As a journalist and a voluptuous woman, I am so over body-shaming. It’s not only something I deal with in my everyday life, but it happens to famous women with such regularity that it would be hard to ignore even if strangers weren’t calling you fat from passing cars.
Celebrity body-shaming — and even their subsequent “clapping back” — is easily one of my least favorite topics to write about. I have no idea why people want to continue to read about people in the public eye getting called out for having (or not having) a certain body type, but they do. Those are routinely some of the most-read articles in our health section.
What I want to know is why? If I’m going to have to cover this, I’d first like to get to the bottom of our fascination with body-shaming and the response to it and find out why there’s such an insatiable appetite for these stories, which frankly, are all so similar I could make a Mad Libs-style article template at this stage.
After consulting with a variety of experts, here’s what I found.
This type of media coverage can be validating
When we read about celebrities whose bodies are being criticized, it may make us feel better about ourselves, validating that it is, in fact, a real phenomenon.
“We know that if Lady Gaga can be criticized for a half-inch belly ‘roll’ that fat-shaming exists, and we are not imagining this nor being sensitive or crazy,” psychologist Dr. Deb Thompson tells SheKnows. “And when a beautiful, talented and successful woman is body-shamed, we also feel empowered that we are not alone and that this perfectionism and unkindness are ridiculous and wrong.”
The push-back is affirming too.
Similarly, when someone hits back at those body-shaming them — like Kelly Clarkson did on Twitter recently — we really can’t get enough because it “affirms all of our rights to body inclusion and appreciation,” Thompson says. We can also get behind it because like the famous person, we want to be seen for our contributions, not just our appearance, she adds.
Celebrities are exemplars of human potential
According to Robert Herbst, a personal trainer and powerlifter who supervised drug testing at last year’s Olympics in Rio, we’re fascinated by celebrity body-shaming for the same reason we admire athletes: They are held out as examples of what the human body can achieve.
Herbst offers the example of a successful professional baseball player like Aaron Judge, who “at 6-feet 8 inches and 280 [pounds] with a natural swing is the pinnacle of what we all wish we could be.” To show support, people wear a jersey with his name on their back “and in doing so become like him,” he adds.
Along the same lines, he says, celebrities are examples of beauty and talent, and “we feel let down if they get fat.” The same people who are disappointed when someone famous gains weight might also get upset when they try to defend themselves “instead of going to the gym and trying to restore themselves as shiny examples,” Herbst adds.
“We are fascinated and enjoy the whole dispute because it transfers our own guilt and conflict for not exercising and allowing ourselves to get unhealthy and fat,” he notes.
Celebrities also represent some of the most prominent examples of what it takes to be considered “desirable” as a woman, Dr. Elisabeth B. Morray, a clinical psychologist tells SheKnows.
“When we see the airbrushed images of their bodies, we receive powerful messages about how all women are expected to look,” she notes.
We don’t like what it says about our own bodies
For many people, the interest in articles about celebrities’ bodies stems from an insecurity about their own bodies.
“When a celebrity is body-shamed, it sends a message that if this person who is supposed to be ‘perfect’ is seen as flawed, what does that say about me and my own body?” Kimberly Hershenson, a New York City-based therapist tells SheKnows.
Celebrities who defend themselves are a voice for those who can’t
Ever wish you were able to respond to someone who criticizes you via a huge platform? When famous people defend themselves, they are in the unique position of having their voices heard on an international level, something Hershenson says appeals to those of us who wish they could say those things to individuals who insult us.
“Women at large are waking up from this unrealistic reference of beauty, and we champion the voices of the celebrities who speak up against it, as we see them as a part of the solution within the model/celebrity culture that created it,” says Carol Tuttle, a therapist who has studied the psychology of fashion and beauty and the damaging effects it has on the female psyche.
Not only that, but unlike the days of old Hollywood when celebrities’ private lives were closely guarded by movie studios or exploited by tabloid journalism, now, with social media, they have the opportunity to control their own narratives and what they allow the public to be a part of according to Dr. Ash A. Rupp, clinical lead with the Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders.
Social media has made us stakeholders in celebrities’ lives
Along the same lines, social media allows famous individuals to open their lives to the public, creating a sense of intimacy that some of the public may interpret as reciprocal, Rupp says. In other words, if someone offends our friend, they offend us.
“We feel we know them, we have a stake in their lives, we are rooting for them, and when they are bullied or shamed, the public takes this personally because we view them as a part of our friend circle or tribe,” she adds.
Given the constant exposure to celebrities’ lives, we feel like we have an emotional connection with them, Stacy Kaiser, a therapist and editor-at-large of Live Happy says.
“It is hard to watch anyone that you adore or care about be attacked or victimized. Many of us do genuinely care about some celebrities,” she adds.
Sometimes, judging other people makes us feel better about ourselves
This is essentially the mission statement of all online trolls, but also applies to people who eagerly consume media that features someone held up as having an ideal body being criticized for their appearance.
“There is a huge gap between the lives we have and the lives the media leads us to believe we could have if we just looked like a movie star,” Morray explains. “Having the chance to criticize celebrities, to knock them down a notch and to focus on their imperfections has the potential to make us feel just a little bit better about ourselves, our lives and our seemingly imperfect bodies.”
Unfortunately, this really isn’t a good thing, as Morray points out, because “in body-shaming celebrities, women can perpetuate the very messages that cause them the most pain.”
So let’s all agree to be less horrible to each other and keep opinions about other people’s bodies — especially women’s — to ourselves.