What Body Shaming Does

I recently watched Valerie Bertinelli bear her soul on an Instagram post in direct response to a body shamer. [Watch the video below.] The post’s objective is to fight back instead of just pushing down those hurt feelings. Some people will say that it comes with her line of work, or that this is just another case of people being too sensitive. Hell, I imagine there will be people coming to this person’s defense, citing free speech and that she just needs to get over it, but what this is really about is the pain that women and men endure at the hands of body shamers.

Sure, it’s just words and as probably everyone’s mother has told them when they were little, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” isn’t exactly true. Words are powerful. If they weren’t would they be such a persuasive tool? Words are used to convey meaning and sentiment in so many areas of our lives. You have Pulitzer Prize winners in literature and poetry. Words are used by our world leaders and politicians to persuade you to vote for them as well as unite us. Words in stories can be brought to the big screen and they can be powerful or funny. We can use words to convey love and hate and hurt towards another person and it is powerful.  

Today, our words are being exchanged with one another via text, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and hundreds, if not thousands, other, various platforms. This has given bullies that we once only encountered on the playground at school or organized sports or other extra-curricular school activities, another avenue by which they can torment. And the best part of this for them is they never have to engage with the object of their hurtful words. Many times, they do not even know the person they are attacking. It’s just someone on the computer and it is forgotten that they are human and have feelings and a heart.

Body shaming leaves scars. It has a profound effect on those who have endured it. It crushes self-esteem and confidence; it causes major stress which can then have an even deeper effect on the body as a whole; it can even lead to bulimia and/or anorexia or another eating disorder. It’s difficult to find “body shaming effects,” when you plug it into Google, but you’ll get thousands of possible results on “how to lose weight,” “decrease obesity,” or just about anything you can think of that relates to getting thinner.

But I know these things mostly because they have touched me and not even to the excess it has others, and the effects have been profound and long-lasting. I was an athletic kid who participated in cross-country and gymnastics, and who had dabbled in tap dancing and ballet. My earliest memories, however, have always been the uncomfortable way I felt in my own skin. My mother, who had been overweight as a child and into her youth, was constantly dieting. Even now, as she approaches her mid-70’s, she is always looking at new ways to stay trim and/or lose weight. She imposed this way of thinking on myself and my father who has always had that “dad belly.”

I can recall distinctly the way she would check my waistband on clothing to see if it was getting too tight and it had nothing to do with seeing if I needed a new pair because I was growing out of them. It was to remind me that I needed to watch my weight. I didn’t want to get fat. No one liked fat girls. As an adult, I understand my mother was trying to be the best mother she could be and was trying to protect me from the ridicule of children, who can be cruel. But, because of the kind of person I am, already prone to obsessive thinking as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, it was a catalyst for how my pre-teen years and teen years would evolve.

The first time I was body-shamed was in Middle School and it wasn’t your typical kind of body shaming. I wasn’t called “fat,” I was objectified by the boys who snapped my bra and tried to grab my ass or slap my ass because I had hit puberty early. I had breasts and curves and while I never thought of myself as pretty, especially as a pre-teen, it seems I made their hormones explode. I didn’t want to look the way I did. My friends didn’t look like me and the way my body had changed, the only way I could think of to change it was to lose weight and throw myself into athletics. In my pubescent mind, I thought I could undo mother nature.

Camp, would be the second time I was body shamed. My athletic body didn’t evolve the way I thought it would. Instead of being lean and lithe, muscles had given my small frame a bulky appearance that I despised. I had envisioned myself returning to the more, slender frame of my child-self with a boyish figure rather than to this feminine, strong, muscled girl whom I did not appreciate. While at camp, another girl pointed at me (we were all in bathing suits during swim lessons and they were comparing ‘thigh gaps) and commented to another girl (in Mean Girls fashion), “God she has fat thighs!” I was wrecked instantly.

I threw myself into exercising and gymnastics. I began restricting what I ate, counting calories and making myself throw up. It’s painful to look at pictures of myself and see this young, very slender girl and know the pain she was going through internally. There was a constant comparison of myself to other girls who didn’t have the same body type as I did and this endless competition to look like them, just so I would feel better about myself. I never achieved it.

When I got pregnant at 19, I had no idea how much it would change my life. Not only the aspect of motherhood at such a young age, but the profound effect it would have on how I felt about my body. I promised myself that I would never let what I went through affect my child and later on my children (who are all girls.) But what I didn’t realize was that while I had overcome a lot, the effects of body shaming would continue until even now at 47. I don’t wear shorts because I don’t like how I look. I’ve gained a lot of weight because of chronic illness and pain, my highest weight being 190lbs and my lowest and current weight now at 160lbs. I always say I’d like to get back to 145-150 which was my weight after my youngest was born. But it’s been a struggle and it’s like when you watch a dog trying to constantly chase its tail, going in circles and never winning. My girls know my appearance makes me unhappy and it hurts me that I’ve never imparted a more body-positive environment for them. Because life is too short to be constantly fretting about how you look. Life should be about the things that make you happy.

I haven’t endured nearly as much body shaming as others. Much of it has been me being self-critical, but I do empathise with those who have had to endure it. Body shaming is so very destructive with lingering impacts. I hear Valerie Bertinelli and those out there who may have been the object of such cruelty and I support you. We don’t need to live in a world with body shaming. As mothers and fathers, educators, family and friends, we need to teach our youth that our appearance is only a tiny bit of what makes us human. We need to show our youth that it isn’t about being thin or pretty but having a good soul and a kind heart. We can change the world, one word at a time. We can also take back our lives by embracing the body we are in and not allowing someone else to try and diminish that.