this behavior, convinced that they are doing a service for someone whom they believe to be unhealthy. However, as you can imagine, this did nothing to help my sister who was struggling with a disease that had taken over her life and body.
(When I hear people making casual comments about another woman “looking anorexic,” I still struggle to not rage like a mama bear. It brings me right back to when the world was so awful to my baby sister, and we feared we might lose her to her disease.)
New studies, including a 2014 report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, report that body-shaming actually increases the victim’s likelihood of participating in unhealthy behaviors1. In my sister’s case, her disease gave her a sense of control over her body after trauma, so someone else telling her what she should “just” do, made her hold on even more to what little control she felt that she did have over her body.
So if we know that making shameful judgments and assumptions about another person’s body is only harmful to them, why do we do it?
Photo courtesy of About-Face.org.
This is where I think our own insecurities come into play. When people were telling my sister to “just eat a freaking sandwich” it wasn’t about a health concern or supporting her in her recovery. It was an attempt to buoy their own self-esteem by picking apart her body.
Often times we see this as pitting women against one another. Memes support “big girls” or “athletic girls” or “thin girls” at the expense of others. “Real women have curves,” bashing women who do not. Or when did "this" (imagine any slim model) become more attractive than "this" (imagine Marilyn Monroe or other celebrity generally considered "curvy")?
These popular conversations are all a part of the same thing. An aesthetics-first attack on women.
From bashing my sister’s body while struggling with a disease to oinking at my overweight body and online memes touting which of us is “real” aligns with the following agreement: We are here to decorate the spaces we inhabit or do nothing at all.
I for one am no longer living in alignment with this value. Which means:
We cannot look at a person and decipher if they are making healthy choices in their life.
Shaming someone based on assumptions we make from our perception of them does nothing at all to encourage healthy choices. That remains the same, regardless of the size of the person on whose body we are commenting. While we are not expected to know what someone is going through, we can offer compassion by not judging, not offering commentary and not making their appearance our business.
To live in a world where women are regarded as people and not decoration, we need to stop making comments on other women’s appearance as though it is our right to do so. We’ll be doing each other a favor.
As mentioned above, so much of the need to comment on other people's body stems from our insecurities about our own body. We believe the more confident a woman can feel in her own skin, the less she will need to buoy her own self-esteem by judging others.
Note from GGS: If reaching a place where you feel confident in and about your body, where you are at peace with your body—where you actually love your body—sounds like an unattainable goal for you, we are here to tell you that you can get there.
If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.
Based on our years of experience working with and talking to women — and going through our own body image struggles — we designed this free course to help you start improving your body image immediately and give you the tools you need to finally feel good in your own skin.
Bust through negative beliefs, change your mindset, and start feeling awesome in your own skin with this information-packed 5-day course.
This free course includes videos, downloadable tools & resources, and podcast version so you can learn on the go.