Body shaming and fat shaming are big buzz words at the moment. I’m not very securely plugged into the cultural pulse of media, but even I managed to twig that this is a thing. A quick google informs me, via the Urban Dictionary, that body shaming is making someone feel bad about their body, and is also never ok. I’m also hit with videos and whole raft of blogs and articles on how people have dealt with being shamed about their bodies. The general trend seems to be some journalist or internet troll pointing out that so-and-so has overindulged, is too skinny, too fat or too muscular which is swiftly followed by about a million indignant online voices rising to the rescue with inspiring hashtags, words of comfort, and such.
On one hand, I am uplifted by the compassion of humanity. It’s great to see that people won’t stand by and watch a strangers feelings be trampled on by bullies. But then there’s the other hand, where sits a pesky little niggle of uneasiness about this whole thing. Are we getting more kind and tolerant of the diversity of body shapes as a society? Despite the warm, fuzzy hashtags, probably not. Although the hoards of internet champions crop up from across the globe, we are more addicted to modifying, changing and perfecting our bodies than ever before. Setting aside cosmetic surgery, beauty treatments and other body modifications, the weight loss industry alone is expected to be worth £220 billion by 2017 with roughly 29 million UK residents starting a diet per year (http://metro.co.uk/2014/01/30/companies-growing-fat-as-you-slim-the-growth-of-the-weight-loss-market-4282903/). I fail to see how this demonstrates a more body accepting society, and I’m left wondering how to understand the discrepancy between the social media backlash against fat shaming and the evidence that most people don’t like fat.
I suspect my uneasiness is something to do with this being a far more complex issue than ‘fat accepting’ versus ‘fat shaming’. Possibly that, like most of us, how we feel about our bodies is dependant on context. For instance, with my close friends and those similar to me, I feel fine. Throw me in the backstage of a Victoria’s Secret runway unveiling of the latest line of un-wearable corsets and paper thin panties, and I might feel differently. (I have been interested in this issue with female weightlifters and CrossFit athletes, particularly how they might value their more muscular frames when in competition environments but feel less confident in other situations, like when shopping for jeans, for instance.)
From another angle, I believe that the term ‘fat shaming’ has unintended negative implications for those who feel they have been ‘fat-shamed’. Here’s why:
1) Repeat after me, ‘My feelings are my responsibility’ – You might not like how this sounds but it is, in fact, the most freeing, powerful idea. Others can say what they want, do what they want, but how I feel is my business. If I say someone else is responsible for my feelings, I am in effect giving them power over me. Even if it is the intention of some low life to make you feel shame, it is your choice what to do with that. You can pick up and run with it, argue with it, accept it or not. For sure, our emotional reactions are at times beyond our control. I’m not suggesting that a rude comment won’t sting, but that our behaviour and how we frame the importance of that comment or feeling will determine our experience, ultimately.
2) Can’t please ‘em all – Some people like bodies this way, some people like bodies that way. So there’s someone out there with an internet connection who thinks you’re too fat. Are we suggesting that everyone agree on what is attractive? That sounds silly. Although I realise there is a big difference having an opinion about someone’s appearance and actually typing it out, it’s just a sad fact that some people develop a kind of uninhibited, keyboard Tourette’s in the anonymity of cyber space. And no amount of clever hashtags are going to change that, I’m sorry to say. In essence, what we need is to understand that we have a body, but we are more than that. Separate the label from your self worth. I can fail, without being a failure. I can be imperfect, without being un-loveable. What I do, what I look like are different than what I am.
3) ‘Should’s’ trip us all up – The whole concept of ‘fat shaming’ is that people ‘should’ do or not do something. People shouldn’t say mean things. But what if they do? People should love their bodies. But what if they don’t? This is my main gripe with the concept of ‘fat shaming’ – it creates two false alternatives. Two imaginary camps. You’re either a horrid, rude body-shaming hater or an accepting, compassionate body-accepting good guy. Whenever things are that all-or-nothing, it will fail to truly reflect reality. I suspect that there are people out there who join the bandwagon against the fat-shamers, but who at times are less enamoured with their own fleshy layers. Unfortunately, false alterative like this set people up to fail. When we feel pressured, we will rebel, in possibly unhelpful ways, just to prove we are right. Tell me I’m too fat for cake, well I’m gonna eat two just to show you! The only one losing is you.
Overall, I don’t think that it’s right that there are some mean, heartless people out there. But I also believe that the concept of body shaming clouds the body issues many are struggling with and makes them less able make insightful choices about how to cope with their bodies and their feelings. Don’t give into the bullies, but also don’t shoot yourself in the foot trying to prove a point. If you love your body, it will show and no one will have the power to shame you.