What Is Body Shaming?

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What Is Body Shaming?

Body shaming is the act of saying something negative about a person's body. It can be about your own body or someone else's. The commentary can be about a person's size, age, hair, clothes, food, hair, or level of perceived attractiveness.

Body shaming can lead to mental health issues including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body dysmorphia, as well as the general feeling of hating one's body.

The History of Body Shaming

In our current society, many people think that thin bodies are inherently better and healthier than larger bodies. Historically, however, that hasn't always been the case. If you think of paintings and portraits from before the 1800s era, you can see that plumpness was revered.

Being fat was a sign that a person was wealthy and had access to food, while thinness represented poverty. In her book "Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture," author Amy Erdman Farrell traces the shift from revering heavy bodies to the preference of smaller shapes to mid-nineteenth century England when the first diets books were published.

She noted that the focus on diets, and bodies at large, was centered around women. Author Sabrina Strings says that fatphobia resulted from colonialism and race in her book "Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia."

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of the term "body shaming" was by journalist Philip Ellis.

Types of Body Shaming

Body shaming is most often about body size, but negative comments about any facet of a person's body count as body shaming.

Below are the various reasons why people might be body-shamed.

Weight

One of the most common reasons people are body shamed is because of their weight. Someone might be body-shamed for being "too big" or "too thin."

Saying anything negative about a person being "fat" is body shaming. This is also known as "fat-shaming." Fat-shaming comments are ones like "They'd be pretty if they lost weight," or "I bet they had to buy an extra plane ticket to fit." Men are often body-shamed when people refer to them as having a "dad bod."

People in thinner bodies can also be shamed for their weight. Often called skinny-shaming, it may sound like, "They look like they never eat" or "They look like they have an eating disorder."

Body Hair

Hair grows on the arms, legs, private areas, and underarms of all people, except for those with certain health conditions. However, many people have the idea that women should remove all of their body hair, or they won't be "ladylike."

Examples of body hair shaming are calling a woman with underarm hair "beastly," or telling a woman she needs to shave.

Attractiveness

Known as "pretty-shaming," the bullying or discrimination of people for being attractive, is something that happens regularly. And even more than that, people are bullied for being considered unattractive, which is also known as "lookism." Lookism describes prejudice or discrimination against people who are considered physically unattractive or whose physical appearance is believed to fall short of societal ideas of beauty.

An example of pretty-shaming is how attractive women are less likely to be hired for jobs in which they'd have positions of authority.And an example of lookism would be how unattractive people may receive fewer opportunities.

Food

Food-shaming is generally done in relation to body size. For example, when someone makes a remark about what a person is or isn't eating, that can count as food-shaming. Someone saying, "They look like they don't need to be eating that," is an example of food-shaming.

You can also food-shame yourself. For example, you might say, "I'm so fat, I shouldn't eat this piece of cheesecake."

Clothing

The 1980s saw the rise of spandex clothing, and there was a popular saying, "Spandex is a privilege, not a right." This meant that people should only wear spandex clothes if they had the "correct" body shape for them. This is a prime example of clothing-shaming.

More recently, the founder of the clothing brand Lululemon was criticized for making fat-shaming comments when he said that some women's bodies "don't work" for the clothes.

Age

Also known as ageism, age-shaming is discrimination or bullying towards people because of their age. This usually focuses on the elderly or the older population.

In relation to body-shaming, an ageist remark may sound like, "They're too old to wear that much makeup." Additionally, news articles that show photos of how "bad" or "old" celebrities look when not wearing makeup are shaming. Making negative comments about someone's wrinkles or loose skin is another form of body-shaming.

Hair

Western society has long focused on sleek, shiny, straight hair as the ideal. Thus, hair with curls, kinks, or other textures has been viewed as less attractive. This is known as texture-shaming.

An example of texture shaming is, "They're so brave to wear their hair natural." While that sounds like a compliment, it's actually an insult. That's because it implies that a person's hair is outside what is considered normal and that they are courageous for wearing their hair in its natural state.

Additionally, bald-shaming happens to people of all genders who have receding hairlines or thinning/balding scalps.

Body Shaming's Impact on Well-Being

Body shaming has myriad negative consequences on mental health. Here are some important ones:

  • Adolescents who are body shamed have a significantly elevated risk of depression.
  • It may lead to eating disorders.
  • Body shaming worsens outcomes for obese women attempting to overcome binge eating.
  • Body shaming can cause dissatisfaction with one's body, which then can cause low self-esteem.

Additional mental health concerns associated with body-shaming include:

  • Anxiety
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Depression
  • Higher risk of self-harm or suicide
  • Poorer quality of life (due to body dissatisfaction)
  • Psychological distress

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Be More Inclusive

Body shaming may be rampant, but that doesn't mean you should take part in it. Making a point of not body-shaming is the kinder option for all people, yourself included. Being intentional about not engaging in various types of shaming may lead to better mental wellness.

In addition to not body-shaming, it can be helpful to be more body-inclusive. This means encouraging the acceptance and celebration of shape and diversity in appearance, focusing on health instead of size or weight, and appreciating the human body for all that it is and does.

Below are some ways you can stop contributing to body-shaming culture.

Stop Talking About Other People's Bodies

It may be socially acceptable for people to mock and body-shame others, but you do not have to accept, participate in, or tolerate such words or actions. You wouldn't want that to be done to you, and now you know that it can cause real problems for those it happens to.

So, when you are tempted to point out a person's body hair or their hair texture, their size, stop yourself. Instead, why not think of something nice to say to the person?

Clearly, they caught your eye, so you could use this as an opportunity to find a positive attribute. "I like your smile" is one idea of a way to compliment another person without speaking negatively about their body.

Try the following steps:

  1. Notice your thoughts and acknowledge your own conditioning, bias, and/or judgments.
  2. Make an intentional effort to notice what you like, appreciate, or admire about this person (this may be physical or non-physical traits).
  3. Practice this with others and yourself to develop and deepen respect, care, and compassion for yourself and others.

Learn About Body Neutrality

Body neutrality is a practice that has many proven mental health benefits. It's the notion of accepting bodies as they are, without casting judgment on them. This can apply to your own body, and to the bodies of others.

Body neutrality encourages a focus on the positive functions that bodies can perform. Learning about it can make you feel better in your own body, improve your relationship with food, and boost your self-esteem.

Change How You Talk About Your Own Body

In a culture where so much emphasis is placed on what is wrong with us and needs improvement, it can feel like a huge challenge to speak positively about our own bodies. Doing so, however, is a healthy thing to do, and it also saves other people from harm.

By practicing speaking positively about ourselves and our bodies, and noticing qualities about ourselves and others that we like and appreciate, we can deepen our care, compassion, and connection with others and with ourselves.

When you make a comment like "I feel so fat today," you're making a judgment about fat people and implying their bodies are less valuable than the bodies of thin people. This can be hurtful for anyone around you, especially those who are larger.

It isn't realistic to only think positive thoughts about yourself, but you can express your feelings in ways that are less harmful to others. For the above example, you could instead confide in a friend and say, "My pants aren't fitting as they usually do, and it's making me feel self-conscious."

Rather than body-shaming, you'll have opened up to a loved one, creating more closeness and trust between the both of you.

Speak Up

If you've gone through the steps to stop body-shaming yourself and other people, that's wonderful! However, there is still more work to do.

As with all instances in life when you see other people causing harm, it's important to speak up—provided it is emotionally and physically safe for you to do so.

If you see someone making a comment to another person about their body, whether about their clothing or age or size, you can gently let them know that it's unkind to talk about other people's bodies. And if it happens regularly with friends or loved ones, you can bring it up in a bigger way, letting them know that their ways of communicating about bodies don't always feel good for you and others.

Body shaming may be prevalent, but you can do the work to stop perpetuating it and to help heal its harmful effects by practicing body positivity with yourself and others.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.