These thoughts are spinning around in my head and I wish I could create an organized computer program that would efficiently extract the thoughts and put them into a coherent essay. (Maybe some day one of my students will invent such a thing…?!)
So, rather than wait for a perfect beginning that won’t come, I’m going to start in the messy middle.
It’s not okay to skinny-shame someone. Or fat-shame someone. Or shame ourselves. Shame is rampant in our environment. We shame ourselves, for our pasts, for our experiences, for our choices. We shame others when we’re feeling bad about ourselves. There is so much shame around that we don’t even realize it. We don’t realize that we’re shaming whoever it is that we’re shaming.
The world is focused on losing weight. The world praises individuals who lose weight. Tabloids and magazines have headlines titled, “20 pounds lighter: how she did it!” and “5 tips for shedding those extra 5 pounds.” The focus is always on losing weight. And yes, of course, there are individuals out there who physically need to lose weight, from a health standpoint. For their organs to better operate. For their physiological system to function better so they can breathe and pump blood through their bodies and think and live. And those who are overweight are overweight for a reason. Maybe it’s lifestyle choices, maybe it’s binge-eating disorder, maybe it’s a thyroid problem, but guess what: it doesn’t matter. No matter the reason, the person doesn’t deserve shame.
There are also individuals who physically need to gain weight, from a health standpoint. For their organs to better operate. For their physiological system to function better so they can breathe and pump blood through their bodies and think and live. And those who are underweight are underweight for a reason. Maybe it’s anorexia, maybe it’s a metabolic disorder, maybe it’s due to a medication. And it also doesn’t matter.
And then there are the rest of the people. Who are physically stable. Whose organs are operating, whose physiological systems are functioning, who are breathing and living and thinking. Who don’t need to lose, or gain, any weight.
An individual who gains weight, who physically needs to gain weight, is accomplishing something healthy for her body. Similarly, an individual who loses weight, who physically needs to lose weight, is accomplishing something healthy for her body. And an individual who maintains her weight, who physically needs to maintain her weight, is accomplishing something healthy for her body.
We all have different needs. I know people in my life in all of those three categories. But the messages we receive, from the media, from each other, from ourselves, make us forget that. We sort ourselves into the wrong category, the category we hear so often: fat is wrong, skinny is shameful, everyone should lose weight, skinny people have no reason to ever be anything other than happy. And we lose touch with reality, with who we are, what our body is like, what our body needs.
Body image is about how we perceive ourselves. Not how others perceive us. Which is why we might not see ourselves as how others see us. Which is why, if someone talks about disliking their body, saying to them, “Omg no, you’re so skinny” or “Please, you have nothing to complain about, I weigh so much more than you” isn’t helpful. It’s not about how you see them. And it’s not about YOU! All you’re doing is invalidating their feelings, their struggles. Reinforcing the shame that they feel for themselves. Essentially, telling them, “You have no right to feel that way, you shouldn’t be allowed to have those feelings and emotions, I have no compassion for you.”
When a person is being critical of their body, the last thing they want to hear is more criticism. Of anyone. They want to hear compassion. They want to hear, “I understand. I get it. I’ve felt that way. I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m here. What do you need from me? How can I support you?” Because ultimately it’s about the underlying feelings. The fear, the shame, the disgust, the anxiety, the sadness. Whatever it is, for whatever reason it’s there. The more you continue focusing on their body, and shaming them (even if you don’t realize you’re doing it, even if you’re well-meaning), the more it reinforces the negative beliefs they have.
Also? Skinny does not equal happy. Fat does not equal depressed. Feelings, in general, happen independent of one’s body. And if they are happening because of one’s body, that’s a distortion.
And also: if you have been shaming yourself, or others, and are only now realizing it, you get to NOT use this as an excuse for further shame. Don’t let this spiral into, I’ve been shaming others, oh gosh I’m an awful friend, I am an awful person…...
[Edited to add: Moving away from shame does not mean that you can never dislike your body. It means that you feel the dislike, you acknowledge it, but you move on without shaming yourself for those feelings and for having those feelings. It doesn’t mean always loving yourself or always feeling confident and beautiful. It means being compassionate towards yourself, with whatever it is that you’re feeling.]
Feel compassion for yourself, and push the shame away.
Please. You deserve it. We deserve it.