Body shaming may seem like a “victimless crime.” However, the psychological effects of body shaming extend beyond mental distress to impact physical health outcomes.
If you’re wondering, “What is body shaming?” or how to deal with body shaming, you’ve come to the right place. Discover examples of body shaming ahead and, most importantly, learn how to stop body shaming yourself.
What Is Body Shaming?
The act of body shaming, sometimes called fat shaming, has been happening for years. Its first known use was in 1996, although it was just recently added to the dictionary.
Body shaming is generally defined as criticizing, judging, or mocking someone for perceived body faults and imperfections. Most often, these cruel criticisms are aimed at body size, body type, or body shape. In fact, body shaming is considered a form of bullying and is especially aggressive at times.
Unfortunately, weight stigma extends to professionals, such as doctors. This can ultimately affect patient outcomes, and body shaming is associated with making patients less likely to access healthcare.
Overweight healthcare practitioners also face weight bias and may feel less capable of delivering health advice due to their weight, despite being qualified to do so.
Examples of Body Shaming
Body shaming can range from subtle, negative comments to targeted statements. Some examples of body shaming include:
• Assuming a person eats a certain way, or should eat a certain way, based on their appearance—“I’ll bring you a Diet Coke, because it looks like you need it.”
• Comparing yourself to others and criticizing yourself based on another’s appearance—“I’m so fat compared to her”
• Criticizing someone else’s appearance, with or without them present—“She’ll never get a date looking like that…”
• Looking in the mirror and criticizing yourself because of an aspect of your physical appearance—“I hate myself because I don’t have a thigh gap”
• News articles or social media posts criticizing celebrities’ bodies—“She’s lost control,” “He’s really let himself go,” “He’s too skinny,” or “She’s too fat.”
• TV sitcoms that use overweight characters’ bodies as the basis for—Monica in the 90’s sitcom Friends
Unfortunately, with an almost constant flow of media, you don’t have to look far to find messages about what bodies “should” look like. It’s important to recognize that these sources provide only one point of view, and it's often flawed and fails to account for what a truly healthy body looks like.
It’s also important to realize you’ve probably unintentionally participated in body shaming yourself. Instead of feeling guilt for past actions, you can make amends and move forward armed with increased awareness.
It’s truly never too late to start improving your relationship with your body! It’s also never too late to help support others so they can have a healthy relationship in their own skin.
Physical and Psychological Effects of Body Shaming
It's estimated that nearly 2 in 5 Americans in the obese or overweight body mass index (BMI) categories have internalized weight bias. Thanks to a rise in body image research during the last decade, the effects of body shaming are beginning to be better understood.
The impacts of body shaming often begin by altering mental health, and can include:
• Higher rates of anxiety about the body, which can be linked with or lead to depression
• Higher risk for disordered eating behaviors (i.e. binge eating)
• Increased risk for risky behaviors, including suicidal thoughts
• Lower levels of self-esteem and body satisfaction
Generally, women are generally more likely than men to participate in behaviors like body surveillance. Females are also more likely to experience changes in self-worth based upon thoughts about their appearance. However, it’s important to remember that both men and women can experience body shaming.
Those being body shamed are also more likely to engage in physically unhealthy behaviors as well, such as:
• Eating disorders
• Exercise avoidance
• Weight loss beyond what is healthy
Interestingly, research shows that even people who are thin to begin with are more likely to become overweight or obese with prolonged exposure to weight bias and discrimination. This means that body shaming has the potential to push people from a healthy to an unhealthy state, no matter what weight they were to begin with.
How to Deal with Body Shaming
Body shaming is often referred to as a modern-day epidemic, making it even more crucial to develop skills to protect against it. Here are some common strategies to help you deal with body shaming.
Identify Underlying Feelings
It can be helpful to identify exactly why your body makes you upset. Is it because of sayings your parents repeated when you were young? Is it because you don’t feel control over your body?
Verbalizing your thoughts with a therapist trained in body image issues can help you work through the complicated feelings you have about your body. One effective strategy therapists often suggest is to find one thing every day you love about your body and say it aloud.
For example, even though you may still struggle with weight every day, you can look in the mirror and say to yourself, “I love how long my hair has gotten!” To take this a step further, you could compliment something about yourself that has nothing to do with weight.
Maybe you can also compliment yourself on what a good friend you are. Or, celebrate how patient you were in a difficult situation recently.
Model Healthy Behavior
With girls as young as 6 years old already feeling the pressure to lose weight, learning how to discuss body shaming issues is crucial in today’s society. Especially in the presence of children and teens, it’s important to model healthy behavior.
What you say in front of others about your own weight may become what they say about themselves. Instead of saying “I look fat” in front of the mirror while your daughter is there, you can find other ways to express your frustration.
Better yet, you can use the instance as a learning opportunity to explain that healthy bodies can come in all shapes and sizes.
Curate A Helpful Social Circle
Many experts suggest a social media cleanse, or “cleaning up” the accounts you follow. In other words, it can be helpful to look at the media you’re consuming and block anything that contributes to thoughts of body shaming or an unhealthy body image.
One positive impact of social media has been a wave of body positivity. This movement has helped to remind people that a healthy lifestyle looks different for everyone and that a person’s worth is so much more than a number on a scale.
Body positivity has also brought positive body talk to the forefront. Some studies show that this self-compassionate talk can moderate body shame experienced when using social networking sites.
Beyond social media, surrounding yourself with supportive people in real life can also be crucial. This may mean having productive conversations with friends and family about the efforts you’re making to become more body neutral or body positive.
You can ask those close to you to refrain from making comments about your weight—such as asking if you’ve lost weight—or others’ weight especially while you’re around.
Dealing With Serious Disorders
If you grew up with body shaming, it’s common to use food as a punishment or reward. This can lead to eating disorders or forms of body dysmorphia.
To deal with body dysmorphic disorders, you’ll want to work with an eating disorder specialist or team. Especially qualified teams contain dietitians and therapists as part of the healing process. These experts can help equip you with healthy coping mechanisms and assist you in overcoming more intense issues.
The Bottom Line on Body Shaming
Body shaming is a form of bullying, whether it’s aimed at another person or done while looking in the mirror at oneself. It can complicate mental health and make individuals less likely to seek help or healthcare resources.
Although body shame is prevalent, there are plenty of strategies that can be used to combat it, including support from qualified professionals.
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Charkravorty T. Fat shaming is stopping doctors from helping overweight patients—here’s what medical students can do about it. BMJ. 2021;375:n2830.
Kohn J. How to Talk to Kids about Weight. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Published January 2023.
Moya-Garófano A, Moya M. Focusing on one’s own appearance leads to body shame in women but not in men: The mediating role of body surveillance and appearance-contingent self-worth. Body Image. 2019;29:58-64.
Vargas E. Body Shaming: What Is It & Why Do We Do It? Walden Behavioral Care.
Vogel L. Fat shaming is making people sicker and heavier. CMAJ. 2019;191(23):E649.