Did you ever stop and think about how often we are told to change our appearance? Magazines constantly offer tips about how to lose weight “in days,” appear slimmer “instantly,” and hide our “imperfections” all without actually knowing anything about us, much less our appearance.
This is one example of body-shaming, and it is everywhere. Sitcoms frequently use overweight characters’ bodies as the basis for jokes. It has become the norm to criticize aspects of our bodies as some type of bonding experience with friends – if we all hate our bodies then it somehow makes us feel connected. Body-shaming (criticizing yourself or others because of some aspect of physical appearance) can lead to a vicious cycle of judgment and criticism. Messages from the media and from each other often imply that we should want to change, that we should care about looking slimmer, smaller, and tanner. And if we don’t, we worry that we are at risk of being the target of someone else’s body-shaming comments.
Body-shaming manifests in many ways
1) Criticizing your own appearance, through a judgment or comparison to another person. (i.e. “I’m so ugly compared to her.” “Look at how broad my shoulders are.”)
2) Criticizing another’s appearance in front of them. (i.e. “With those thighs, you’re never going to find a date.”)
3) Criticizing another’s appearance without their knowledge. (i.e. “Did you see what she’s wearing today? Not flattering.” “At least you don’t look like her!”).
No matter how this manifests, body shaming often leads to comparison and shame, and perpetuates the idea that people should be judged mainly for their physical features.
This leads to the question: if it has such harsh consequences, why is body-shaming so common? An example we often discuss is dealing with conflicts with peers. Why, when we are upset, annoyed, or intimidated by someone, do we default to criticizing their appearance? “Whatever, she’s ugly,” can be a go-to defense in these situations, particularly during adolescence and the young-adult years. In some ways, it feels easier to shoot for something that will hurt, like targeting physical appearance, rather than expressing what is really going on emotionally. Saying, “I’m really hurt by how my friend treated me,” or “I’m terrified of losing this friendship” opens us up and makes us more vulnerable, and therefore feels easier to bury underneath the body-shaming comments that rush to mind.
How do we challenge body shaming?
In situations like those listed above, expressing true feelings rather than physical criticisms can be a great first step. While recently discussing this with the adolescent IOP, several patients admitted that it is hard to identify ways of expressing frustration without using body-shaming, as this has become an almost automatic response.
- Practice identifying why you are upset about a situation. For example, it’s unlikely that you’re mad at a friend because she’s breaking out, and more likely that you’re upset about a miscommunication or feeling of rejection. Practice thinking it, and eventually, verbalizing it.
- Identify who in your life is body-positive – or even body-neutral. Think of people who celebrate their body for what it can do, and people who refuse to comment on others’ physical appearances. Spending time with these people can be especially helpful while you are struggling with your own internalized body-shaming and help you view yourself – and others – more positively.
- Confront those who perpetuate body-shaming. Once you’ve become more aware of your own body-shaming behaviors, you may notice how often your friends, family or co-workers do it. Talk to them. Discuss why it bothers you and help them see how it may also be hurtful to them.
- Find something (or things!) you LIKE about your body. We spend so much time witnessing advertisements about how to make our eyelashes millimeters longer and how to get whiter teeth that it’d be nice to counter some of that by celebrating what we do have. Maybe, despite your body image struggles, you love a new hairstyle you discovered. Maybe you’ve noticed how much stronger you feel with balanced eating. Find something physical or nonphysical that makes you YOU and celebrate it every day.
Erika Vargas, MA, is the Adolescent IOP Clinician at the Walden’s Braintree clinic. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment (FBT); and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.