While there’s no clinical definition, body shaming generally refers to words or actions intended to disparage, criticize, or humiliate someone based on their body shape. It has become so common that it’s a constant, nagging presence in many people’s everyday lives.
“Our relationship with our bodies is one of the most complicated relationships we have in our lives, and it’s often fragile and easily disrupted,” says Eliza Kingsford, LPC, a psychotherapist with expertise in body image and eating disorders, and the author of Brain-Powered Weight Loss.
“Body shaming affects people of every size, and the psychological effects can be potentially dangerous.”
Spot the signs of body shaming and learn its consequences for your Health Esteem.
Types of Body Shaming
There are two distinctly differnet types of body shaming.
External body shaming
We know external body shaming when we hear or see it. It can be overt, like someone catcalling insults about your body on the street. Or it can be subtle — a salesperson in a fitting room saying, “That dress might be more flattering with some Spanx.”
Nowadays, it’s more common online: Anonymous commenters blasting a plus-size model, insisting she couldn’t possibly be healthy and overweight. Or when a tabloid feigns concern that a “scary skinny” celebrity might have an eating disorder.
Internal body shaming
You’ve probably seen people body shaming themselves: Instagramming pictures of decadent meals with the hashtag #thisiswhyimfat, telling themselves they don’t “deserve” dessert, or cursing body parts they think are too big or too small.
Whether it’s meant as lighthearted self-deprecation or it stems from bitter self-loathing, internal body shaming can become so habitual that it turns into an automatic behavior, says Damon Bayles, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City and former personal trainer.
The good news? It is possible to “flip the script” in your head. When those body-shaming thoughts pop up, reframe them and separate the thought from actual judgement.
6 Effects of Body Shaming
Body shaming isn’t just mean-spirited — it might be derailing your weight loss efforts and your health goals. Here are a few ways body shaming can affect you.
1. Depleted mental health
“Making comments about someone’s physical appearance without knowing how they will react can lead to depression, anxiety, shame, self-doubt, loathing, and other negative feelings,” Kingsford says.
2. Weakened overall health
Researchers are also starting to note a link between the effects of body shaming and physical health. A 2017 study suggests that people who internalize fat-shaming messages — such as disapproving glances or unsolicited weight advice — may have a higher risk of certain health issues.
3. Possible weight gain
Some people claim “fat shaming” can be an incentive to lose weight, but there’s no reliable evidence to support that. In fact, research suggests body shaming can have the opposite effect.
A 2013 study found that participants who experienced weight discrimination had an increased risk of becoming or remaining obese. “Imagine you’re working really hard at a diet and exercise program, but your body just isn’t changing shape fast enough — how frustrating and hopeless that might feel,” Kingsford says.
Add in the pressure you feel after hearing negative feedback from body shamers, and you may be tempted to just give up altogether, she adds.
4. Focus shifts to appearance, not health
“We’ve become a society obsessed with how we look, not how we feel,” Kingsford says. Following so-called “thinspiration” or “thinspo” accounts on social media — where the focus is solely on size — can help negative thoughts thrive.
It can take time for your brain to unlearn those negative thoughts, Bayles says. Spend less time scrutinizing body images in the digital sphere, and cultivate new and healthier ways of thinking instead. That can lead to a more positive outlook.
Another way to shed the negative narrative is to ask yourself: What’s the meanest thing I say to myself? Then ask whether it’s true. “Once you start looking at thoughts critically and attacking their veracity, you can tap into reality,” Bayles says.
5. You’re taken out of the present
“Body shaming keeps people in a relationship with an idea rather than a reality,” Bayles says. Hanging onto old, negative ideas (“I’m so fat!”) can make it more difficult to create a plan of attack to achieve your goals or to see the progress you’re making.
“You can think about the past and scare yourself, or think about the future and scare yourself — but if you deal with the right now, you’ll discover valuable information that can help you get where you want to go,” Bayles says.
It requires practice and a certain level of vigilance to stay in the here and now, but once you’re there, you can work on being more compassionate and gentle with yourself, he adds.
6. There’s no room to fail
With any long-term health goal, setbacks are the rule, not the exception, Bayles says. But if you put too much stock in what others think — or you let negative self-talk take over — you might be tempted to give up as soon as you hit a stumbling block.
“Give yourself some wiggle room so you’re not setting yourself up to abort your mission at the first sign of weakness,” Bayles says. One pizza pig-out won’t make you feel like a huge failure if you have a realistic mindset from the get-go. Setbacks are part of the process, but body shaming doesn’t have to be — change the conversation and keep moving forward.
Why Do People Body Shame Others?
Making negative comments about other people — their bodies, their eating habits, their clothes, and so on — is about power, not about connecting with the other person, Bayles says.
If someone is self-conscious about their own appearance, they may feel empowered when judging others, Kingsford explains. “In my experience, someone who is confident in their own appearance does not make negative comments about another’s,” she adds.
In other words, insta-judging is their way of steering criticism away from themselves and toward you instead. The comments can be particularly brutal online, Kingsford says, because “it’s much easier to hide behind a screen and pass judgment on someone.”
There’s also the perception that if someone is overweight, it’s their own fault, which makes some people feel justified in criticizing them. “We’ve been led to believe that if you’re overweight, you’re lazy and unhealthy,” Kingsford says — but that ignores the multitude of other factors that may contribute to obesity or being overweight.