Body image is an extremely personal concept and one that many people struggle with. We are presented with extreme images in the media and led to believe we have to conform. Anyone can have body image issues, no matter what size or shape they are, making it hard to realize that you are beautiful just the way you are. If you are the victim of body shaming from any source, internal or external, you might struggle to appreciate your own beauty.
Body shaming is a recently coined phrase, but the concept has been around for years. Sometimes this occurs in the form of comments meant to put someone down, and sometimes it is actually hidden within a comment that a person genuinely intends to be a compliment. Cultural ideas about what a person’s body should or should not look like are so ingrained in our society that often things intended to be compliments actually have the opposite affect because of their underlying assumptions about what is beautiful.
Even people who are victims of body shaming sometimes do it to themselves and others without realizing it or intending to do so.
Common Body-Shaming Phrases That You May Not Have Noticed
Anyone can be guilty of body shaming and not even realize it. You may even body shame yourself by the language you use with that little voice inside your head. When talking to others, the things you think are compliments really come across as judgments. To stop body shaming and empower one another, we have to be aware of the impact of the language we use.
Here are some common body-shaming phrases that can be used unconsciously, and sometimes as compliments, but are very destructive:
- “Stop saying you’re fat — you’re beautiful.” This sentence implies that fat is the opposite of beautiful. In fact, fat and ugly are not the same. By calling herself fat, a woman might be owning the word and trying to express an acceptance of her current size. In general, telling someone how she should refer to herself is destructive, since everyone needs to reconcile her vision of herself with the language she uses. It would be better to tell someone she is beautiful without offering another label that they might also identify with as an alternative.
- "Did you lose weight? You look great!” This sounds like an innocent compliment or even encouragement for some positive life changes. The implication, though, is that you were ugly before you lost the weight. The best way to encourage someone who is losing weight is to compliment their accomplishment. Just letting them know that you noticed the weight loss without adding any judgement to it is sufficient.
- “You need to eat more.” People who are thinner can be just as self-conscious about their body as people who are larger. Society tends to favor the thin over the obese, but people at either extreme suffer from body image issues. This statement is just as rude as telling a fat person to eat less. No form of this sentiment is complimentary.
- “Do I look fat?” For many people, body shaming is a built-in part of their vocabulary, whether it is directed at themselves or others. This question is really asking, “Do I look good?” but fat and ugly are too often used interchangeably. Fat is not ugly — they are two separate attributes.
- “I lost weight on this diet. You should try it.” Implying that someone needs to lose weight is body shaming. This particular statement invites a comparison, too, that can trigger body image issues. Just because you were successful does not mean someone else will be, but you set up the expectation. If you want to share your successes, go ahead. But stay away from making recommendations to others concerning their weight.
- “That actually looks good on you.” This could have been a compliment without the word “actually,” which implies you are surprised. Your surprise at a piece of clothing looking good can trigger body image issues for anyone. The receiver of this body-shaming statement is thinking, “What about my body is not attractive?” If you want to compliment someone, keep it simple and drop the “actually.”
- “Your hips are starting to get wide. You’re becoming a woman.” There is no correlation between genders and body types. This statement implies that they were less of a woman before this change occurred, and that woman who may not experience a noticeable change in this aspect of their figure are less womanly. This statement attempts to justify wide hips, as if they need some sort of reason to exist. A better approach would be not to point them out in the first place.
- “You’re so thin, you can probably eat whatever you want.” There are a lot of reasons why a person might be thin. They could have a medical condition, it could be the bone structure they are genetically pre-disposed to, they may not have an appetite for junk food or they might work hard to avoid fattening foods and get enough exercise. A thin person might not find their body shape to be ideal and can have body image issues that are triggered by this statement. Pointing out someone’s weight, fat or thin, is never a good idea and does not come across as a compliment no matter how you phrase it.
- “Real women have curves.” Women come in all shapes and sizes, and they are all real. When you play to a single stereotype of what a woman — or a man — is supposed to look like, you insult everyone who does not fit that mold. Many people develop body image issues because they do not have the physique that is commercially popular this decade.
- “Do you really want to eat all that?” Any reference to limiting the amount of food a person should eat is body shaming. Most people associate reduced food intake with losing weight, so the unspoken message is you need to lose weight. No one should be subjected to someone else’s judgement about their body. Any attempts to control what someone else eats are just rude and unnecessary.
- “Do you have a health issue?” This statement might be meant as a way to help someone justify their size, but it is actually a form of body shaming. If someone wants to confide their medical condition to you, that is their choice. But if they do not and also do not offer any explanation for being fat, it is not an appropriate topic of conversation. They know how big they are, and they are already sure you noticed. You do not need to mention it.
- “I feel so fat.” Using fat like an insult is body shaming, even when you are referring to yourself. When you say you feel fat, the unspoken message is that fat is not a desirable condition. When you make this comment in the presence of someone who is considers themselves fat, or fatter than you, the insult transfers to them. If you feel full after a big meal, say that and leave fat out of it.
- “You are pretty for your size.” This is in no way a compliment since it implies that most people her size are not pretty. When beauty and size are brought together in a statement, it is usually body shaming. People are beautiful regardless of their size. These two attributes are mutually exclusive. If you want to compliment your friend, just tell her she is pretty.
- “That just wasn’t made for your body type.” This is an attempt to blame the clothing instead of the body, but it backfires every time. The person on the receiving end of this statement is thinking there is no clothing made for her body type, and therefore she needs to change her size and shape to conform. It is okay to give your friend some honest feedback and tell her directly that the clothes she is trying on do not look good on her. When you draw her body type into the discussion, it becomes body shaming.
Talking about someone’s body can be a delicate subject. Realizing that everyone does not conform to your ideal, nor do they want to, can help you manage the language you use. It is a good idea to remember that most people are sensitive about at least one aspect of their body, and you drawing attention to that, even if you mean to be complimentary, can be very stressful.
How Body Image Affects Self-Esteem
Your body image is how you perceive your body and how that makes you feel. It has nothing to do with what you look like. Sometimes even super models struggle with their body image. It is based on your impression of yourself, not what you see in the mirror. Body image, for the most part, lives in your brain and can remain the same even when your physical body changes.
Self-esteem is another mental measure you have of yourself. This one includes your impression of your whole self, not just your body. Your self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself and how much you value and respect yourself. Like body image, self-esteem is based on your perceptions and feelings, not on any tangible facts. A healthy self-esteem will not change when your life circumstances change.
In some ways, body image is part of self-esteem. With a poor body image, you will not feel good about yourself overall. Some people love everything about themselves except the way they look, and those people struggle to maintain a high self-esteem.
Self-esteem can also affect body image. When you do not feel good about yourself and do not respect yourself, that lack of respect can be demonstrated in the way you treat your body. Instead of loving your body, you might be critical of it, and that can lead to poor self-care habits.
Since self-esteem and body image are both mental and emotional, they can be a big part of overall mental health. Maintaining a good body image and healthy self-esteem are about being happy with yourself, inside and out. When one starts to decline, the other tends to go with it. Consistently poor self-esteem and body image can make mental health issues like depression worse.
When body image and self-esteem are low, one of the first things to fail is your self-care routine. How you take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally, are dependent on how you feel about yourself and if you feel you are worthy of care.
Body image issues can lead to dangerous diet and exercise habits and can develop into eating and exercise disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia. Conditions like these often start out as a desire to lose weight, but there is a punishment motive as well. A poor body image can push a person to hate their body so much, they cause themselves mental and physical harm.
The Importance of Self Love
When low self-esteem and poor body image devolve into mental illness, the solution is not simple. You may say you hate your body because it is too fat, but when a serious mental illness takes hold, if you could instantly become skinny, that would not solve your problem. What seems logical at the start — “I would love myself if I were thinner” — does not work to build self-esteem.
Loving yourself from the start is the only way to effect positive change because you come from a place of power. With low self-esteem, you cannot make changes. You do not believe in yourself or your ability to learn and grow. A poor body image drags you down instead of building you up.
Self love does not mean you think you are perfect. It means you respect yourself enough to want to take care of your body and your mental and emotional well-being. You do not want to punish yourself for mistakes or beat your body up because it doesn’t look the way you want it to. Self love means you care about yourself. You accept who you are right now, even if you’d like to make changes over time.
Here are some reasons self love is important:
- Self love makes you happy right now, instead of waiting for happiness to come after achieving some lofty goal. Everyone can practice self love in whatever condition they are in. There is something you can love about yourself no matter what your life circumstances are.
- Self love reduces stress, which weighs you down and keeps you from accomplishing difficult tasks. Procrastinators need to practice self love to end their avoidance tactics. When you can give yourself a little pep talk, you will find you jump right in and get even the worst job done.
- Compassion for yourself is motivating, giving you positive energy to tackle self-improvement projects. When you feel good about yourself, you want to feel even better. The risk of failing to achieve your fitness or weight-loss goals is lessened when you realize you love yourself anyway.
- Loving yourself can help you to manage and cope with depression and anxiety disorders. Positive self image can counteract negative feelings that become a downward spiral. Keeping a positive outlook on yourself and your life will keep those negative feelings from festering and turning into a serious problem.
- Compassion for yourself can help you bounce back faster from crisis. Everyone’s life goes through crisis once in a while. The loss of a dear friend or a divorce can be an emotionally trying time for anyone. Practicing self love can keep you from sinking too low into the emotional trough or staying there too long. When you love yourself, you want to take care of yourself and do things that are healthy for you mentally and physically.
One of the best things about self love is that anyone can discover it at any time. You don’t have to wait until you lose that weight, gain some weight, get a promotion or visit a plastic surgeon. Self love is available right now, and it doesn’t cost anything.
You can also spread a little of that self-love feeling by being kind to others. When you demonstrate love by giving true compliments and avoiding body shaming yourself and others, people around you can feel better about themselves too.
Developing a Body-Positive Mindset
Happiness begins with good self-esteem that is informed by a positive body image. Body image is very important and much easier to change than your body itself. Developing a positive body mindset requires some mental exercises anyone can do:
- Thank your body for carrying you around all these years. Regardless of its shape, your body performs amazing feats of strength every day. Celebrate all that your body does for you, from breathing to dancing. Just standing upright is a tremendous act of strength and balance your body performs for you all the time.
- Look at your wholeness, not your parts. When you dissect something, you find every flaw. Consider your whole self, from the color of your eyes to the shape of your feet, as one great being.
- Dress for comfort and protection against the elements. Use clothing to take care of your skin and your body, not as a fashion statement. Instead of trying to squeeze into the latest fashions, reward your body with comfort and pamper yourself with clothes that allow your body to function as it should.
- Spend your energy on helping others. Get out of your head and focus on someone else’s problems. Volunteering your time can make you feel good about yourself and your value to society beyond what you look like. Using your body to help others, like reading to the blind, can make you appreciate who you are.
- Get a positive set of friends. Negativity tends to fester. Find positive people to spend your time with.
- Practice positive self-talk. Criticizing yourself can be even more damaging than getting those body-shaming messages from other people. Criticism is not okay because it comes from you. Listen to the language you use when you talk to yourself. Plant some positive messages and messages of encouragement.
- Pamper yourself. Get a massage, take a bubble bath, eat a healthy meal and rest when you are tired. Taking care of your body is not a luxury. It is a necessity and your responsibility.
- Make a greatest hits list. Write down your best qualities that are not related to your appearance. Review your list regularly to remind yourself what you love about you. Add to the list when you discover new ideas.
- Deepen your focus beyond your appearance. Instead of spending a lot of time contemplating your physical beauty, think about the deeper aspects of yourself that are beautiful. True beauty can be found within, and that does not fade with age or fashion.
- Counteract body-shaming messages. Watch out for body-shaming messages in the media and on the internet. Listen critically to expose the sometimes-hidden implications of body shaming and draw attention to them when you can.
Developing a positive body image can take time, but each of these steps will bring you a little closer to mastering it. Loving yourself is the greatest defense you have against mental illness, the emotional impact of crisis and body shaming.
The more people understand about body shaming, what it is and how it affects all of us, the less it will happen. In the meantime, understanding the concept yourself will help you shrug off body-shaming messages instead of internalizing them.