By Alice Schluger, PhD, CWP
When was the last time you looked in the mirror and admired your reflection? We are bombarded with images of perfect bodies on TV, in magazines, and all over social media. In our weight-conscious culture, physical appearance often overrides health considerations. The overall message we receive is that we should strive for the perfect body and find ways to hide our flaws. Trying to live up to these standards creates negative feelings about our self-worth and self-esteem. It also leads to criticism of ourselves and others which can manifest as body shaming.
What Constitutes Body Shaming?
Body shaming may be considered a form of bullying (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018). It involves humiliating someone by making inappropriate or derogatory comments about their body size or shape. These criticisms can be made to ourselves, or to others either with or without that person’s knowledge. The act of mocking others can be carried out in person or via the internet and social media. Technological platforms play a significant role by emphasizing physical appearance, as well as providing a convenient vehicle for body shaming. It’s easy to post hurtful comments about others online because of the enhanced access and anonymity. This form of cyberbullying has contributed to body shaming practices in recent years.
Although body shaming is usually associated with fat shaming, people of all sizes and shapes can bear the brunt of this cruelty. Being very slender, I have been subjected to irritating comments, such as “don’t you eat?” or “you eat like a bird.” Even in a joking manner, remarks about what or how much food people are eating constitutes body shaming. People may think it’s a compliment to say how lucky you are to be thin, but words can be harmful especially if you’re already self-conscious about your weight. Even though you may not intend to hurt someone’s feelings, you may inadvertently be engaging in body shaming.
How many times have you said to yourself that you feel fat or asked others if you look fat? You may not realize it, but these are also body shaming practices. It implies that being fat is unattractive and something to be ashamed of. Let’s face it—we only have a certain degree of control over our genetic makeup and metabolism. Although people don’t choose to be overweight, weight biases remain widespread in many societies and the fat shaming practices continue. This becomes a vicious cycle because the shame of weight discrimination contributes to stress and more weight gain (Vogel, 2019).
Body Shaming and Gender
The stigma surrounding weight and body type can have long-term psychological and physical health consequences (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018). Feminine ideals of beauty changed beginning in the 1960s when thin women were considered to be more attractive than heavier women. Men who were taller and muscular were viewed as the desired body type. Since the stringent standards for women are generally unrealistic and unattainable, body shaming tends to be more prevalent towards females than males (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018).
A comparison study of body shaming and social anxiety between males and females, ages 18-30 revealed some surprising results (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018).
The researchers evaluated the relationship between social anxiety, fear of negative evaluation, and body shaming. Although there was a positive correlation between social anxiety and body shaming, no gender differences were found for the three variables in this sample (Agarwal & Banerjee, 2018). This suggests that
nobody is immune to body shaming or societal pressures to look a certain way.
Adolescents and Appearance-Based Shaming
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to body shaming, weight shaming, and appearance-based shaming during this pivotal stage of development (Gam, Singh, Manar, Kar & Gupta, 2020). Attitudes towards body image and self-esteem are largely influenced by family members, peers, and social media. Weight-related bullying during adolescence contributes to negative body perceptions and preoccupations with specific body parts (Voelker, Reel, & Greenleaf, 2015). Adolescent girls, in particular, are at increased risk for eating disorders and dysfunctional exercise stemming from pressures concerning their appearance (Voelker et al., 2015).
Studies indicate that the effects of being bullied during adolescence have both short-term and long-term mental health consequences (Ringdal, Bjornsen & Espnes, 2020). Similarly, mental health issues, including body dissatisfaction, anxiety, and depressive symptoms may result from appearance-based harassment among youth (Gam et al., 2020). Other studies suggest a link between appearance-based teasing and an increase in alcohol use with more frequent binge drinking in early adolescence (Klinck, Vannucci, Fagle, & Ohannessian, 2020).
Body Shaming as an Occupational Hazard
Body shaming is widespread throughout the workplace. Since the office is fundamentally a social setting, weight and dieting tend to be popular topics of conversation. Busybody co-workers offering unsolicited advice about what you’re eating for lunch is more than just an annoyance. People who are overweight, particularly women, are often passed over for promotional opportunities (Mull, 2019). The “wellness craze” is rampant in our culture, resulting in both positive and negative consequences. Although worksite wellness programs can be beneficial in many respects, they also emphasize weight loss as an important health priority. This can lead to both poor self-image and the shaming of others to comply with these recommendations (Mull, 2019).
Recommendations for Workplace Wellness Programs
What steps can be taken to improve engagement and employee wellness in the workplace? Worksite wellness programs should shift the focus from weight loss to the promotion of healthy eating. This not only fosters employee health and wellness, but it also encourages a collaborative environment to establish healthy eating habits. The daily stressors and pressures of the office are generally not conducive to eating a well-balanced diet. Many employees just grab a quick lunch and eat at their desks while working. This is counterproductive to both employees and the organization, as energy levels and motivation become depleted without adequate nutrition.
Kitchen areas that enable employees to bring healthy lunches and snacks to work are ideal. In addition, healthy foods can be supplied by the office for easy access and guidance to proper nutrition. This demonstrates organizational responsibility for facilitating a healthier workplace and role modeling for employees to follow. It literally says “put your money where your mouth is” and enhances the quality of corporate wellness programs. Employers should also reinforce the value of eating lunches away from desks to take breaks from work and promote more mindful eating.
A variety of educational initiatives that emphasize the health benefits of sensible eating and exercise regimens are also imperative. Healthy lifestyle programs, as opposed to weight reduction efforts, are necessary components for successful outcomes. A holistic approach to health and well-being is central for achieving long-term organizational wellness. The incorporation of wellness challenges and teamwork activities adds enjoyment and lend support for co-workers. These types of bonding experiences are advantageous for boosting office morale while discouraging body shaming and critiques of fellow colleagues.
Promoting Body Positivity
The “anti-body shaming movement” has begun to take shape with an increased focus on body positivity. This is a step in the right direction towards altering our appearance-based biases and prejudices. Our cultural beliefs, including those ingrained in our organizational culture warrant further attention to address this issue. The necessity of opening up a dialog about this controversial subject is highly apparent from both a physical and mental health perspective. There have been attempts to alter our mindsets with marketing campaigns that incorporate more mainstream body images. Nonetheless, it will take time to change our longstanding ideals of beauty and relationships with our own bodies. Body positivity is a journey towards accepting ourselves and others. Learning to embrace our own imperfections will ultimately free us from placing unfair judgments on others.
“Step away from the mean girls and say bye-bye to feeling bad about your looks. Are you ready to stop colluding with a culture that makes so many of us feel physically inadequate? Say goodbye to your inner critic, and take this pledge to be kinder to yourself and others.” — Oprah
Dr. Alice Schluger is a Professional Life & Wellness Coach through the Institute of Life Coach Training and a Certified Wellness Practitioner (CWP) through the National Wellness Institute. In addition, she holds a PhD in Health Psychology and a Master of Arts Degree in Community Health Education. She’s taught graduate courses in Health & Wellness Psychology and possesses expertise in various areas within the health field, including health education, program planning, project coordination, and clinical research. WellnessForDancers.com
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Gam, R.T., Singh, S.K., Manar, M. Kar, S.K., & Gupta, A. (2020). Body shaming among school-going adolescents: Prevalence and predictors. International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health, 7(4), 1324-1328. Retrieved from DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18203/2394-6040.ijcmph20201075.
Klinck, M., Vannucci, A., Fagle, T., & Ohannessian, C.M. (2020). Appearance-related teasing and substance use during early adolescence. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/adb0000563.
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Ringdal, R., Bjornsen, H.N., & Esones, G.A. (2020). Bullying, social support and adolescents’ mental health: Results from a follow-up study. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/1403494820921666
Voelker, D.K., Reel, J.J., & Greenleaf, C. (2015). Weight status and body image perceptions in adolescents: Current perspectives. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 6, 149-158. Retrieved from https://doi: 10.2147/AHMT.S68344
Vogel, L. (2019). Fat shaming is making people sicker and heavier. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 191(23). Retrieved from https:// doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-5758