By Leah Henzen, Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology.
This week I’ve had the privilege to witness some pretty awesome acts of courage: a teenage boy bullied for years turned around and told that bully, “It’s not ok to push me around and call me fat”; a young woman took her t-shirt off at the swimming pool and went for a swim in her bathers despite feeling incredibly inadequate and being convinced that her size 12 body would be the laughing stock of the rest of the patrons; an older woman, who has spent much of her life feeling ashamed of her size, went out for dinner, ordered a burger and chips, and focused on enjoying it rather than worrying about what thoughts and comments others may have about a person her size eating a burger and chips.
I am so excited for these three people as they use enormous courage to work on accepting their bodies as they are. But as I reflect on these events my excitement turns into a real sadness. What sort of society do we live in where it takes great courage for three truly amazing people to believe that they deserve basic respect as they go about everyday activities, regardless of the shape of the body that they live in? Really, what sort of a society have we not only accepted but contributed to creating, and maintaining?
If you could, please just take some time to step back and take a look around. Listen to the conversations around you about weight and appearance, notice the reactions of others, be aware of how you talk about your own and others appearance. I believe it will become as clear to you as it has to me that the way we act towards each other has helped create a hierarchical society based on weight and appearance. I feel so strongly that we can do better than this and that we must do better than this, so please keep reading for some ideas on how.
Stop body shaming
We’ve all heard the phrase “everyone’s different” from a young age. We’ve probably accepted this for almost every area of our lives. We have friends who are hilarious, others serious, some close to genius and others aloof. We see success in all different forms and associate with people from various religions. Most of us have never thought to assess the value of these differences, they just are what they are, and we appreciate the richness they add to our lives.
What about when it comes to weight and appearance? Most of us also have friends and family of all different sizes. But do we have the same acceptance of this? Or do you find yourself at times critiquing other people’s bodies? “Gosh Jane has gained some weight hasn’t she?” Or do you find yourself discussing how others should try this diet, eat different types of food, exercise more or in a different way? Do you ever nudge your friend to point out a body shape that you find amusing or something to pity? Do you feel sorry for “that poor man” because you assume they could not be happy within a body of that size? Do you make comments like “no wonder she’s so big eating at a place like that” as you pass the line at McDonalds? It’s all subtle – and sometimes not – but it is so harmful. It is body shaming and we can and must stop.
Body shaming isn’t only directed toward others, we often do it even more ferociously to ourselves. Dieting for that upcoming wedding, commenting that you need to “get back on track” after “letting go lately”, criticising our various body parts, wishing them to be different, refusing them to be seen or touched, sometimes even by those that are closest to us. Again, it’s subtle, but it is so harmful. It is body shaming and we can and must stop.
Start encouraging acceptance of shape diversity
How about we change our perspective of our bodies? How about we accept differences in size the way we do other features in our friends? Children do this naturally and maybe we can learn something from them. If your child points to another child and says “Mum, look at that girl’s long hair”, do you shush him and tell him not to point? Or do you engage with his observations and say something like “Gee it is long isn’t it. I bet it takes a long time to brush!”?
What if he points to another child and says “Mum look at how fat that girl is!”? Most of us, because it is so ingrained in us that “fat” is something to be ashamed of, will shush our children and tell them not to say that. But this only teaches and reinforces the harmful belief that fat is shameful. What if instead we encouraged acceptance and diversity: “Yeah she is fat isn’t she? She’s strong too, look how high she’s climbed up that climbing frame!” This way our children are not taught to agree with society that big is bad and fat should be feared, but just as hair length is, body size is just another difference between us human beings.
Similarly, if an African child comes home from school saying, “Mum John called me black!” how would you respond? How about something like “Yeah your skin is black because we come from a part of the world where people have black skin. We’ll take you there one day, it’s really amazing.” What if your child who is a bigger than the average child comes home and says “Mum, Charlotte said I’m fat!” how do you respond? How about being honest and showing them that how they are is perfect for them? “Yeah you have more fat on your body than Charlotte – that’s just the way your body likes to be. It probably helps you be so strong too and might be why you can kick the footy so far”.
We can also encourage and work on body acceptance by not getting caught in compliments or conversations about appearance. Make a conscious effort not to follow greetings by comment like “Wow, you’ve lost weight, you look fantastic”. This only reinforces the importance of looks in relationships and self-worth. Instead try exploring something more meaningful. “Weren’t you heading back to study? How’s that going?” Remember the more you do this the more you are modelling to those close to you that our society doesn’t have to be this way.
Focus on health not on size and weight
We often think that it is ok to body shame because we believe it will encourage people to lose weight, and improve their health and quality of life. But there are some major problems with these assumptions. Firstly, the relationship between weight and heath is nowhere near as clear cut as popular media and even many well intentioned health professionals would have us believe. In fact research shows that health does not deteriorate with weight gain unless it is very extreme and the person becomes ‘morbidly obese’. Secondly, research also shows that body shaming does not motivate change and only makes people feel worse and more isolated. Thirdly, the assumption that someone changing their weight will improve their life is completely flawed and based entirely on myths and stereotypes created from body shaming in the first place.
So when we have family or friends with health problems, can we not automatically assume that weight loss is the solution and have an open mind to explore what other things could be considered to improve their health?
Appreciate the human body for all it can do
We tend to spend so much time analysing and judging appearance but comparatively so little time appreciating abilities. I can’t help but think what a different society we would live in if all the appearance-based words like fat, skinny, disgusting, gross, pretty were replaced with ability-based words like strong, fast, high, gentle, precise. Maybe we would have a society that values our amazing bodies for all that they allow us to do.
So as I said, this week I witnessed some amazing acts of courage, and I know I will again next week, and the week after that. I will sit with people and we will talk about how they will build up their courage, how they will accept their anxiety and fears regarding their body in order to achieve the life that they deserve. I am so lucky to have people willing to work like this with me, but wouldn’t we all be so much luckier if one day there was no need for this kind of work?
It takes courage to make the decision to stop participating in body shaming, and by doing so forge a better future for us all. My final question to you is: do you have the courage? And my final request: please search for it and use it every day.