For years and years, the practice of making fun of fat or thin people has been a staple of cartoons, picture postcards, film and television comedies, books and stories.
It’s what we do, mock and marginalise our fellow humans who don’t conform to some manufactured ideal of physical appearance. The shame is on us, not on our bodies.
When a name emerges for a trend or development and enters general usage, the trend or development is normalised and accepted at face value. Back in the day, anyone ‘body shaming’ real people in real life would have been described as being nasty, or unpleasant, or too personal, or ill-mannered.
These descriptions still apply. Sometimes the aggression behind body shaming is masked by references to health and wellness, as if the person who criticises a woman’s appearance in a bikini or a tight dress or mocks a man for weight gain or his lack of a six-pack really cares about their well-being. As if.
But in our personal lives we can combat body shaming and the attitudes it expresses. We can refuse to play the game of those who try to demean and humiliate others because of their physical appearance. (Of course, this may include us doing it to ourselves.)
Changing what we say about and how we respond to comments about body shapes and types can help us to feel better about ourselves, and can influence other people to see things differently.
What not to say
Never use the expression ‘body shaming’
The phrase is a succinct, catchy way of expressing the behaviour it describes, but linking the two words ‘body’ and ‘shame’ accepts that there is a connection between them.
The most powerful way of challenging this perception is to reject the idea that there is anything shameful about body types. You can only be ‘body shamed’ if you take on and accept the legitimacy of the concept. Don’t do it.
Don’t make positive comments about weight or body shape
You don’t have to compliment your friends and family on being thin or curvy or muscular or whatever. There are lots of nice things you can say about someone’s appearance which genuinely celebrate their physical presence and presentation. Make it a point never to say:
- ‘You look great! Really skinny!’
- ‘You look so much better now you’ve lost weight.’
Don’t make negative comments about weight or body shape
You don’t have to criticise someone’s physical shape. If you are genuinely worried about a person’s health, if it’s appropriate to do so, you could open up a conversation about your concerns. Otherwise, keep your thoughts to yourself. If you are tempted to speak out, ask yourself why you want to.
Don’t make disguised negative comments about weight or body shape
You may not be deliberately hurtful, but well-meaning remarks are often disguised criticisms, and they always support the view that shape matters.
- ‘That looks good on you. It hides your tummy.’
- ‘Try something that suits your body shape.’
- ‘If you lost weight you’d be really stunning.’
Reject phrases which are patently there to ‘make it better’
Plus size, oversize, generously sized, body-positivity all present a judgement. Plus what size? you may ask. Over what size? Generously proportioned compared with what?
These categories are based on a manufactured standard, an implied norm, which bears no relation to reality. They imply that if we are not ‘average’, a suspect category in the first place, we need to be encouraged to think ‘positively’ about our bodies.
You can show that you don’t accept these categories by eliminating the descriptive words. If someone asks if you are looking for, or refers you to one of the ‘plus’ categories, say,
- ‘No, I don’t want the ‘curvy’ choices, I want a pair of trousers that will fit me.’
Ways of responding to body-based comments
How to respond to critical comments about your weight or body shape
You can find ways of laughing off the remark. You can deliver a quick and witty comeback. You can give a defensive reply: ‘I’m happy with it!’ You can put down the speaker by questioning their agenda.
And of course, you can shut them up and make them feel bad by referring to the illness or condition which affects your shape. But this kind of response deals with the immediate context and doesn’t communicate rejection of the concept.
Don’t get drawn in. Imagine yourself flicking aside the remark, rather as you would an irritating fly.Give an immediate, indeterminate response which gives you a moment to breathe, something like:
- ‘Mmm. Right. OK.’
Then make your position clear:
- ‘Actually, I’ve decided not to make or accept any comments about body shape.’
How to respond to compliments about your weight or body shape
It’s hard not to feel pleased if someone compliments you on, well, anything really. It’s an automatic response. Accept the nice thought while rejecting its subject.
- ‘Thanks for the nice comment. Actually, I’d prefer a lovely compliment about something other than my shape!’
- ‘I appreciate the compliment. But I have to tell you, I’ve decided not to make or accept any comments about body shape.’
If someone challenges your reply to a critical or complimentary remark, or asks why you feel that way, you can choose how to respond.
If you don’t want to discuss the matter, say something like:
- ‘It’s a decision I’ve made, that’s all.’
- If the person continues, just say nothing, or change the subject. You don’t have to justify your position.
At the same time, even if your first instinct is to shut down further discussion, you could consider opening up the subject. You might find yourself in a fascinating conversation about body image, body fascism, self-esteem, mental and physical well-being, vested interests, media representations… Who knew that your grandmother who’s aways urging you to eat more, or your daughter who asks if you know how many calories there are in that pudding you’re about to eat, or your mate who obsesses over pics of celebrities in swim wear, would be up for serious, in-depth talk about the issue?
Don’t be body-shamed by clothes sizing
A person doesn’t need to have spent a lifetime haunting high-street shops to know that there is no such thing as standard sizing. In the course of a day you can be classed anything from a size ten to a size 20. But we continue to define ourselves by our dress size. ‘I used to be a size such and such,’ we moan. Or, ‘I’ve dropped two sizes since that diet.’
We buy into the notion that there is a ‘normal’ size although we know that this shape does not reflect the average person’s frame.
Try to remove the emotional context and just think about what will look good, regardless of the number or letter on the label. Rather than a manufacturer’s label, use a tape measure, a feel of the material and a consideration the kind of look you want as more accurate guides.
If you find you are sucked in by the power of a size label, remember that we are talking about a sector which encompasses not just size zero, but triple size zero. So real living breathing human beings who happen to be the smallest in our society are classified as nothing or less than nothing, as having bodies which do not register on the positive scale.
Now that’s what I call shameful.
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