A recent Victorian study found more than 50% of women have been judged or shamed because of the way they looked while exercising. So much so, that the humiliation and judgement made some give up exercise.
Do women not have enough barriers to getting our daily activity in? Do women not feel enough shame when they’re overdue for a lip wax and a root colour? Yet now we have to worry about what we look like even while we’re pounding the pavement while being suffocated by lycra.
While the concept of body shaming may seem like a recent problem, our outspoken opinions of the appearance of others has been around for well over a century, with racist roots.
Yes, you read that correctly: racist roots.
Let me explain. Well before the days of the JLo’s booty and Beyonce’s butt, a curvaceous figure was coveted as it was a sign of prosperity and the ability to breed. And this wasn’t only important in females; protruding stomachs were a sign of power and fertility in men. Essentially, it was a way of saying “I have more than you have” to potential competitors or threats, both literally and figurately. Conversely, thinness was a sign of poverty and potentially illness, such as during the Victorian era when Cholera and Tuberculosis were rampant.
Colourism also parallels this dichotomy. Colourism, a form of racism, supports the idea that pale skin indicates wealth and a life of indoor leisure, rather than the need for hard labour to support themselves.
Summary: curvy hips and pale skin equated to being superior. Yes, superior as in “I’m better than you”.
So what changed? What catalysed the switch from preference from fat to flat abs and pale to tan skin?
Although disputed, William Banting, an undertaker who struggled with health-debilitating obesity, is thought to have made the first dent in the diet industry with his published letter, a “Letter on Corpulence” which outlined how he lost 25% of his weight in a year on an Atkins-like diet and reversed his obesity-related symptoms. The demand for the paper was viral, and soon was a major catalyst for the change from fat-loving to fat shaming.
And so… the fat shaming continued. Postcards such as these, the historical version of memes, gained popularity while fat women (emphasis: women, not men) became the focus of pointing fingers.
White men were even taught that overweight women, while popular in uncivilized countries (a-hem, black Africa), had no place in their pale-skinned righteous lands (ref).
Here’s where things get even more complicated. On one hand, while indeed, people can be ‘fit and fat’, there is unmistakable evidence to show that visceral adiposity, or the fat that hugs our vital organs, is strongly related to negative health outcomes, including death. Essentially, there is a killer reason (pun intended) why weight loss is so important for overweight or obese individuals.
How do you lose fat? Well, putting aside genetically-related obesity, you have a couple options. First, there’s surgery; essentially vacuum the fat out. However more often than not, the old fashion methods still prevail: eat nutritious foods and move more.
While on the surface this sounds oh-so simple, the problem is we aren’t robots. We have feelings. We want to belong. We want to be loved. And most of all, we want to experience pleasure (chocolate cake, anyone?) and avoid pain (treadmill torture).
But pain isn’t just physical, we experience emotional pain as well. And that’s where shame comes into this story.
Shame is storm that wraps ups all those painful, uncomfortable feelings and makes you believe that you’ll never belong, you’re not special, and you’ll never amount to anything.
So how does body shame and this more internal, brain-based feeling of shame come together? Consider this: a study of almost 1500 1st year college students found that feelings of body shame directly predict levels of depression. Furthermore, individuals who exercise to change their appearance (as opposed to their health) are more prone to disordered eating, low body image, decreased self-esteem and future weight gain. Indeed a study found that women who tried to lose weight due to their appearance, gained weight at the 30 month follow up in contrast to those who’s focus was not appearance related.
Now, you’re probably wondering: where does this shame come from? Sure, the skinny ideal. And yes, the media. And yes, the modelling industry. Blah blah blah, we know these things and we know they need to change.
But here’s where I think things get really, really complicated when it comes to changing our own views on body shame.
Let me tell you a client story. Of course, I’ll change the name and some of the details but it will give you a good sense of where I’m going.
Natalie came to me because she wanted to lose weight for her wedding, which was 3 months (yes, 3 months) away. She came to me because she couldn’t imagine her day without looking a certain way, namely, the ability to fit into the dress size SHE wanted.
I asked her a simple question: “if you could either be overwhelmingly happy on your wedding day, 0R skinny, but you can’t have both, which one would you choose?”.
There was no pause, she chose to be skinny.
This is not uncommon. Most, if not all of my clients equate a superior appearance with a superior life. And perhaps it’s for an unconscious reason: research has shown we’re hardwired to be attracted to, stimulated by, and pleasured from beauty. Essentially, the pleasure centres of our brain are more active when we look at pretty people, which even happens independent of differences in cultures. Meaning, even though every culture will have different standards of beauty, we still can still pick out the individuals who are considered top dog for their counties, even when they’re completely foreign to our own.
Back to my story. Interestingly, I was acquainted with Natalie’s older sister, Heather. Heather, while only 18 months older than Natalie, couldn’t have been more different in personality and appearance. Heather was as confident as they come, and really, couldn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought of her. Natalie’s self-esteem, in contrast, was completely based and dependent on external validation. Essentially, Natalie did not want to be skinny for her wedding, she wanted to look a certain way to feel superior to other brides on their wedding days and have people praise her for her looks.
Now for the spanner: the interesting part was that Natalie was a size 8, and Heather was a size 22.
Welcome to the complicated world of body confidence.
After working in the field for several years now, I’ve come to a clear conclusion: the irony of body confidence and its evil counterpart, body shame, is that both have nothing to do with your body or its appearance.
If body confidence did have something to do with your appearance or size, all supermodels would be confident, and they’re not. Furthermore, I personally wouldn’t have spent a majority of my life battling eating disorders, major depression and suicidal ideation even though I’m a size 6 AUS.
Therefore when we talk about body shame, we need to expand what we consider it means, to fully figure out how to change it.
Firstly, body shaming of another person is simply unacceptable, and there is no one on earth that can debate me on that (or then can, but they’ll lose). And while I’m not suggesting an Orwellian world, we do need harsher punishments for those who shame others both in ‘real life’ and online as a preventive method.
But what about the worse shamers of them all? Ourselves? Heck, our Self-flagellation starts before we even leave the house. We wake up and our first thought is “I hope I stick to my diet, I’m sick of being a fat, ugly pig”. Just starting a diet? Great – let’s make ourselves feel even more horrible with the click of shame ‘before photo’. Head out into the big, bad world and no wonder why things quickly landslide into anxiety and depression land with the addition of other people’s criticism. Heck, other people might not even be thinking anything, but we start misinterpreting glances as those of disgust, rather than just mindless viewing. Essentially, with a negative mindset, we will look for any and all evidence to prove to ourselves that we are right: we don’t belong, and we’re not good enough.
What’s even more interesting is that we berate our friends when they speak negatively about themselves. But apply that premise to our own behaviours? Not a chance. We’ll whip out every excuse in the book to show why our self-shame is rightful.
I ask my clients this simple question: what if their thoughts were displayed as text messages to their daughter? Would they still continue to think what they thought?
Quite simply, we are, as the saying goes, our own worst enemies. We would never tell our daughters, our best friends, our mothers or our sisters that:
- Their thighs are disgusting
- They look ugly because of their zits
- They shouldn’t wear that because they look like a pig
So why is it that we can say it to ourselves? And not only that, but on a daily, if not minute-by-minute basis?
So while I applaud and re-applaud the conversation around external body shaming, I think a more insidious type of shame needs to be addressed, our own self-shame. While it is something that takes time to improve, it is possible and should be a priority.
So here are my 3 steps to slap the shame and fuel your fabulousness:
- Learn a new love language. No, not Italian (although speaking Italian does make you feel damn sexy). Learn to speak to yourself like a loved one would. While at the start, you’ll feel like a pompous and conceited self-righteous b#tch, trust me, that will soon dissipate when you quickly see your world change for the better.
- Thoughts are like farts. No seriously. Would you ever hold in an epic fart? (that is, other than if you were on a date with Ryan Reynolds)? Of course you wouldn’t. That would be uncomfortable and bloody painful too. Thoughts are the same thing: the more you try and hold thoughts of shame in, the worse your mental anguish will get. So phone a trusted friend, and let those thoughts fly.
- Marie Kondo the crap out of your socials. We spend an embarrassing amount of time on our phones, yet wonder why we don’t feel good when we get off them. Folks – the connection is clear: if you’re following accounts that don’t bring you joy, CUT CUT CUT! Same goes for your ‘Facebook friends’. Have a friend that’s always posting her organic poached chicken and Gandhi-raised kale? Trim the tasteless and move on. An acquaintance that’s stimulating your bingeing? Move along to greener fields. Remember: by deleting these people out of your life it’s not meant out of disrespect to them, but out of respect for yourself.
Lastly, something that everyone should do regardless of how they’re feeling: just connect. No, not connect to WIFI, I mean human connection. Call a friend, catch up for some much needed window shopping with your bestie, or surprise your grandma with a bouquet of hand-picked flowers. But just connect.
As the brilliant Brene Brown says: “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” By truly connecting with others, you kill those 3 issues right off the bat. Best of all connecting with others is free, a gym membership isn’t.