The experience of being body-shamed can be a traumatic one. It can be especially jarring when it happens unexpectedly, as it did to me during a zoom call.
The host’s comment, “You look fat”, in front of an audience, was a blatant remark that took me by surprise. However, my response was not what either I or the person who commented expected.
I quickly responded that I was happy with the way I looked. This momentary response was surprising to me, because it defied the typical reaction to body-shaming: a sense of shame and humiliation.
Growing up, my parents instilled in me a sense of self-worth that was independent of my physical appearance. They consistently reinforced the idea that I was beautiful just the way I was; and this belief was echoed by the environment I grew up in.
I am someone who is consistent in measuring myself. I am aware of my weight and body measurements, but I don’t let them define me. Instead, I use this information as a tool for well-being.
When I receive compliments about my appearance, I accept them wholeheartedly, without feeling a need to deflect or downplay them.
I’m not in a place of deficit when it comes to wanting to be seen or validated, because I know my worth extends far beyond my physical appearance.
After Effect of Body Shaming
Although I responded confidently to the body-shaming incident, I found myself ruminating on it afterwards; and that surprised me.
I found myself doubting my self-image in its aftermath. I wondered whether the mirrors that I look into every day, were truly showing me an accurate reflection of my body. I began to question whether I was eating right.
These doubts led me to seek validation from people I trust. I asked them if they noticed any changes in my appearance. But even their assurances, that I looked the same as ever, failed to ease my concerns.
Our physical bodies are a fundamental part of our identity. Our flesh, bones and muscles distinguish us from others and make us unique individuals. However, our bodies alone do not define who we are.
Emotions, values, beliefs and intellect that we nurture, also contribute to our identity.
Together, our physical and psychological attributes make us the complex human beings we are, each one of us distinct among the eight billion people on this planet.
We have a need for Recognition – Strokes
The desire to be seen and recognized by others is a fundamental aspect of our survival as a species. In fact, from the moment we are born, we have an innate need to be seen and acknowledged by our primary caregivers. Without this essential recognition, we would not have the basic support necessary to survive and thrive.
Dr. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, coined the term “Strokes”; to describe the units of recognition we receive from others and also from ourselves.
When we receive negative strokes about our appearance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of defining our worth based on our physical attributes. We may begin to believe that we are only “OK” or “Not OK”; based on our appearance, leading to a limited self-perception and a negative impact on our self-esteem.
This can manifest in conditions we place on ourselves, such as “Only when I look a certain way, can I apply for a job”; or, “Only when my weight is at a certain level, will I wear certain clothes”.
Impact of Negative Strokes
These conditional negative strokes can limit our self-perception and our ability to see options for personal growth, which in turn can impact our emotional well-being, such as –
- Feeling different from others due to a body shaming comment can lead to a belief that, we are the only ones with an unfavourable body image. This can erode our trust in both the world and ourselves.
- We may even start to question positive experiences like job offers, thinking there must be a mistake, because we don’t see anything good in ourselves.
- We may start seeing others as inherently more favourable than ourselves. This can lead to feelings of isolation and a sense of not belonging.
- We may begin to compare ourselves to others and focus on our perceived flaws. This can create a negative cycle of self-doubt and low self-esteem.
- This mindset can also cause us to avoid social situations, thinking that our appearance could disappoint the host and other attendees.
- Ultimately, it can impact our sense of belongingness and lead to feelings of alienation.
We are more than just the body
When faced with a body shaming comment, individuals may become fixated on their appearance. This could lead to unhealthy behaviours such as disordered eating, over-exercising and obsessively checking their reflection or avoiding mirrors altogether.
The experience can cause one to develop negative self-perceptions, leading them to label themselves as unattractive and search for evidence to reinforce that belief. This negative self-perception can hinder the formation of friendships and relationships with others, as well as the ability to engage in activities.
Furthermore, the persistent negative thoughts can lead to anxiety and depression, negatively impacting one’s overall well-being.
It’s important to recognize that we are more than just our physical bodies, and our worth is not defined by our appearance. I’m reminded of the importance of self-compassion and self-care.
It’s okay to have doubts and insecurities; and it’s important to give ourselves the space to work through these feelings without judgement.
A friend or a partner who can listen without negating your thoughts or a counsellor/therapist can be the spaces where you can share and work though feelings of anger, disappointment and shame.
Being body-shamed during childhood can create lasting trauma and lead to distress at unexpected times in adulthood. It is crucial to mindfully focus on our strengths and cultivate a daily practice of gratitude, in order to develop a sense of self-worth that goes beyond physical appearance.
By prioritizing self-love, we can build resilience and overcome the negative impacts of body shaming.
Honouring our bodies with respect
To break the cycle of negative thoughts that resulted from body shaming, I found it helpful to reflect on my feelings at the moment of the incident.
(1) acknowledging the anger I felt at the violation of my sense of self,
(2) the courage I showed in responding quickly, and
(3) the disappointment I felt in getting caught up ruminating.
I also empathized with the many others who have had similar experiences. Sharing my experience with others provided me with space to process and validate my feelings.
Additionally, positive body affirmations like
“I love and accept my body as it is”;
“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (a verse from the Bible); and
“I appreciate my body for all it does for me each day”,
helped me appreciate and be grateful for the body that houses my being.
Responsibility for honouring our bodies lies with us. Honouring our bodies involves treating them with respect, care and appreciation.
Here are some ways to honour our bodies:
- Eat well: We can honour our bodies by nourishing them with healthy, whole foods that provide the nutrients our bodies need to function properly.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity helps keep our bodies strong, improves our mental health, and boosts our overall well-being.
- Get enough rest: Rest is crucial for our bodies to recharge and regenerate. Getting enough sleep, taking breaks when we need them, and listening to our bodies when they need rest are all important ways to honour our bodies.
- Practice self-care: Engage in activities that make you feel good and relaxed, like taking a warm bath, getting a massage or meditating. Taking care of our mental health is just as important as taking care of our physical health.
- Treat your body with kindness: Practice positive self-talk, avoid negative self-talk, celebrate your body’s abilities and strengths and be gentle with yourself when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
“The most important opinion about your body is your own.”- Anonymous
Jennifer Moses is on the Counsellors & Therapists panel at InfinumGrowth and available for online consultations.
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