Body Shaming and Social Media

All too often it’s easy to dismiss comments online as harmless remarks made by “internet trolls,” or even the more serious, personal attacks as “jealous comments.”

“Love your body! But never settle for less than the best!” “She’s skin and bones. Someone give her a burger!” “Strong is the new skinny!” “Real women have curves!”

After having dealt with a considerable amount of (unwarranted) commentary on social media during my adolescence and subsequent weight loss journey, however, I cannot say certain words still don’t rattle around in my consciousness. Through my own story, I hope to explore how these seemingly innocuous phrases actually can be harmful, particularly with respect to our developing relationships with our bodies.

Although health is currently an integral part of my life, I was not always focused on eating a balanced diet, exercising, and most importantly, maintaining a positive relationship with my body. I deliberately choose to use the word “maintaining” because body acceptance is a continuous, and sometimes difficult, process. Whilst being the (perfectly content) outcast in high school, I was what some students described as “chunky.” It never particularly bothered me until I began believing it should. At the time, I did not have the foresight to understand that, no matter how I looked, there would always be detractors, eager to inform me how my body didn’t fit the mold of their standards. On top of that, these standards vary from person to person, but people nevertheless, behind the “safety” of a computer screen, compare others to their subjective standards. We sometimes outwardly respond to this criticism, manipulating our own bodies with photo editing programs, camera angles, and lighting.

In response to my critics, I spent the rest of my high school career researching nutrition information, adjusting my diet, exercising more often, and eventually, posting pictures of my 50-pounds-lighter frame on social media. Despite my changing exterior, however, my mindset remained the same.

In the beginning, I felt more confident, which made me warmer and open to forming new relationships. But as my followers grew on social media, so too did those masked voices behind computer screens, waiting to either encourage me, or inform me of my failure to meet certain physical standards. For every well-wisher’s compliment, there seemed to be a complementary snub from another. On some days, I didn’t fit into the category of “woman” because I didn’t have big enough curves. On others, I felt euphoric from the praise, congratulating my progress, encouraging me to continue my efforts. But then again, I should be cautious “not to lift too often” because I might “look manly” (which is, by the way, terrible advice). The most hurtful comments were the simplest: “You looked better before.”

It’s easy to tell a friend, a daughter, to toughen up. Grow a thicker skin. But for me, even though outwardly I appeared different, I was still in the early stages of developing something far more important—my own relationship with myself.

Social media, originally a platform by which I hoped to give and receive support from likeminded individuals, quickly became a toxic environment for strengthening my relationship with my body. I soon noticed that even the role models I followed on Instagram not only endured the same mixture of compliments and criticisms, but they also unwittingly contributed to the larger problem of judgmental comments. Yes, captioning a photo “Strong is the new skinny” may be empowering for some—namely, those getting stronger—but perhaps we should first shift our focus toward ensuring that our relationship with our bodies is “strong.” Some may find exterior and internal strength in lifting weights, but surely implicitly devaluing “skinny” women (and likewise devaluing “curvier” women in other situations) isn’t the best means of self-empowerment.

Does disparaging others truly liberate our own insecurities? Although losing weight and generally feeling healthier improved my confidence, my change in eating and exercising was ultimately catalyzed by criticism. So what happens when we change our bodies, but the bullying, and inevitable self-bullying, continue?

I wish I would have first sought to improve my personal image of myself, treating it as the foundation of my health that it truly is. To solve a problem superficially is one thing, but to dig deep to its roots, its core, is a whole other entity—a journey in and of itself. If I had first endeavored to appreciate my body for what it is, for what it does for me, and then begun focusing on how I could enhance its performance in sports, its overall mood, and yes, even its appearance, perhaps the negative and positive feedback from others would carry less importance. I would have benefitted from the realization and acceptance that yes, some women have curves, but others are muscular or lanky. Some have a gap between their thighs, some have smaller hips, and some couldn’t care less. More importantly, the only qualification for being a “real woman” is having a heartbeat.

Although I broached the psychological, social, and evolutionary factors that contribute to overeating in one of my previous columns, here I aim to identify the unsuccessful and harmful social culture that has emerged as a reactionary solution to the American obesity epidemic. Yes, obesity is evidently a problem in America, but our society as a whole, including all body types, suffers from the ridicule and shaming of an overly-critical culture. Insulting people who appear to be overweight (even when they may not be) is never the solution.  

The previous column I wrote cites more effective tactics discovered by research that can effectively combat negative eating behaviors. Individually, however, we have a personal responsibility to cultivate our own interests, respect our bodies and others, and improve ourselves. Never is there an accepted space for outwardly offending others simply because their health decisions don’t fit within our neatly-categorized boxes of “right” and “wrong.”

Similarly, I do not aim to disparage women and men from making healthy lifestyle changes simply for improving their appearance, but I do hope that as social media continues to play an increasingly large role in our lives, we begin to choose our words more carefully. Even if it’s as simple as describing a feeling with more descriptive words than, “I feel fat,” we can adjust the potential impact of our speech on others.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor