If you've ever been body-shamed by someone, you know how uncomfortable it feels. Body shaming has become a norm of society, especially messages directed toward women. And with the growth of social media, body shaming has pushed its way into nearly every corner of daily life.
While men experience body shaming at times, it is far more common among women. Women also tend to have more disordered eating and tend to have more negative views about their own body. Men tend to have more positive body talk than women, which often improves their self-worth.
Body shaming is everywhere in society, but you can fight back. With social support and a deeper understanding of the issues, you'll understand when it's happening and how you can challenge it on the spot.
What is body shaming?
Body shaming is the act of humiliating someone about some aspect of their body. If you've ever been criticized or mocked for the way your body looks, you understand the painful impact words can have.
While many people are criticized for being larger, thin people get body-shamed, too. This can happen to people with any body feature that stands out, including birthmarks, birth defects, illness, and disabilities.
Getting criticized for your body can be humiliating and hurtful. Your body is unique, and you'll have it for the rest of your life. Body shaming can feel like a cruel attack on you as a person. This criticism suggests that you are unlikeable or unwanted and that you can be quickly rejected.
The following statements can sound like a compliment at first, but there's a catch. Each comment is based on criticism and comparison. Notice how some aspect of physical appearance is left out or disqualified in each statement.
- Did you lose weight? You look amazing!
- You're so lucky; you don't have to worry about what you eat.
- You're so pretty, other than/especially without your wheelchair.
- Real men look like/have (physical feature)
- Real women look like/have (physical feature)
- You're so handsome for someone who (is heavier, has a cleft lip, has a leg brace, etc.)
Other body-shaming comments are more direct and rude. It's not hard to see how these statements can cause emotional pain:
- You're too fat to wear that shirt.
- Your crazy hair looks so stupid; you should cut it.
- Look at me, I have an ugly scar on my face, just like you!
Some people believe that humiliation or embarrassment is good motivation for change. However, there is no evidence that this makes a difference. You might even body-shame yourself, criticizing your appearance, or wishing you had someone else's body. No matter how it's done, body shaming is hurtful.
When it's body shaming and when it's not
If you've experienced years of body shaming, even a conversation about health issues can be challenging. It's easy to get defensive about any topic related to your body. So how can you tell if someone is body-shaming you or not?
These situations are NOT body shaming:
- An honest and compassionate conversation about your health
- When you feel someone is listening to all your concerns and not focusing solely on your physical appearance
- When someone asks what you need instead of telling you what you need
- When someone is upfront and clear but not insensitive to you as a person
Sometimes a comment or conversation really is body shaming. Some people think they're offering a compliment or just being helpful. But they clearly miss the harmful and judgmental nature of their comments.
Excess weight or thinness can occur for many reasons, sometimes out of a person's control. People often shame others with disabilities, birth defects, or other conditions that affect physical appearance. Even people who appear thin can have issues with their body image or their health. Even if it seems to be positive, commenting like this may bring unwanted attention to their body.
If others have repeatedly body-shamed you, it's probably easy to pull up a mental list of the comments you've heard. Unfortunately, you might hurt yourself by repeating these messages in your mind. Your relationship with your body image spans a lifetime, and a negative influence like body shaming can take a heavy toll.
People often criticize themselves when they lose confidence or make mistakes. But if you also body-shame yourself, you're pounding your mind with even more negativity. You may believe your own body-shaming statements more than someone trying to support you.
Is body shaming a form of bullying?
Body shaming isn't always bullying, but it can be. The difference lies in long-term goals. A bold and outspoken person could definitely make body-shaming comments to you. But if they seem random or isolated, they don't necessarily add up to bullying.
First, bullying requires a difference of power between you and the other individual. Second, the other person uses intimidating behavior or comments to maintain their power over you. And third, this is done systematically over time. If someone you know regularly makes body-shaming comments to you while using threats and intimidation, you may be in a bullying situation.
What are the potential consequences of body shaming?
The consequences of unchecked body shaming can affect you for years. Some of the more common long-term problems can include:
- Low self-esteem
- Low self-worth
- More self-criticism
- Lack of motivation for good self-care
- Increase risk of depression or anxiety
- Social withdrawal
What to do and how to respond to body shaming
When you hear a comment and recognize it as body shaming, it can stun you. You can walk away if you aren't sure how to respond, which would be understandable. We're socialized to be polite, even if someone is rude to us. But if you feel more confident, you could give a simple reply like, "I'm not sure you realized it, but that's a hurtful comment." Or, "That's pretty rude."
While it's vital to let others know that body shaming is unacceptable, you may body-shame yourself, too. Self-body shaming is a habit, and habits take time and effort to change. Changing the script in your mind can be a challenge, but it's something you can work on one day at a time.
Self-help books and journaling can help you improve your self-image. And a supportive person in your corner can make a big difference, too. Counseling may be a good choice if a self-help approach doesn't work or you're dealing with other mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Body shaming has become a painful and humiliating part of society. You may not realize how much you do it to yourself. But that can change for you today. It starts with challenging your own thoughts and beliefs about your body and telling others that body shaming comments aren't OK. You are worth it, no matter what.