Words Have Weight: The Many Forms of Body-Shaming

A closer look at body-shaming towards ourselves and others.

Posted Feb 02, 2021

When was the last time you looked in the mirror and admired your reflection? We are bombarded with images of perfect bodies on TV, in magazines, and all over social media. In our weight-conscious culture, physical appearance often overrides health considerations.

The overall message we receive is that we should strive for the perfect body and find ways to hide our flaws. Trying to live up to these standards creates negative feelings about our self-worth and self-esteem. It also leads to judgments about ourselves and others, which can manifest as body-shaming.

What Constitutes Body-Shaming?

Body-shaming may be considered a form of bullying (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018). It involves humiliating someone by making inappropriate or derogatory comments about their body size or shape. These criticisms can be made to ourselves, or to others either with or without that person’s knowledge. The act of mocking others can be carried out in person or via the internet and social media. Technological platforms play a significant role by emphasizing physical appearance, as well as providing a convenient vehicle for body-shaming. It’s easy to post hurtful comments about others online because of the enhanced access and anonymity. This form of cyberbullying has contributed to body-shaming practices in recent years.

Although body-shaming is usually associated with fat-shaming, people of all sizes and shapes can bear the brunt of this cruelty. Being very slender, I have been subjected to irritating comments, such as “Don’t you eat?” or “You eat like a bird.” Even in a joking manner, remarks about what or how much food people are eating constitutes body-shaming. People may think it’s a compliment to say how lucky you are to be thin, but words can be harmful especially if you’re already self-conscious about your weight. Even though you may not intend to hurt someone’s feelings, you may inadvertently be engaging in body-shaming. 

How many times have you said to yourself that you feel fat or asked others if you look fat? You may not realize it, but these are also body-shaming practices. It implies that being fat is unattractive and something to be ashamed of. Let’s face it—we only have a certain degree of control over our genetic makeup and metabolism. Although people don’t choose to be overweight, weight biases remain widespread in many societies and the fat-shaming practices continue. This becomes a vicious cycle because the shame of weight discrimination contributes to stress and more weight gain (Vogel, 2019). 

Body-Shaming and Gender

The stigma surrounding weight and body type can have long term psychological and physical health consequences (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018). Feminine ideals of beauty changed beginning in the 1960s when thin women were considered to be more attractive than heavier women. Men who were taller and muscular were viewed as the desired body type. Since the stringent standards for women are generally unrealistic and unattainable, body-shaming tends to be more prevalent towards females than males (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018).

A comparison study of body-shaming and social anxiety between males and females, ages 18-30 revealed some surprising results (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018).The researchers evaluated the relationship between social anxiety, fear of negative evaluation, and body-shaming. Although there was a positive correlation between social anxiety and body-shaming, no gender differences were found for the three variables in this sample (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018). This suggests that nobody is immune to body-shaming or societal pressures to look a certain way.

Adolescents and Appearance-Based Shaming

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to body-shaming, weight-shaming, and appearance-based shaming during this pivotal stage of development (Gam, Singh, Manar, Kar & Gupta, 2020). Attitudes towards body image and self-esteem are largely influenced by family members, peers, and social media. Weight-related bullying during adolescence contributes to negative body perceptions and preoccupations with specific body parts (Voelker, Reel, & Greenleaf, 2015). Adolescent girls, in particular, are at increased risk for eating disorders and dysfunctional exercise stemming from pressures concerning their appearance (Voelker et al., 2015).

Studies indicate that the effects of being bullied during adolescence have both short-term and long-term mental health consequences (Ringdal, Bjornsen & Espnes, 2020). Similarly, mental health issues, including body dissatisfaction, anxiety, and depressive symptoms may result from appearance-based harassment among youth (Gam et al., 2020). Other studies suggest a link between appearance-based teasing and an increase in alcohol use with more frequent binge drinking in early adolescence (Klinck, Vannucci, Fagle, & Ohannessian, 2020).  

 Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Body-Shaming as an Occupational Hazard

Body-shaming is widespread throughout the workplace. Since the office is fundamentally a social setting, weight and dieting tend to be popular topics of conversation. Busybody co-workers offering unsolicited advice about what you’re eating for lunch is more than just an annoyance. People who are overweight, particularly women, are often passed over for promotional opportunities (Mull, 2019). The “wellness craze” is rampant in our culture, resulting in both positive and negative consequences. Although worksite wellness programs can be beneficial in many respects, they also emphasize weight loss as an important health priority. This can lead to both poor self-image and shaming of others to comply with these recommendations (Mull, 2019). 

Individuals in professions that uphold specific aesthetic ideals face harsh criticism about their appearance. Celebrities are a particular target for body-shaming with the constant scrutiny from the public eye. Many notable women and men have spoken out about this issue in order to raise awareness and promote body positivity. Among them are Serena Williams, Kelly Clarkson, Ashley Graham, Sam Smith, and Robert Pattinson. This is a long-overdue message for the entertainment industry, as well as the general public.

Dance is another profession where body-shaming is pervasive. Dancers are constantly judged on their body types by themselves, teachers, coaches, and the audience. High levels of perfectionism pertaining to performance and a lean body appearance are inherent within the dance culture. Ballet dancers constantly worry about their weight which can lead to the development of disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. (Alvero-Cruz, Mathias, & Gargia-Romero, 2020). 

 Alexandre Dinaut/Unsplash
Source: Alexandre Dinaut/Unsplash

As part of the effort to bring attention to the issue of body-shaming in dance, several dancers have begun to publicize their experiences. Kathryn Morgan, a former soloist with Miami City Ballet, posted a YouTube video explaining the reasons why she recently left the company. She indicated that she was pulled from a number of leading roles because of her body shape and was told she couldn’t go back on stage until she was “looking like a ballerina.” According to Morgan, this caused her to return to unhealthy eating habits and feelings of anxiety and depression (Barnett, 2020). 

Promoting Body Positivity 

Kathryn Morgan’s message created a media storm of dancers revealing similar anecdotes about themselves. The “anti-body-shaming movement” has begun to take shape with an increased focus on body positivity. This is a step in the right direction towards altering our appearance-based biases and prejudices. The necessity of opening up a dialog about this controversial subject is highly apparent from a mental health perspective. There have been attempts to alter our mindsets with marketing campaigns that incorporate more mainstream body images. Nonetheless, it will take time to change our longstanding ideals of beauty and relationships with our own bodies. Body positivity is a journey towards accepting ourselves and others. Learning to embrace our own imperfections will ultimately free us from placing unfair judgments on others.

“Step away from the mean girls and say bye-bye to feeling bad about your looks. Are you ready to stop colluding with a culture that makes so many of us feel physically inadequate? Say goodbye to your inner critic, and take this pledge to be kinder to yourself and others." —Oprah Winfrey

References

Agarwal, T. & Banerjee, A. 2018). Body shaming and social anxiety: Assessing gender differences. The Learning Curve, 7, 72-75. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e332/9c7e98abe100397aa879bacba0c261668299.pdf#page=73.

Alvero-Cruz, J.R., Mathias, V.P., & Garcia-Romero, J.C. (2020). Somatotype components as useful predictors of disordered eating attitudes in young female ballet dance students. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(7), 2024. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm9072024.

Barnett, C. (2020). Dancers say it’s time to talk about ballet companies that body-shame. Retrieved from https://observer.com/2020/11/ballet-companies-body-shaming-kathryn-morgan/

Gam, R.T., Singh, S.K., Manar, M. Kar, S.K., & Gupta, A. (2020). Body shaming among school-going adolescents: Prevalence and predictors. International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health, 7(4), 1324-1328. Retrieved from DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18203/2394-6040.ijcmph20201075. 

Klinck, M., Vannucci, A., Fagle, T., & Ohannessian, C.M. (2020). Appearance-related teasing and substance use during early adolescence. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/adb0000563.

Mull, A. (2019). The tyranny of workplace food-shamers. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/06/food-and-body-shame-workplace/592069/

Ringdal, R., Bjornsen, H.N., & Esones, G.A. (2020). Bullying, social support and adolescents’ mental health: Results from a follow-up study. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. Retrieved fromhttps://doi.org/10.1177/1403494820921666

Voelker, D.K., Reel, J.J., & Greenleaf, C. (2015). Weight status and body image perceptions in adolescents: Current perspectives. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 6, 149-158. Retrieved from https://doi: 10.2147/AHMT.S68344

Vogel, L. (2019). Fat shaming is making people sicker and heavier. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 191(23). Retrieved from https:// doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-5758