Body shaming and its effect on society

SAM MUKWAMU

Body shaming has become a serious issue in our society. Body shaming is defined by bodyshaming.org as being “inappropriate, negative statements and attitudes toward another person’s weight or size.” It is a form of bullying and, as well as being humiliating, it can lead to short and long term psychological and health related issues. Body shaming occurs in three main ways, criticising yourself, criticising someone else in front of them, and criticising someone else behind their back.

In an age where media and social media are easily accessible, there is a strong emphasis on idealised beauty on platforms such as Instagram, magazines and television. When seeing celebrities and models who are thought to have “perfect bodies”, individuals start to become critical of their own bodies and succumb to the pressure of living up to somewhat unrealistic standards. Despite their celebrity status, some celebrities have had to deal with body shaming, fr SAM MUKWAMU Body shaming has become a serious issue in our society. Body shaming is defined by bodyshaming.org as being “inappropriate, negative statements and attitudes toward another person’s weight or size.” It is a form of bullying and, as well as being humiliating, it can lead to short and long term psychological and health related issues. Body shaming occurs in three main ways, criticising yourself, criticising someone else in front of them, and criticising someone else behind their back. In an age where media and social media are easily accessible, there is a strong emphasis on idealised beauty on platforms such as Instagram, magazines and television. When seeing celebrities and models who are thought to have “perfect bodies”, individuals start to become critical of their own bodies and succumb to the pressure of living up to somewhat unrealistic standards. Despite their celebrity status, some celebrities have had to deal with body shaming, from comments left on their social media pages, to having Photoshop applied to their pictures for magazine covers. Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks recently spoke out about being rejected for a role for being too curvy. Idols SA judge Unathi Msengana and popular TV personality Bonang Matheba have also been victims of body shaming.

On 29 August the Daily Mail reported that Miss UK, Zoiey Smale, handed back her crown after being told she was too fat for international pageants and was told to lose “as much weight as possible”. Smale, who is a size 10, also decided not to compete in a pageant in Ecuador in September, and later claimed that pageants have always discriminated against contestants based on their size, as slim contestants are kept at the front of the stage, while curvier women are Body shaming and its effect on society placed at the back. This incident highlights the way in which our society is conditioned to think about beauty. In 2015, UK-based Superdrug Online Doctor released an article on a study of Miss Universe winners’ body types since the competition started in 1952. The study found that from 1990 “the average BMI [body mass index] for a woman in the US moved from a normal BMI to overweight […] At the same time, the average BMI for a Miss Universe contestant dipped into underweight range.” In an interview with Forbes Scott Lazerson, a preliminary judge for the 2011 Miss Universe contest, admitted that despite the contestants needing “beauty, intelligence, and poise”, the winner was ultimately decided on beauty. According to Adina Antonucci, a member of the Superdrug Online Doctor study, women trying to emulate the winners of Miss Universe can have negative effects on how women perceive themselves. “Worldwide, women and girls are struggling to conform to ideals represented in these internationally recognised competitions,” said Antonucci.

The issue of body image has traditionally been seen as beeing a female concern, but there has been an increase in focus put on how it affects men. Professor Harrison Pope, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Adonis complex: the secret crisis of male body obsession, says, “More than ever, men are struggling with the same enourmous pressure to achieve physical perfection that women have dealt with for centuries. From compulsive weightlifting to steroid use, from hair plugs to cosmetic surgery, growing numbers of men are taking the quest for perfect muscles, skin, and hair too far, crossing the line from normal interest to pathological obsession”. According to Consumer Health Digest, we live in a society where “men are expected to display their masculinity and strength through their physical appearence, hence causing an increase in men who are suffering from body shaming.”

There is a misconception that body shaming individuals could help motivate them to losing weight. Dr Rebecca Pearl, an assistant professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress.” In a study published in Obesity, the journal of The Obesity Society, conducted by Dr Pearl and her colleagues from the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, it was found that people who are battling obesity face being stereotyped as lazy, incompetent, unattractive, lacking willpower, and are to blame for their own excess weight. The pain of these messages may take a toll on health and increase the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Dr Pearl says, “We identified a significant relationship between the internalisation of weight bias and having a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, which is a marker of poor health.”

According to Dr Thomas Wadden, a professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, “Health care providers, the media, and the general public should be aware that blaming and shaming patients with obesity is not an effective tool for promoting weight loss, and it may in fact contribute to poor health if patients internalize these prejudicial messages…Providers can play a critical role in decreasing this internalization by treating patients with respect, discussing weight with sensitivity and without judgment, and giving support and encouragement to patients who struggle with weight management; behaviours everyone should display when interacting with people with obesity.”

 

Illustration: Sally Hartzenburg

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