Social perception of a perfect body has been evolving over centuries and yet still these ideas exist, the act of humiliation or shaming of any body that deviates from these definitions also persists. Body shaming is the act of making negative unsolicited comments about a person’s physical appearance, often implying how certain bodies are better than others.
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Types of body shaming
Body shaming may happen when any aspect of your body does not fit in with the cultural or societal body-based stereotypes. Here are some of the most common ways you may witness body shaming around you.
Body weight has for centuries been central to the idea of an attractive body, and exceeding societal standards of what your acceptable weight should be can lead to someone being termed as ‘fat’. While in medical terms, being overweight is determined by a person’s body mass index, the concept of being ‘fat’ does not necessarily mean being overweight. The word in itself holds a negative connotation and is often linked with distorted ideas of beauty. You may have noticed veiled compliments like “Did you lose weight? You look great now!”—which is a covert way of fat-shaming.
Skinny shaming is one of the lesser talked about aspects of body weight shaming. Skinny shaming is the act of shaming someone because their body weight is lesser than the societal norm, making them too ‘skinny’. Losing weight to fit beauty standards was glorified for decades leading to a rise in dysfunctional eating patterns and eating disorders. However, the movement to break that norm has resulted in the notion that being underweight is synonymous with having anorexia. Remarks like “You’re so skinny, you must start eating more” may stem from well-intentioned ideas, but are often based on faulty assumptions that being skinny equates to being unhealthy or physically weak.
Body hair shaming
Another form of body shaming which is quite gendered in nature is body hair shaming. While all forms of body hair are natural and exist for a biological purpose, societal ideas of beauty have very neatly categorised body hair into acceptable and unacceptable categories. While hair on arms and legs is quite acceptable for men, it’s considered unfathomable or even disgusting for women. While body hair does require grooming like all other parts of our body, it does not warrant complete removal. Comments like ‘Oh, you must get rid of that hair if you wish to wear that dress’ are subtle ways of body hair shaming, based on erroneous hygiene and beauty assumptions.
Social norms not only determine how our bodies should look but also how we need to dress them. While clothing comes in all sizes, societal views on fashion and beauty play a role in its access and availability. When shopping for clothes or accessories, you may have heard comments like ‘Oh, this makes you look the perfect size’. If your body fits that perfect standard, you may have the choice of revealing your skin as per your comfort level. However, anyone whose body does not fit in that mould might be restricted to clothes which are meant to cover their bodies or enhance certain parts to help them create an illusion of that perfect body.
Unsolicited health advice
Exercise and diet are essential aspects of our health and impact our physical and mental well-being in various ways. Hence it is common for people to discuss ideas regarding these aspects, forming their individual opinions on what is healthy and beautiful. However, when these opinions are expressed as unsolicited advice to others in the form of statements like “You must try this exercise, then you can also have a flat stomach”, they become examples of body shaming. Often, recommendations of following certain regimes of exercise or diet can demand regular monitoring of body weight or eating patterns and which may act as a trigger for those experiencing body image issues or disordered eating patterns.
Effects of body shaming
Constant exposure to body shaming incidents can lead to various negative effects, especially on our mental health and give rise to a number of mental health issues.
Developing body shame
Constant exposure to body shaming can lead you to internalise those beliefs and view your own appearance with shame. Living with body shame leads to a constant negative evaluation of how your body looks, maximising the difference between society’s ideals and ourselves. It can trigger constant checks on one’s calorie intake and body weight and result in undue comparisons with other people’s appearances.
Our bodies form an essential part of our self-esteem. How we feel about our bodies hence also determines how we might end up feeling about ourselves. Receiving repeated criticism and negative comments about our appearance can damage our self-perception and result in low self-esteem.
Body shaming can cause a lot of emotional distress, especially if one experiences it at a younger age when our ideas of self-esteem and body image are still being developed. Being compared to unrealistic ideals of having a perfect body can lead to children forming insecurities around their growing bodies. They may experience feelings of envy towards those having a body that is closer to the perceived perfect body image and may even develop hatred or disgust towards their own body for not being that way.
Body shaming can make some people constantly think about their appearance and give unrequited attention to every calorie they consume. They may also develop disordered eating and other unhealthy behaviours and patterns. Anorexia and bulimia are two such eating disorders in which individuals tend to be obsessively concerned about their body weight. They tend to strictly monitor their food intake or may experience episodes of bingeing and then subsequently purging through induced vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercise. Such individuals are particularly vulnerable to body shaming incidents which may act as a trigger and aggravate their condition.
Receiving negative comments about how you look can lead to poor body image and cause extreme anxiety about your body shape and physical appearance. This may lead to a condition called body dysmorphia in which individuals tend to develop anxiety around the perceived flaws in their body and constantly focus on their imperfections. Those with body dysmorphia often experience incidents of body shaming in early adolescence, which can define their perception of a perfect desirable body and how their own body or part of it is flawed and different.
5 ways to challenge and overcome body shaming
Body shaming has been linked to various mental health problems and unhealthy behavioural patterns which may cause harm to our physical well-being as well. It is therefore important to know how we can challenge body shaming and overcome the impact it may have had on us over the years.
Educate yourself about body shaming and body positivity
Often we become witnesses or victims of body shaming without realising it. These incidents then subconsciously form our body image and we may be left wondering why we feel the way we do. Hence it becomes essential to educate yourself about body shaming, the subtle ways it may occur and how we can challenge it by becoming more body positive. Body positivity is a movement of accepting all bodies in their natural state and developing self-love. It is a great tool for combating body shaming.
Body shaming can often be subtle and we may not realise when we become complicit in it by being a witness and tolerating it. There are many everyday jibes in our conversations that we may hear or use to refer to someone’s physical appearance. Tolerating body shaming around us encourages the problem instead of curbing it. Whether it is by educating others who body shame, or by encouraging individuals who are body shamed around us, we all must attempt to put a stop to body shaming. If we are doing nothing when we observe it, we might as well be cheering it on.
Reframe negative thoughts about your body
A good place to start overcoming body shaming is to reflect on what you truly think and feel about your body, identify the negative thoughts surrounding your body image and reframe them into more positive and healthy thoughts. For instance, when you experience thoughts like “Oh my arms look fat, no one needs to look at that, I must cover them”, take a moment to pause, reflect and reframe. One alternative thought could be “My arms are part of my body, they help me keep healthy and enable me to do things. I’m proud of them” or you could try focusing on what you like about yourself. In addition, remember to be kind and compassionate towards yourself and surround yourself with supportive people.
If you find yourself constantly having negative thoughts about yourself, you can try Wysa, an AI-powered mental health app. It’s an ‘emotionally intelligent’ AI chatbot that can guide you to evidence-based exercises and tools to help you reframe your thoughts and improve your body image.
Take control of your social media
Social media can play a big role in promoting heavily edited images of ‘idealised’ body types, which in turn can give rise to unrealistic expectations, undue comparisons and negative body image. To counter this, you can unfollow social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself and replace them with those that focus on body positivity and acceptance.
A lot of body shaming on social media platforms may also take the form of cyberbullying from strangers with ill-informed and unhealthy beauty standards. We must remember that we can choose to control how much access we want to give to such individuals while sharing personal content and not subject ourselves to their unhealthy belief system.
If you find yourself struggling with negative thoughts and feelings about your body or constantly fighting body shaming, remember you’re not alone in the battle. Help and support are available. Reaching out to a therapist to talk about these experiences can help you combat body shaming. You can also try Wysa’s self-help tools for improving self-esteem, and building confidence and positivity.