“Body shaming” is an aggressive phrase. It conjures up images of schoolyard bullying or even abuse. But body shaming can be much sneakier. In fact, many of us do this every day, without any thought or realization as to what we may be doing to someone else.
In one of my previous positions, we called out body shaming and other negative or triggering words with the phrase “Red Light!”. This allowed the other participants in the conversation to be made aware that what they were saying was affecting someone else in a negative way.
Patients used it most often in treatment, but it is useful for conversations with friends and family as well provided they have been made aware of the meaning of the phrase beforehand.
Some examples of “Red Light” words and phrases are:
- “I feel fat.”
- “I feel ugly.”
- Pinching skin
- Criticizing someone’s weight or size
- Questioning someone’s food choices “Why are you eating that?!”
- Making fun of someone’s weight, size, or appearance
Body shaming isn’t limited to what those close to us, including ourselves, say or do. The media plays a huge role in creating a culture of body shaming. I myself have an entire board on Pinterest devoted to images of body shaming. There are pictures of healthy women pinching skin on their arms, abdomens, and buns to demonstrate “fat”. There are posts giving instructions on what are essentially starvation diets to encourage fast weight loss. Posts insinuating that any jiggle on any part of your body is bad. Posts insinuating that you are either “fit” with 6-pack abs or “fat” with any other stomach. There are pictures of women where Photoshop has clearly been used to create artificial “thigh gaps”. Pro tip: If the crotch is mysteriously square and even indented, it’s probably Photoshop.
But the most heartbreaking pin I have seen to demonstrate just how far body shaming has seeped into our culture is a picture of a little girl doing push ups after she has lined up all of her Barbies to do the same. This child cannot be old enough to even attend school yet. The caption reads “Barbie Bootcamp”. While many comments I have seen on this picture indicate that people find this “cute”, I find it disturbing. Yes, we want to encourage children to be involved in physical activity. But for children that young, that activity should be more along the lines of playing catch, taking the dog for a walk, or running around the lawn doing cartwheels – all with parent, guardian, or sitter participation. Doing push ups alone in your bedroom is not a fun activity for most people.
The other issue with that pin for me, is that children learn a lot of body shaming behaviors from the adults around them, usually without the adult realizing what they are teaching. As a child, my mother was constantly on a diet and talking about how “fat” she looked. I watched her take Dexatrim and drink SlimFast shakes all while reminding me that her butt looked better before she got pregnant with me. Did she realize how that made me feel or even that it affected me at all? Of course not, or she probably wouldn’t have said those things in my presence. But she did, and they affected me for quite some time.
The moral of this story is one of prevention. In my role as an Eating Disorder Dietitian, my job is not only to treat, but to prevent eating disorders from arising in the first place. While this is not always possible, becoming aware of what you say or do, especially around your children, can help them to form healthier and more realistic views of their bodies and health. Model healthy behaviors as a family and keep it positive. For example, focus on teaching your kids that eating fruits and vegetables will provide them with the nutrients that their bodies need versus telling kids that eating cookies and candy will make them fat. Encourage the family to play a game of soccer in the backyard instead of plopping down in front of the TV after dinner.
Have your kids help with dinner preparation so they feel more engaged with the foods they are eating. And, most of all, avoid saying negative things about your body in front of your children. If you want your spouse’s opinion on an outfit, ask if you look professional, not fat. If you feel like your healthy eating has taken a detour, voice your desire to have fruit instead of dessert with dinner, instead of professing your need to go on a diet.
Following my above examples definitely qualifies as a culture change for most families, which means it probably won’t be easy. However, this doesn’t have to be an overnight change. Just making yourself aware of what we do to shame others about our bodies makes it easier to see what we could improve upon and makes it easier to notice behaviors and word choices in your children that may indicate an issue. Remember: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” Ben Franklin.