By Brittni Henderson
“Do you even eat?” An acquaintance once asked me with a coy smile on her face.
As I stood there in shock, a few thoughts ran through my mind. Without trying to make a face of pure rage and confusion, I thought about responding with, “Yes, believe it or not, I just had a piece of pizza.” But instead I smiled and awkwardly said, “Thanks!” and walked away.
Sadly, I think this person was trying to give me a “compliment” on my body, but to me it was more of an insult if the intent of the message is really dissected. First of all, there are ways far kinder than such an abrupt and honestly random question. Next, one can never really know if the reason a person’s body looks a certain way is due to a personal or health related choice that this individual would rather not share.
Coming from the point of view of a rather thin, young female, I know it sounds crazy that I would take offense to someone complimenting my body, but when you can tell there is harmful or even purposeful hatred behind a comment, it makes you feel very uncomfortable.
For weeks I replayed that seemingly unimportant moment over again and again in my mind. Why do we even make comments about the bodies of others in the first place? If someone is too skinny, they’re automatically deemed “sick.” If someone is overweight, we automatically assume that they have no regard for his or her health. A woman who is curvier might strive to be the stick-thin model, while the same svelte woman might wish she had a little more meat on her bones.
Dove, the soap company, teamed with Twitter to mine social media for body shaming data in conjunction with the publicity surrounding the 2015 Oscar Awards and found that four out of every five negative beauty tweets in 2014 were written by women, women wrote more than 5 million negative tweets in 2014 and women are 50 percent more likely to say something negative, rather than something positive about themselves on social media.
“It is important to promote positive body image because even relatively minor body concerns may lead to exercise avoidance in woman; use of anabolic steroids and other drugs to try to increase muscularity, particularly in men; and unhealthy eating behaviors, especially in women,” according to psychology Professor Sarah Grogan, Manchester Metropolitan University in England, in an article in “Sex Roles – A Journal of Research” in 2010.
What it comes down to is: many of us are unhappy with the way we look, so we use harmful words and messages towards others as a defense. Positive and negative messages about our appearance are putting us at war with our bodies.
Dr. Christina Tortolani, is a Staff Psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Rhode Island Hospital in the Hasbro Partial Hospital Program. She treats children, adolescents, and young adults with eating disorders and other body image issues.
“What we pay attention to gains importance. If others are making comments about our bodies, we learn that our appearance matters—a lot,” Tortolani says. “We are bombarded with images and ideas around an unattainable ideal of thinness. The message: If you look a certain way, then you will be happy, successful, and fulfilled. We are socialized to place more importance on our bodies than on our own worth as people.”
Enter: body shaming
Without even delving into the lives of those people around me, I can find examples of this in the media instantaneously. One that sticks out to me the most, and is upsetting, is one of the more recent lingerie campaigns for plus-size women. Instead of embracing the fact that these women are blessed to have their body types—just as much as the “typical” bra and panty model—their marketing ploy was the “#ImNoAngel” message, one that puts them into the metaphorical ring up against the more popular “Angel” seen in Victoria’s Secret advertisements. Both groups of women are equally as beautiful, so why objectify one for being less so than the other? This also goes hand-in-hand with the commonly shared and re-tweeted phrase all over social media, “Real Women Have Curves.” It is fabulous to empower women in every way, but what you’re saying is that females whose bodies aren’t as voluptuous should feel like less of a woman. These ideas are what are making our views of self-image plummet to the depths of negativity.
For a young Smithfield woman, these derogatory comments went as far as affecting not only her views on herself, but her family’s, as well.
Hailey Grzych, 22, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion design a few years ago and has recently started her own line of lingerie. She frequently makes trips back to home to visit friends and family, but some people aren’t as welcoming as she’d like.
“Ever since I moved away, tons of people have made the comment that I’ve had a drug problem and that’s why I’ve lost weight,” Grzych shares. “For the record, I’ve never had a drug problem. Did these people see me, think ‘that girl is skinny,’ realize I live in Hollywood, decide they’re going to be mean for no reason at all, and the only comment they could come up with is that I do drugs?!”
For Gryzch, this is more than just a blow at her body image; it’s an insult to the hard work and dedication that she has put into living out a lifelong dream. The worst part is that she wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of these comments—her family members were questioned, too.
“It’s physically sickening to hear my mom ask me if I’m doing drugs,” Grzych says. “What’s even more sickening is when I know my brother hears something about me that’s untrue but we don’t even talk about it. You don’t realize the other issues people are dealing with behind the scenes, especially mental health-wise. Your one mean comment about someone’s body can really have a dangerous spiral of consequences for them.”
Instead of focusing on our overall self-esteem, things like how we think and feel, we put priority on body esteem, making the main focus only our outward appearance. This is concerning because it has the potential to develop into body image dissatisfaction and negative, critical self-talk, Tortolani said.
“Such self-talk could and frequently does lean to unhealthy dieting and exercise behavior, which puts one at risk for developing an eating disorder, which are dangerous, life-threatening illnesses,” Dr. Tortolani says.
Body shaming doesn’t just come from strangers. It can come from family members, too.
Shannon Caliri, 22, of Lincoln, knows that first hand. Caliri’s body went through a few major changes while she grew up and some people in her life made sure she knew about it. Whether it was when she lost a ton of weight during puberty or when she gained a few pounds after that, comments were always being spewed from every direction.
“The first person to point [my weight gain] out to me was either my grandfather or my dad, I can’t remember which one,” Caliri says, “but I specifically remember one of them saying, ‘Wow, you’re really getting a belly there!’”
Overtime, these statements made Caliri question her body type. Was her body supposed to look different, she wondered? She started feeling as though she was flawed for not having that “perfect” or “ideal” body. Since she was curvier from a young age, Caliri also dealt with comments about her breasts starting as far back as middle school.
“If I had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘you really shouldn’t be wearing that,’ I’d be a millionaire by now,” Caliri jokes. “I would walk into school with a pretty neutral top on, but because I had huge boobs that were extremely noticeable, it made the shirt appear ‘inappropriate.’ Getting told I didn’t have the ‘right’ body type to wear certain things got really frustrating for me. Why could a thin girl wear the same dress and be told she looks ‘cute,’ but I look ‘inappropriate’?”
Society is sometimes obsessed with telling us what to look like, and Caliri feels strongly about embracing the fact that we are all beautiful, instead of bashing each other in every way possible.
“Society tells us that fat is ugly, flat-chested isn’t sexy, and you have to be thin but still have womanly curves to be considered attractive,” says Caliri. “Because bigger women are put down so much for their weight, I think it makes them feel better to tear down the thinner individuals around them, make these women feel bad about themselves…and then no one wins!”
One 25-year-old female from Smithfield, who asked not to be identified, agrees that sometimes, even when she knew it was wrong, she’d find herself shaming the bodies of those women she strived to emulate.
“Growing up, I was always teased and called fat and constantly made fun of,” she said. “You would figure I would know how it feels to be hurt, but I still sometimes made comments to myself like, ‘Why are skinny people working out so much at the gym when they’re already skinny?’ I also have an under active thyroid condition which makes it more difficult for me to lose weight.”
This young woman admits to sometimes wondering why she was born with her body type, a body that she works so hard to have, while others can seemingly do nothing yet still have that “perfect” figure.
“What I told myself when I was body shamed is that I am lucky to have two arms, two legs, 10 fingers, and 10 toes,” she said. “I’m lucky I can run on the treadmill and I am lucky I can hear these people body shame because I am lucky enough to talk to answer them back.”
Dr. Tortolani helps her patients practice “mindfulness-based strategies,” which allow them to find acceptance and compassion within themselves. These activities help patients to focus more on what they can contribute, rather than what they look like. Individuals will feel more confident and develop a sense of purpose.
“Remember, your body is only one aspect of you,” Tortolani said. “Focus on other aspects of yourself that provide meaning and joy. Try to change your ‘cognitive channel’ away from negative self-talk, giving up on the goal of being ‘perfect.’ Become more media literate. Cast a critical eye on what you see, read, and hear, questioning what subtle messages about body image, health, and happiness are being communicated.”
Jolene Andrews, 31, of Attleboro, Mass. wasn’t able to use these positive self-talk mechanisms during a low point in her life. Body shaming had an adverse affect on her health, causing her to suffer from an eating disorder for a major portion of her life. Having always felt low body image, Andrews was diagnosed with anorexia four years ago. This diagnosis confused everyone around her because she had what seemed like a “great life.”
“I have a wonderful family and my parents are the most generous and caring parents anyone could ask for,” Andrews said, “but no one around me could understand depression or anorexia.”
Andrews felt depressed as far back as she can remember. Around age eight, she tried taking medication from her family’s bathroom cabinet to end her life, but her attempt did not come to fruition. Flash forward to her late teens, Andrews started dealing with her eating disorder, and thankfully saw a therapist who helped her find her way.
“Defeating anorexia was not an easy task and I do not wish that upon my worst enemy,” Andrews said. “I had to slowly start eating again. By going to therapy and learning more about myself, I was able to overcome it.”
We’ve all felt victimized or have caused others to feel belittled at some point in our lives. It is up to us to change the norm from negative to positive, to embrace those around us for their individual and unique beauty, and to just stop shaming others! The age-old aphorism taken from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew still apply: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”