I never saw it coming.
The other day, I walked out of a building in downtown Santa Cruz, onto a nice street with a museum and plenty of people around. As I slung my backpack onto my shoulder, a middle-aged man in a button-down shirt slowly rolled by on his bicycle … and said something low enough for only me to hear. It was a disgusting insult about a certain part of my female anatomy. I was shocked for a half-second, and then I turned and yelled (to his fading back) in a clear, even voice loud enough for him and everyone on the street to hear:
“WHAT DID YOU SAY? COME BACK AND SAY THAT TO MY FACE. I HOPE THIS IS THE LIFE YOU IMAGINED FOR YOURSELF WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP.”
That wasn’t exactly how I expected my noon hour to go: attempted cycle-by body shaming.
But it shook me up. We all live in our own cocoons. Most days, people are nice to me and I’m nice to them, and so it’s easy to be lulled into the idea that everything is okay.
But it’s not. This is not an isolated incident in the world. Body shaming is rampant online and on our streets. I was walking down the street minding my own business and some idiot felt he had the right to say something about my body. My body. It doesn’t matter that I am a fit, healthy woman. Why would this person think he had the right to say anything about my body?
Like this story about body-shaming: What made that magazine model think it was okay to post a nude photo of another woman and shame her online? Why would one woman do this to another?
What made either of these people think what they were doing was acceptable? Maybe it was the (usual) lack of much opposition in our society, combined with our own fears of being singled out.
See, shaming is contagious. If others are doing it, shaming seems like an acceptable thing to do. And, if you’re the one pointing the finger, that means the attention is centered on the imperfections of your subject, not on your own imperfections. The author/researcher Brene Brown reminds us in her book “Daring Greatly”: “We judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived deficiency.”
Also, body shaming sells. Companies make money—oodles of money—from making people feeling bad about themselves. Some companies (media, beauty, nutrition, medical, supplement, fitness, among many others) are based on this business model: “Look at this (perfectly presented/altered) person. You should look like them. Give us your money and we can make it happen.” But that’s not always true, is it? Fitness is a composite material, constructed from physical and emotional materials within you. You have to work on all of you to be happy—body, brain, and soul. If you only work on one component, then you are likely to slide back into unhappiness.
So, what to do? (Besides talk about body shaming on the internet or in our homes.) What can we actually do about the Season of Shaming that seems to be perpetually upon us? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few suggestions:
Talk more to people who don’t talk you down
Talk to the people who want to help you to rise, not fall. If someone is constantly trying to body shame you, consider why you are spending your precious time with them. Stay away from sources of hostility and negativity. (On many sites, this means don’t read the comments!)
Stop giving your money to companies who shame you or anyone else
Don’t buy that magazine, visit that site, order that product. Spend your money with companies who refuse to play the Shame Game. Give your money to businesses that, as part of their basic commitment to you, try to help you feel better about yourself, not worse. Give your money to people who help, not hinder or harm. (Full disclosure: this is one of the things I appreciate about Eat To Perform: steadfast opposition to body shaming.)
Think before you speak or type
Consider what you’re saying before you criticize people for how they look or what they wear. Take a moment and clean up your own behavior if you can. What your mom and dad said all those years ago is still true: If you wouldn’t want someone to do that to you, don’t do it to someone else. That model in the L.A. locker room would have saved herself (and the world) a lot of heartache if she had remembered this lesson.
Stick up for those you see being shamed
Speak out. Talk back when you see someone who has become an unwilling target of shaming, because shaming is cruel behavior. Yell on the street if you must, and send a clear message that what is happening is not okay. Silence might not be complicity, but it’s close enough to rub elbows.
Like Brene Brown says, “If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal!”
Don’t click into crap
The internet is a big place. If you see photos posted to shame someone or articles like “Fashion Don’ts for Women Over 40”? Ignore them. You’re just playing into the Shame Game when you click. Besides, who cares what somebody thinks is a “fashion don’t” for you? They are not you. Wear what you want, and stop listening to the blowhard opinions of absolute strangers.
Here’s the crux of the matter: We can’t expect body shaming to shrink if we do nothing to actively shrink it.
Reduction by wish is not a viable option—we know this in nutrition and we should know it in society. You can’t wish your way into a healthier body: you have to make smart choices, get active, and work for less fat and more muscle. Similarly, when it comes to body shaming, we have to make smart choices, get active, and work for a better world. But I think we can do this.
Do you? Have you ever been body shamed? What did you do about it?
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