Although there’s been a lot of body positivity movements around us in the recent years, it seems like body-shaming still happens, and when it does, it’s still shocking and hurtful. A recent case as reported in China Press, brings to attention a local influencer, Cathryn Li, who had labelled those wearing size M clothes as fat, with “anything above M is as sinful as obesity”. In the same post on her Instagram, she had urged those in size M and above to drop down to size 4 or XS. She also revealed that she was a size 2/ XXS, and urged those size 6 and above to stop eating, and start exercising. Now, we know better to understand that your dress size doesn’t define you nor does it reflect your fitness and health levels.
At SHAPE, we’ve been working hard to encourage women to embrace their bodies and be proud of who they are. And while we’re all about that internal love through movements like #SHAPEproud, we need to take those same principles of acceptance, love, and tolerance and applying them externally, too. Translation: While you should 100 percent keep working toward loving your body, it’s equally important to not be a jerk to those who look different than you do. That last part is crucial, so read it again if you need to: No more being a jerk about other women’s bodies.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: Me?! I’d never. Thing is, you don’t need to be a troll living in a basement to make a rude comment about someone else’s body. We see plenty of seemingly “innocent” comments all the time. Things like, “I’m just worried about her health” or “I just wish she wouldn’t wear that.” Here’s why that’s still a problem:
Why People Do It
“There’s a size range for women that the public has deemed acceptable, and anything over or under that range is open for public shaming,” says Katie Willcox, the model behind the Healthy Is the New Skinny social movement, and CEO of Natural Model Management. “I used to sell swimwear and posted an image of myself in a swimsuit that received only positive comments. Then, I posted one of our models from Natural Models who is 2 sizes larger and curvier than I am in the exact same swimsuit, and she was ripped apart in the comments. Everything from ‘She’s unhealthy’ to ‘Is obesity the new skinny?’ and ‘She shouldn’t wear that.’
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There’s also something called attribution theory that factors in here. Simply put, people tend to blame others for things that they see as within their control. “When it comes to body-shaming, this means that people try to identify whether the causes of body nonconformity lie with the individual or something outside of the individual’s control,” says Samantha Kwan, Ph.D., a sociologist and author of Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules. “So if a woman is perceived to be ‘overweight’ because she lacks the willpower to eat ‘properly’ and exercise regularly, she will be evaluated less positively than a woman who is perceived as ‘overweight’ because of a glandular condition.”
That means the thought process of body-shaming an overweight person goes something like this: First, the shamer thinks: “Okay, this person is fat and it’s probably their fault because they’re doing something wrong.” Then-and this is the most dreadful part-instead of just sitting with that thought and minding their own business, they decide to “do” something about it. Are you taking up too much space and not apologizing for it? Society at large says you deserve to be taken down a notch, because women are supposed to “have it all” while making themselves as small and unobtrusive as possible.
In other words, if the way your non-conforming body looks is perceived as “your fault,” then people see body-shaming comments as a way to hold you “responsible” for your actions. And while women who are considered “fat” undeniably bear the brunt of the body-shaming, no female body is immune from shame, precisely for the same reason. “The same could be said about skinny shaming,” Kwan points out. “They too have made supposedly poor choices, even though, for example, anorexia nervosa is a serious disorder and is not simply about making poor eating choices.”
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Lastly, we’ve noticed that confidence seems to serve as an invitation for body-shaming. Take the totally badass Jessamyn Stanley. We featured this photo to showcase a strong, focused, fitness influencer we love, but we still saw a few comments complaining about her body’s appearance. This made us wonder: What is it exactly about an amazing, confident woman that people just can’t handle? “Women are supposed to act and behave a certain way,” Kwan says. So the more confident a woman is, the more shamers feel a need to put her back in her place, she says. By not being docile, subservient, and most importantly ashamed of their bodies, confident women are prime targets for criticism.
No, You Don’t Care About Her “Health”
One of the most common themes we see in body-shaming comments is, ironically, health. We often see comments along the lines of “I’m fine with bigger bodies, but I’m just worried about her health.”
First off, it’s scientifically proven that body-shaming doesn’t make people healthier. Research shows that fat-shaming actually makes people more likely to develop unhealthy habits around food, and studies have shown that it doesn’t help people lose weight.
And really-who are you kidding? Do you actually care about a complete stranger’s health that much? Be real, you want to say something because you’re uncomfortable. Looking at people who are happy, confident, and don’t fit into your learned standard of what’s healthy or beautiful makes you feel weird. Why? Women being unafraid to take up space drives people crazy because it goes against everything they were taught about what’s acceptable in terms of both behaviour and appearance. After all, if you can’t allow yourself to be fat and happy, why should anyone else be allowed? Newsflash: You, too, can be happy and comfortable with your own body and a variety of other types of bodies if you challenge your preconceived notions about what “healthy” and “happy” look like.
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In reality, skinny doesn’t automatically equal healthy, and fat doesn’t automatically equal unhealthy. Some research even suggests that overweight women who exercise are healthier than skinny women who don’t (yes, it’s possible to be fat and fit). Think about it this way: “You can’t look at me and know a single thing about my health,” says Dana Falsetti, a writer, yoga teacher and activist. “Can you be certain somebody is a smoker, drinker, has an eating disorder, is dealing with MS, or has cancer just by looking at them? Nope. So we can’t deduce health based on what we can see, and even if said person is unhealthy, they still deserve your respect.”
That’s the most important point of all: “I don’t need to be healthy to be respected,” Falsetti says. “I don’t need to be healthy to ask I be treated as human, as equal. All people deserve respect whether they are healthy or not, whether they have an eating disorder or not, whether they are suffering from silent illnesses or not.”
What Needs to Change
“Body-shaming will only stop when we tackle it structurally,” Kwan says. “It’s not just about individual behavioral change, but large-scale, cultural and social institutional change.” Among the things that need to happen are greater diversity in media images, across the categories of skin tones, height, body size, facial features, hair textures, and more. “We need a new ‘normal’ about our cultural beauty ideals. Just as important, we need to work toward equality in all forms where bodies, particularly women’s bodies, are not objects of control and where people feel safe to express their gender and sexual identities,” Kwan says.
At the same time, we see it as our responsibility to provide action items for our community so that we can all work toward ending body-shaming. We asked our panel of body-shaming experts what members of our community can do to fight body-shaming on an individual level. Here’s what they said.
Defend victims. “If you see someone is being shamed, take two seconds to send them some love,” Willcox says. “We are women and love is our superpower, so don’t be afraid to use it.”
Check your internal bias. Maybe you wouldn’t leave a nasty comment about someone else’s body, but you sometimes catch yourself thinking thoughts that perpetuate body-shaming. If you ever find yourself thinking something judgmental about someone else’s body, eating habits, exercise routine, or anything else-check yourself. “The best way to keep your judgments in check is to encourage empathy,” says Robi Ludwig, Psy.D. “If you have a judgmental thought, you can choose to ask yourself where this thought is coming from.”
Treat your comments like your posts. “People spend so much time filtering their photos, yet they’re totally unfiltered in their comments,” Stokes points out. What if we all used that kind of care when we left comments on other people’s posts? Before you post a comment, do an internal checklist of the motivations behind it, and you’re likely to avoid saying anything that could hurt someone else.
Keep doing you. As hard as it is, if you’re the one being body-shamed, don’t let the haters get you down. “I find that continuing to be yourself and continuing to live your life the way you want makes the biggest impact,” Adan says. “You are brave, you are strong, you are beautiful, and how you feel about yourself is all that matters. You’ll never be able to please everyone, so why not just do what makes you happy?”