What Does Body Shaming Really Mean?
It's a phrase that's been in the news a lot recently, but what does it really mean? Is it a symptom of a beauty-obsessed society, or a term created by an overly PC culture?
It's actually a very simple definition. Body shaming is saying something that makes, or is intended to make someone ashamed of their body. It seems so straightforward that it's surprising there's so much confusion around this. There are three main reasons body shaming is such a murky term:
1. It's everywhere.
Part of the problem is that body shaming has become so ubiquitous in our culture that we've become accustomed to it. Most of us don't think twice when we see an ad encouraging women to get into “bikini shape,” or a tabloid pointing out celebrity cellulite. We're flooded on a daily basis with images of the ideal thigh gap, smooth skin, straight teeth, and so forth. Like people living by an airport tune out the sound of planes overhead, we've become completely desensitized to body shaming in a world where it sells everything from diet pills to appliances.
2. We think it's helpful.
Then there's the excuse that body shaming (particularly fat shaming) is the only way to help obese people.
Sadly, there are people who believe that shame is the best motivator. Some vloggers looking to increase their view counts have posted tirades against fat people, excusing this social faux pas by saying things like, “If it helps a fat person get their weight under control, I'm glad.”
Setting aside the fact that being overweight doesn't imply being unhealthy, decisions based on shame are rarely good ones. In fact, shame is a very poor motivator overall. Celebrated psychologist Brené Brown notes that shame “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”¹ Kind of the opposite effect there, isn't it?
If we actually wanted to “help fat people,” we would educate ourselves about the actual health risks associated with body types, and realize that no sound medical advice can be gleaned from a glance at someone's appearance. Eating habits, activity levels, family history, and biology cannot be divined by looking at someone's size, shape, or age.
3. We think “body shaming” is just another name for “fat shaming.”
Fat shaming is not the only type of body shaming to watch out for. There's a meme that seems to come around every swimsuit season that says, “Curvy Girls: Because who wants to cuddle a stick?” That's body shaming. Comparing skinny women to sticks is the same as comparing fat people to orcas (hey there, bad 1990s joke). It seems that, in an effort to promote the beauty of overweight people, we've fallen back on the old “bring someone down instead of raising yourself up” approach. Shaming people for being overweight, underweight, elderly, having a body builder physique, being pot-bellied, having “no ass” or a “badonk,” are all types of body shaming.
What this issue really boils down to is the fact that any type of derogatory statement made on the basis of someone's looks has no place in our contemporary society. Strangers don't need unsolicited advice, no matter what the context. Overweight people don't need to be “motivated” to get skinny by being told that they're fat, just as thin people don't need to be brought down a peg by having their “flaws” pointed out to them.
When in doubt, remember the sage advice of Thumper's father:
“If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.”
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