Hate and body shame is fundamentally not OK, and the movement to shut down body-shaming is absolutely positive when it encourages people to love and respect their own bodies while discouraging hateful comments. But as the movement gains steam and the media is plastered daily with headlines about women being body-shamed for being “too fat,” “too thin,” “too tattooed,” “too postnatal” and “too fit,” the concept of body-shaming starts to rub me the wrong way.
Now, before everyone freaks out and gets all in a tizzy about how no one should be subjected to body-shaming or insults and critiques about their body shape, size or choices, let me state: I agree.
As a woman who’s 6-feet tall, I’ve heard my fair share of unfortunate comments, from people saying things like, “Whoa, I didn’t think you’d weigh that much” (Thank you. I’m tall. It’s part of the package), to comments about “man hands” and “she’s bigger than a dude!” My poor husband has even had me mistaken for a man when, while snowboarding, someone came up to him and said, “Is your friend OK? I don’t know if you saw him fall back there.”
Well, his friend wasn’t a “him,” it was a her. And his wife. There just aren’t any cute snowboarding clothes designed to fit someone my height, so yeah, I wear the guys’ gear.
It sucks, and there’s no way to completely dull the sting of such comments and scenarios, but I’m not convinced the media surrounding body-shaming is actually helping anything. I wonder if it’s actually preventing peoples’ critical comments and insults (a quick scroll through any internet comment forum will tell you it’s not) — or if, in some cases, it encourages the victimhood of those on the receiving end of hateful comments.
Let me put this another way.
Feelings are OK, pervasive media attention may not be
Feelings about hurtful comments or critiques are natural and important. I know I felt masculine, clunky and unattractive when someone mistook me for a man, and I know I’m not alone in these crappy feelings. Dr. Kelly Morrow-Baez, aka The FitShrink, a psychologist and weight-loss coach who herself lost 75 pounds, says it like this: “As someone who took consistent, predictable verbal insults about my weight, I know how heartbreaking that is. I think it’s OK to have a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, so if it’s over shaming, go ahead and get mad or cry or whatever you need to do to safely handle those feelings.”
The challenge I see isn’t with any individual’s feelings or immediate reaction to hurtful comments, but with the groundswell and echoing of the phrase, “body-shaming… body-shaming… body-shaming,” almost growing it to a fever pitch in the media. Why? Because shame itself isn’t an action — shame, itself, isn’t something that can be forced upon anyone.
You see, shame is a feeling. Someone can try to make you feel shame, but they don’t have to succeed. Or if they do succeed (and again, sometimes that’s only natural), you have the power within yourself to rise above the person who shamed you and channel those feelings into something positive.
Morrow-Baez further attests, “The media is creating victims when there need not be. Focusing on body-shaming at every turn can create a victim mentality in people who fall into that category. This is easy to do since the mind naturally wants to create categories and associations.”
Even if you’re subject to actions that have made you a victim, you don’t need to take on the shame handed to you. You have the choice not to allow your attacker the right to rule your feelings. Lord knows all the kids who snickered at me in middle school for always wearing “high-waters” — you know, before “tall” inseams were a thing — could have made me walk with a slouch or shun heels with a vengeance. But they didn’t, largely because I was taught from an early age that no one can make you do or feel anything. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own actions and feelings.
Owning your feelings and separating them from other peoples’ biases
This may be easier said than done, but Morrow-Baez has a strategy for dealing with overt body-shaming. “Normal, healthy people don’t go around body-shaming others for any reason. It’s important to remember that the person is often coming from a place of fear or insecurity, but they could also just be downright mean and immature. Body-shaming is often a way to create more power for the shamer at the expense of the person being shamed. In any event, ‘It’s not me, it’s you’ is the healthiest perspective to have when dealing with someone who is trying to body-shame.”
Rather than allowing these biases to break you down, Morrow-Baez offers this reminder, “I’m not sure who said it, but they were correct in saying we have fat, we are not fat. Just as we have fingernails, we are not fingernails. Hearing the word ‘fat’ should not automatically feel like an attack, but if it does, I think it’s important for a person to understand that there is a degree of personal responsibility in dealing with those insecurities.”
Morrow-Baez and I both agree that as a society we all have a cultural responsibility not to tolerate bullying on any level, but in a world saturated with body-shaming stories, it’s also important to take a beat in the face of real or perceived criticism and check in with ourselves to see whether our reactions and feelings are appropriate and positive — propelling us forward rather than holding us back.