Body shaming is harmful and should be avoided at all costs. But we live in a society where body shaming has become a social norm. At River Oaks Psychology, we firmly reject the culture of commenting on one’s outward appearance and we urge our patients and families to challenge any tendencies to give into the unrealistic, toxic body image messages often portrayed in magazines, advertisements, TV shows, and other types of media. It’s a daunting task considering how much we are bombarded by images of glamorous, photoshopped images of celebrities and social media icons.
What you see every day on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram can understandably make you feel envious of others and more insecure about your appearance. You may begin to perceive flaws on yourself and struggle to live up to the unrealistic standards set by the media. It’s even more difficult when our own friends and family comment about our body weight, shape, or size. Body shaming can come from all sources (near and far) and it becomes highly destructive when it diminishes our self-worth and body image.
Body shaming involves humiliating, criticizing, or talking down to someone by making inappropriate or negative comments about their body – often by comparing it to others’ bodies. It happens most often when people are of a larger size but body shaming can also occur when someone is underweight or in reference to a specific body part. It may occur in front of someone directly or it may occur behind someone’s back without their knowledge. Sometimes body shaming also refers to the way someone appears in clothing or makeup. For example, a magazine may mock a celebrity for doing things like not wearing makeup, crying, or leaving the gym. Another example is when the media comments on a person’s facial wrinkles or how old they look. Our society’s “diet culture” (our social obsession with the latest weight loss trends) and “anti-aging culture” (the abundance of tips and tricks to look younger) creates ample opportunities for body shaming of all people, including all genders, ethnicities, ages, and other forms of difference. No matter how it manifests, body shaming perpetrates the idea that people should be judged for their physical features (even when physical features may be completely outside of one’s control).
Body shaming also includes offering dietary advice or complimenting weight loss. Many times, even when your family and friends don’t mean to offend you, their remarks can be harsh. When someone says, “You look so good now! Keep up your weight loss journey!” it can send the message that the person did not look good prior to losing weight. Sometimes this can reinforce the idea that a person is only worthy and socially acceptable if they are a smaller size. The person commenting may have good intentions, but it’s much healthier to refrain from ever commenting on weight because you never know how someone is perceiving their body or how they are taking care of their body. For example, if these comments were said to someone struggling with disordered eating behavior, it would likely reinforce their eating struggles and lead to serious medical consequences.
Even in a joking manner or in reference to ourselves, when we say things like “Wow, I ate so much pizza today, I’m terrible,” this can be damaging to both ourselves and those around us. Again, it reinforces the idea that we are “bad” for eating or that the food item in reference is “bad.” Any time that we label ourselves or food as good or bad, it sets us up for a restrictive mindset and we may develop fears or guilt about eating, which is a common symptom of eating disorders and can have long-lasting serious consequences. Instead, we should promote positive dialogue about how we can nourish our body with balanced eating that makes us feel good. For example, it would be better to say, “I really enjoyed this pizza today and my goal is to balance it with some nutrient-dense food tomorrow.” Here, the goal is not to “make up for” any decisions today, but rather the goal is to find balance in eating and fuel our bodies with a wide variety of nutrients. We must allow ourselves to have flexibility in eating and give ourselves the permission to enjoy food without assigning any labels to it. This helps us reduce our tendency to body shame.
It’s difficult to understand why body shaming occurs in the first place. One possibility might be that people body shame others when they feel self-conscious about their own body. They may also engage in criticizing others simply because it has been a societal norm (for decades, joking about a “fat character” in television or movies was prominent). Sometimes people even think that they are “helping” someone by pointing out perceived areas for improvement in another person’s body. Most often, body shaming occurs simply because of immaturity and a lack of awareness about the impact their comments have on someone. Regardless, none of these reasons are excuses for allowing body shaming to occur. It doesn’t matter why a person chooses to body shame. The results are the same. Criticizing another person’s body – no matter how or why – is known to cause mental health problems, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and more.
It’s also known to lead to internalized body shaming. Internalized body shame refers to a learned behavior within oneself that was caused by an external factor. For example, if an individual is frequently subjected to other people criticizing their body, the individual is more likely to start criticizing their own body even in the absence of other people. Their own inner voice will be damaged, leading to anxiety and depression. In severe cases, this can spiral into restrictive eating in an attempt to change their body shape or size and harmful behaviors like purging, excessive exercise, and abusing laxatives or other substances. Some people may also engage in self-harm such as cutting or begin to have suicidal thoughts due to low feelings of self-worth.
If you endured body shaming that has led you to struggle with your body image, low self-esteem, anxious feelings, obsessive behaviors, a poor relationship with food, fears or guilt related to weight gain, or any other tendencies to place judgment upon yourself or your body, reaching out to a therapist is crucial. With time and commitment, you will improve the relationship you have with your body and begin to love your entire self – completely authentically. Having professional support provides you with a safe, validating space to express and process your unique experiences. You and your therapist will create a plan to shift toward self-compassion and body kindness. Self-compassion helps us cultivate personal acceptance, decrease the likelihood of engaging in disordered eating and other body shame related issues, and strengthen our resiliency to better cope when confronted with future self-esteem threats.
We would be honored to walk alongside this journey with you. We want to help you rediscover the parts of you that make you feel confident, fulfilled, and inspired. Through the process, we will also work toward honoring, respecting and being grateful for what your body allows you to do. Most people find that this experience instills a strong sense of self-appreciation and promotes a holistic mentality towards body image.
Written by Lauren Presutti