Body commentary is relentless. If it's not external (coming from others) then it's internal (coming from your inner voice). But in today's body-shaming world, you're damned if you are and also damned if you aren't. There is no perfect. And everyone's got something to say. But what is body shaming? And why have we become so accustomed to talking about each other's bodies?
Body-shaming is any commentary that makes you have to respond defensively about your body:
If you're naturally thin, you may feel you have to apologize for it. You feel you have to prove to people that you're healthy and that you eat, because others will decide that you must not have healthy food intake patterns. In today's world with high prevalence of eating disorders and distorted body image, there's high alert about folks with a slender build. Many people do struggle with disordered eating; this is a real and serious matter. And then there are many others also err on the side of being thin, small, or petite. If you're thin, you may hear and have to respond to comments like: "I wish I could eat what you eat and look like that!" or "Do you work out all the time? You are so... tiny!" It's awkward, and invasive, to have to respond to this line of comment and inquiry.
If you naturally err on the side of being overweight, you may feel shame from people's assumptions about you. Carry a few or more extra pounds, and our society puts unconscious labels on you such as "must not care about yourself" or "doesn't have enough self-restraint." Again, these assumptions are untrue and shaming. You may wonder if its possible to feel capable, confident, and attractive in your own skin. You may have had experiences in your life where others close to you have tried to gently intervene, suggesting different exercise routines or asking about whether you've thought about making changes to your diet or self-care. Others think they are doing you a service, but you are only left wondering how you can ever feel happy with exactly who you are.
And.... then there's everything in between. No matter what your body type is, we are all subject to the commentary. How many times have you heard, "you look great! have you lost a little weight?" or, "you look different... why?" as someone scans you up and down. This type of exchange (which becomes an exchange only because now you have to respond to it!) has become a norm in our culture.
...But why is it a norm?
There is truly no perfect in a highly critical and judgmental society like ours. Because you can't win. Reality TV, celebrities, and magazines create a forum for ever-changing physical standards, while also opening the door for constant critique. While flipping through a celebrity magazine, we think with relief: "she doesn't look that great in a bathing suit" or "ugh, why can't I look that good in a bathing suit?"
When a "plus-sized" model (read: there should be no classification... just MODELS) graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2016, the response and the backlash was swift. The cover model heard it all, ranging from applause at making bigger women feel they could be beautiful, too, to disgraceful disgust. We live in a society the choice for a bigger woman for such a prominent magazine cover was astonishing: this fact in and of itself makes it evident we have immense progress to make as a society on body acceptance in general. If we accepted other's bodies, this would not be a topic of conversation at all. Of course, the purpose of the swimsuit edition is to create stir about the body of the model on the cover, but again, this is an example of a practice that norms body commentary and shaming.
Social media also invites these same parallel thought processes. Most of our social media revolves around sharing and consuming photos. Our natural inclination as humans is to scan everything we see for problems -- its a hereditary survival instinct. When we view pictures one of the first things our mind does is assess the physical constitution of those we see. 'Are they thin? Are they fat? Did they gain weight? Lose weight? Happy? What do we think about that? Is it a problem?'
Whether we know it or not, we are all constantly running an internal commentary about the physiques of others. This is the factor that then completely norms doing this outwardly with our peers, friends, and family. We're taking the internal thought process and making it external. Case in point: when I was pregnant I heard it all:
- "you're so tiny! how cute!"
- "you're so big, you don't even look like yourself, you poor thing!"
- "you're one of those women you can't tell is pregnant from behind!" and even,
- "omg, haha, your butt got huge!"
It made me feel so self conscious to have to respond that I vowed I would never do it to another pregnant woman. Ever. And then, lo and behold, the words came out of my mouth, too, the minute my eyes rested on a friend's belly "omg you're so little!" or "you look great pregnant!" Why!? Lauren, why!? I literally would be smacking my head afterward. The fact of the matter is, we live in a world where it's so incredibly normal to comment on each other's bodies that it can be hard to catch yourself before you do.
Another important part of why we do this, too, is that we are trying to make sense of ourselves as we relate to what we see. It has a lot to do with our inner dialogue; that is, our own unconscious inner insecurities and judgments. This is also quite normal and also quite unavoidable. If you're thin/fat/larger/smaller, does that mean that I am not as thin/fat/larger/smaller? I need to figure out how I feel about that. Or This doesn't fit a mold I'm comfortable with, so should I be concerned about the health/wellness of this person based on what I see?
... If body-shaming and commentary is a norm, how do I respond?
I hope and pray for the day when everyone respects and allows everyone else to be different. Without having to answer for it. Everything in life exists along a natural continuum, and bodies are no different, ranging from small to large and absolutely every size and shape in between. It would be wonderful to be able to accept and get used to that without having to try to constantly make sense of it or require it to fit an abstract mold.
That being said I want to be clear: real, genuine concern about someone is hugely important and can be life saving. If you have real and founded concerns about a friend or family member's health, please seek professional insight and guidance about how to intervene or address it.
In the meantime, if you're going about your day and you suddenly have to fend off body commentary, your best response is simply: "thank you" and changing the subject, or "thank you for your concern. I'm quite happy with how I am, but I do appreciate your thoughts."
Try to stay conscious of your own role in this for others (as evidenced above, I'm trying, too!) As tempting as it is to engage in this norm, practice turning the conversation to anything other than someone's body. Instead of telling a little girl she's so pretty, tell her she's smart. Instead of telling a friend they look great, ask them what they did this weekend. We have so many other things to talk about today other than our bodies. We can be part of the change away from body commentary and shaming. The result? More acceptance of yourself + others = more happiness and contentment. And that's a beautiful thing!
Lauren L. Drago, MSEd, LMHC, LPC is the founder of Lauren Drago Therapy in Old Saybrook, CT and in greater CT, NY & PA. She specializes in working with smart, insightful and capable women to overcome stress, anxiety, loss of identity, self-limiting beliefs, perfectionism, marriage strain, and the pressure of "trying to do it all." Lauren has a passion for helping others to achieve the happy, fulfilling, productive, and meaningful life they deserve by changing how they experience and understand their world. She believes that every woman can and should live out her personal definition of her own best life. Follow Lauren on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Call (860) 339-6515 for your free initial 15-minute consultation.