Why is a 51-year old writing about body shaming? Because of its pervasiveness. Because of its destructive nature. Because of its pernicious character. Because of its prevalence in the teenager, the millennial, the gracefully aging, the extroverts, the introverts, the men, the women, the stay-at-home moms, the working moms, and the working business professional. These are people from all walks of life, many of whom have stories of body image and shaming issues. Why raise attention about shaming? Because it erodes the substance of what makes each of us a human being.
Sure, all of us have biases about what looks healthy and what we prefer. We love admiring the body that is toned, muscular, tan and healthy – the image of vitality. We have been programmed to believe the images of perfection and standards which social media has promulgated into our collective mindset. It is part and parcel of advertising in all aspects of commercialism, to the detriment of individualism, personal expression, and human-ness.
Despite what the popular media and culture wants us to believe is the perfect body and subsequently portraying endless images to that effect, few people ever seem to attain that “perfect” coveted body. What we do instead is reminisce about what attributes we flaunted in our youth that may have faded. We dwell on the awareness, fear, denial, and self-judgment of the impact of poor self-care for our bodies when we carry the extra pounds, smoke, go without sunblock and end up with wrinkles or age spots or even cancer, drink to excess making us crabby, tired, and unproductive, or are otherwise neglectful of our precious tombs. Over and over, we set goals for improvement with intentions to succeed without actually ever attaining them. We obsess about what we should be doing while we put these behaviors off until tomorrow while simultaneously being cognizant of those who on the surface seemingly have it all while we do not seem to measure up.
The truth is that silently we have been shamed into feeling less than or feeling inadequate in our ever-continuing comparison. We have excuses for why we currently are or are not where we want to be. We live with the lack of acceptance about being uniquely special in our own bodies, trying to fight back with dangerous diets, potentially lethal eating disorders, exhausting and injurious exercise regimens, expensive skin regimens, and potentially life-altering surgeries, all to be validated by some invisible (or in some cases, visible and known) entity to which we attribute great importance or significance in our lives. Unfortunately for some, self-harm and suicide are sometimes chosen options to escape the oppressive feelings of not realizing that faux image of beauty which is seen as a personal weakness or failure. In the healthcare environment and in our culture, it is obviously a struggle for many and is still not being addressed adequately due to time constraints, lack of knowledge, or lack of resources for referrals once it is identified. It is a topic not readily assessed, nor do people discuss it openly due to social pressures, shame, and sheer embarrassment. And we are probably all guilty judging to some degree at some point in time.
On a personal level, recalling a memory of partaking in an activity in which I wore a bikini, and the comment that was uttered by that judging entity was “Ugh.” I even recall my father saying once that “Guys don’t like a cottage cheese butt,” certainly in a moment of jest and with the intention of looking out for me, right? I also traveled with someone once who has always been very uninhibited about wearing revealing, fun clothes and exposing her apparent flaws (how dare she, according to the critics!), and I witnessed open laughter and finger-pointing by passers-by. I know that this mockery is probably about a few extra pounds…the pounds we are vigilant about wanting to lose.
From a professional standpoint, I have had patients share stories that they were mocked by medical staff or felt like they were being judged for one reason or another which ultimately kept them from seeking care in a professional office. I also recently had the disgust of observing a fitness professional completely ignore a peer, likely due to some bias about her appearance that did not fit the “stereotypical” fitness professional. I have heard an aging woman of about 65 who has been an athlete for years say that having a few pounds around the middle makes a woman look “matronly.” Some years ago, I even overheard and observed a known physician on an airplane flight – unaware of my presence at the time – going on a diatribe about the trouble with the seating of “fat people” and shaking her head in disgust. If you don’t think it is pervasive, start listening and watching for it.
The judgment or shaming can be about anything which society emphasizes in the realm of physical beauty, social acceptance, and lasting youth—wrinkles, gray hair, choices in simple clothes vs the latest fads, tanning, not tanning, tattoos, piercings, hair color, imperfect teeth, laughing too loudly, trying things that are out of the norm for “your age”—anything is fair game for ridicule or opinion. For the recipient of the judgment, it can hurt like a knife piercing the gut. It is like being sucker-punched with the end result of wanting to go into protection or withdrawal mode. For those who have experienced this, you might be keenly familiar with the thoughts that course through your body, but it is the feeling that remains. It is omnipresent. Personally, I recall self-scrutiny, my brain screaming “you sloth,” “fatso,” and “not good enough!” My intellect advised me that I was successful in many aspects of my life and I questioned why my palpable responses (from those I experienced, those I have witnessed, and those shared with me by clients) should be any of my concern, but my gut reaction was so very contrary to what I knew cognitively. I also knew—from a professional standpoint—that this is a struggle for many people who fight daily with body image issues or have been shamed in the past or who have deep-rooted fears about these issues. I am able to forgive and move forward, understanding that we many times – if not always – lash out against what we ourselves are struggling to overcome.
The actions of someone silently kicking another in the gut with hurtful comments, aversive looks or eye-rolling, open disgust, behavior of non-acceptance, exclusion, or even haughtiness are only fuel for the fire for that person who is “less than perfect” and likely struggling. With their body image. With trying to fit in. With not being fully engaged in life due to the “less than” feeling. With wanting to be accepted for whom he or she is at the time. With choosing what he or she wears every day because nothing feels good or looks good. With fighting with what is consumed at each meal because the guilt of food consumption or coping is so overwhelming. With battling a label from a disease like obesity when they see their medical provider. With feeling rejected, shunned, or unworthy. Maybe even with self-harm thoughts. Therefore, it is imperative that we must raise the consciousness and awareness of body shaming as a problem in our culture.
But there are solutions. We choose consciously. We express our thoughts. We live our thoughts. Maybe we can all be a little more conscientious and sensitive and resist comparison, disdain, or outright rudeness. Maybe we can embrace diversity. Maybe we can increase awareness in medical providers and the community at large to address body image issues and anxiety or fears that might be contributing to health care or mental health diagnoses, failure to seek care, depression, and quality of life issues. Maybe we can also choose not to be offended by the offender when the shaming occurs, realizing the judging is mostly about the person doing the judging. Maybe we can accept that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Maybe when we do feel compelled to judge, judge with reason and empathy, not with disdain or haughtiness. Maybe we can just allow everyone to just live in his or her skin without judgment….that “live and let live” principle that we have all about.
Finally, for those who need to hear it, and we all do…yes, you are enough. You are human. Be okay with where you are. Allow yourself to be vibrant without fear and living out of the shadows. Be okay with being and becoming the best version of you…however long that takes…without anyone’s input except your own or someone you trust.
PS: The physician did not succeed with her rant about wanting to be moved.
The photo is of my niece, Savannah, who is going to veterinary school in Ohio. The “Dear World” project was on her campus…YOU ARE ENOUGH.
I love it when people “get it.”