This morning I had a great run, beating my previous pacing personal record. While taking my shower I was listening to The Morning Stream Episode 846, one of my favorite podcasts. Scott Johnson, Justin Robert Young (filling in for Brian Ibbott) and The Fitness Geek Bill Doran (of Punished Props fame) were discussing body shaming, and I thought it might be a good idea to talk a little about that here.
In my 34 years on this earth I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to be made fun of for what I look like. You may look at my profile photo or my current Instagram photos and be confused by this if you don’t know my history. (And if you don’t know my history you obviously haven’t read my blog from the beginning, and shame on you! 😉 ) From my birth until high school, I was a chubby kid. There are various photos of me with food in front of me, starting at an Easter Egg Hunt when I wasn’t quite two years old, as my adoptive mom shoves a Butterscotch Tastykake into my mouth. A few years later, a photo shows me enjoying a slice of what looks to be delicious cheese pizza. I’m still chubby. At the time, it was called “baby fat”. When I got into grade school I was teased about my weight. I was often heavier than the other kids, and as luck would have it, I was also taller than most other kids. In high school, I sprouted, and the increase in my height plus my more active lifestyle trimmed me down a bit, but even so, I was teased. “The Big Girl” I was called. Because I was “tall” they told me, but I knew what they meant. Another student was constantly berated for her thinness. “Eat a sandwich!”
You might say: yes, but that’s high school. Well, that stuff doesn’t stop when you grow up. I spent the first 11 years of my adult life slowly growing into a morbidly obese person. By the time I was 30 I had reached 275 lbs. At that weight, as a woman, you can get called a fatty from a jerk in a car driving by you. You want to hide. You go through a drive through then eat in your car in the parking lot so no one sees you. You’re ashamed to go clothes shopping because you have to go to the mall to find the plus sized stores. Even grocery shopping is mortifying.
When my health became an issue and I lost more than 100 lbs, I still felt like that same obese woman, and even now there are times when I’m walking and see someone smaller than me and I get that old feeling: I’m the Big Girl. (Yes, I’m aware that I can wear size 6 jeans and mostly medium and sometimes small tops and that people would look at me now and say I have an “athletic” build, but sometimes the brain doesn’t understand that. The human brain is really dumb sometimes.) As I was in the process of losing, I would often hear “Don’t lose TOO much!” or “Don’t get too skinny!” And now that I’m fit (yes, I like the word fit and NOT the word skinny, because a) I’m not skinny and b) the word skinny has negative connotations and is often associated with being unhealthy) if I express even the tiniest amount of dissatisfaction with my body I’m told that I should be happy because anyone would “kill” for a body like mine.
People, ALL OF THIS IS BODY SHAMING.
In the episode of The Morning Stream, Bill Doran told a story about how he went to a comic convention as Wolverine. He could have used foam to sculpt himself a body full of muscle, but instead, through diet and exercise, got lean and mean and muscular. Yet during the con he was taunted: “Hey Wolverine, where’d all your muscles go?” A very fit man got harassed because he didn’t look like a bodybuilder to cosplay Wolverine. Yes, you hear stories all the time about women being body shamed at cons because they’re heavier than the characters they cosplay. But WHY? Because they felt comfortable enough in their body to dress up like something they loved and wanted to share with the world? Because their body doesn’t meet those people’s idea of perfection? Because the person doing the shaming is unhappy with their own body and has to make other people feel bad in order to feel better about themselves? Who knows. Scott, Justin and Bill discussed that you can’t control what your brain conjures up when you see a person, but you CAN control what comes out of your mouth.
If a person is unhappy with their body and is taking healthy, appropriate steps to change it, then don’t say anything except encouragement. If you see a larger person on the street or at the mall, you can’t control what your first thoughts are. But think about it: that person might be 450 lbs. But a month ago that person could have been 500 lbs and is feeling great about their success. They could have an underactive thyroid or polycystic ovarian syndrome and losing weight could be excessively difficult. Overactive thyroid could make it very difficult to gain weight. They could have a physical injury like fused disks in their spine and be unable to walk. There are a myriad of reasons a person could be heavy, and there are a myriad of reasons a person could be thin.
Think about it: if you saw someone missing a limb or with a facial deformity, would you point it out to them? A normal person wouldn’t. That person knows what they look like. They know they’re different. A friend of mine on SparkPeople is a healthy pear shape. She eats right, works out and strength trains. Instead of describing her shape with negative terms, she describes herself as having a “plush” lower body. How great is that!
So what do we do instead? I like to replace phrases like “you’re so skinny!” with “you’re looking so fit and healthy!” or “you’re getting to be so athletic!” If you can’t find something positive to say about someone’s physical appearance, then don’t say anything at all, or maybe, just maybe you could find a way to compliment them on something unrelated to their appearance. Compliment their jewelry, or their taste in clothes, or their handwriting.
Growing up, I never heard my dad criticize anyone on anything other than their ignorance (okay, he did take a dislike to the boys who refused to pull up their pants). There’s a lot more to people than their looks, and maybe if we can get past outward appearances (rather than judging someone on their attractiveness), we could really discover a gem of a human being, and even better, a friend. Think about the impact your words could have on someone before you let them leave your mouth. You may think you’re being complimentary, but you could be giving them a complex.