The Ugly Psychology of Body Shaming

Written by Rida Tahir on April 01, 2020 (10 min read)

Every morning when I look into the mirror, the first thing I see is my nose.

My ugly, fat nose. 

The nose I always had but wasn’t aware that it was a ‘flaw’ until a classmate in 9th grade decided to point it out to me in front of at least 3 other girls.

Ironically, this girl who pointed out the flaw in me was a very short-heighted person, which is another so-called flaw that short people are body shamed for.

After that incident, I not only became conscious of this flaw in my appearance, but I got so obsessed to the point that I started considering getting Rhinoplasty (nose job) done. I remember looking up cosmetic surgeons and wanted to book an appointment with a surgeon but couldn’t because what would I tell my parents?

How would I convince them that I needed this expensive surgery done to have a nose that looked normal?

They could never afford the surgery anyway.

So why bother?

It took me years to forgive her for what she said, for the damage her words had done to my personality, my confidence and life.

To this day, over 17 years later, I still remember her exact words, the expression on her face and the tone she said those words in.

That’s how powerful and damaging words can be. 

That’s how damaging body shaming can be!

Had I known better, I wouldn’t have taken it to heart, but I did because I was only a 14 year old kid.

When I turned 18-19, my self esteem was at its lowest. One day I went to a wedding wearing a neon green dress. As I entered the venue, a lady stopped me and said, “This color looks really good on you”. It was clearly a compliment but I had such negative body image and my self esteem was so low that I froze and went all blank. My brain failed to process what had just happened and could not register that comment as a compliment. I could not believe that I could look good. I could not even thank the lady for the compliment and just stood there, expressionless and still like a statue. I don’t remember how that lady reacted at my lack of response. She must have instantly regretted complimenting me and must have thought that I was either deaf or dumb or both. I do remember being dragged inside because I couldn’t move out of shock and utter disbelief.

That’s what body shaming can do to a person who is at a healthy weight for her height. Imagine what it would do to a person who is actually overweight or obese.

What is Body Shaming?

Body shaming is an act of criticizing, discriminating, insulting and humiliating people because of their appearance, for example, weight, body shape, height, skin color, type of hair, voice, facial features, skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, vitiligo, etc.

Even though dictionaries reduce body shaming to only criticizing or humiliating someone for their appearance, body shaming is much more than that.

Habitually or casually commenting on people’s appearance is also body shaming, especially if they didn’t ask you for your opinion, and what you said was not a helpful or a positive comment.

Casually calling chubby people names like fatty, fatso, potato, buffalo, whale, cow, hippo, elephant, etc. is also body shaming, even if it comes from parents or siblings or husband / partner, because these are clearly not terms of endearment and the person being called such names clearly doesn’t like it.

Rejecting and shunning people who are overweight or obese or not attractive, not wanting to be friends with them, not wanting to sit next to them, discriminating against them at school or workplace, etc. is also a form of body shaming.

These actions tell them, “You’re not worthy of love”, “You are not like us”, “You are not beautiful”, “You are not desirable or likable”.

Sadly, body shaming is all too common. A survey showed that most of body shaming comes from the closest people like family and friends. Classmates, colleagues and strangers are also very common perpetuators of body shaming.

Shame: A Weapon or a Tool?

Shame is more of a weapon than a tool. 

The purpose of a weapon is to discourage, incapacitate, or destroy.

The purpose of a tool is to help a person to do something that would otherwise be impossible, more difficult, or more time-consuming.

People never use a weapon on someone to help them. Weapons are used with the intention to hurt a person, physically or psychologically.

That’s exactly what body shaming does to a person. More often than not, it hurts a person both physically and psychologically. Psychologically when the victim of body shaming feels humiliated, mortified and stigmatized, and physically, when this person uses self harm to cope with the shame and pain that fat shaming causes to the victim, or resorts to extreme forms of dieting or starvation, which may lead to severe eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia.

Why Do People Body Shame Others?

Many people criticize, mock or shame others because of their own sense of insecurity, built up anger, unresolved issues and childhood wounds.

Most people have been brought up thinking that it’s okay to shame others for their appearance. So they don’t do it out of spite, they do it out of habit because they don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

Some people have a habit of speaking without thinking and just blurt out whatever comes in their mind without considering the potential impact of their words.

Some people are shallow i.e. they only care about someone’s looks and love judging people based on their looks.

Some people have nothing better to do or say in social situations so they casually comment on people’s appearance.

Some people are mentally incapable of seeing the good in people. All they ever see is flaws and imperfections. These people are very fond of pointing out flaws in other people’s appearance, they lack basic courtesy or manners and don’t know how to keep their comments to themselves.

Some people are just pure incarnation of evil, not to mention sadistic i.e. they derive pleasure from seeing other people in pain. So they body shame others to inflict pain on them.

Some people are unhappy with themselves and are insecure about their own appearance. So when they comment on your appearance, they are actually projecting their own insecurities and false beliefs onto you. They body shame others to feel better about themselves or to make themselves look better. Making others feel small makes them feel big. Making others feel bad makes them feel good. If I can convince you that you are overweight, that automatically puts me in a higher position than you, that means I am at a healthy weight, I am better than you, more attractive than you, more desirable than you, even if you are better than me in every other aspect.

Some people who comment on others’ weight do not have a bad intention at all. They do it out of concern, because they know obesity is a serious health problem. What they don’t know is that the person they’re unintentionally body shaming also knows that obesity is not healthy. Nobody likes packing on pounds. Nobody in their right mind gains weight on purpose, unless they’re underweight and advised by the doctor to do so. These people don’t realize that commenting on people’s weight and telling them to lose weight is not a helpful thing at all.

Is it Still Body Shaming if the Person is Genuinely Concerned and has no Intention to Hurt?

Yes. If you know you are overweight, no matter if it’s the genes or your poor eating habits or sedentary lifestyle causing it, and you get offended when someone comments on your weight, it IS body shaming regardless of that person’s intention.

Intention doesn’t matter when it comes to commenting on people’s appearance. You simply cannot tell anyone, “OMG, your face is full of acne, do something about it!” and justify yourself by saying that you had no intention to hurt, because your intention doesn’t matter if what you say ends up hurting the other person.

In this example, the person who has acne obviously sees the mirror every day. She obviously knows she has acne. She must obviously have sought treatment for acne. Nobody likes to flaunt their acne like medals or trophies. So what’s the point in telling her something she already knows and suggesting something she’s most probably already doing? What good would such a comment or suggestion do even if you are genuinely concerned?

Does Fat Shaming Help People Lose Weight?

In some cases, yes. Fat shaming someone into losing weight may, in some cases, work and the person being fat shamed may end up losing a lot of weight as a direct result of fat shaming. So yes, shame can lead to change in the short term. But that does not mean that fat shaming is a good motivator or even ethical or that any random stranger has the right to shame another random stranger to lose weight. According to Carrie Wilkens,

The problem with shame is that it is a motivator loaded with problems because it is fear based. And instead of differentiating the behavior from the person, it makes the whole person bad, it sends the message that “you are bad” and all that comes along with that…”you aren’t worth helping”, “you can’t be helped”, “you are a lost cause”, and “we need to be rid of you.”

So, generally, shame is a bad or ineffective motivator, especially in the case of things that are either very difficult or impossible to change. For example, think of shaming someone because they are tall or short, or have a dark complexion. Do they have control over their height or complexion? Can they change it if you shame them enough? No. Still, people across the world, more so in third world countries like Pakistan and India, are regularly shamed for their height and complexion, things which they have absolutely no control over. 

In the long term, however, weight-shaming or fat-shaming is not only counterproductive in most cases, but also detrimental to the mental and physical health of the victim. For example, one study found that weight discrimination, instead of motivating people to lose weight, increases their risk for obesity i.e. it may lead to weight gain. So the “we are concerned about their health” and “it’s for their own good” arguments don’t hold ground.

2016 study showed that body shaming can start as early as first grade and obese or severely obese children are more likely to show signs of depression because they are less liked or rejected by their peers, teased and made fun of. Amanda Harrist, professor of child development at Oklahoma State University, who led the study, said:

"Children who are ostracized suffer great harm, with feelings of loneliness, depression, and aggression, and these children are more likely to skip school and drop out later."

Body shaming in adults not only leads to psychological distress, negative body image and low self esteem but may also lead to Social Anxiety Disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, depression, eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia and binge eating, as well as self-injury or self-harm and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Especially fat or weight shaming is more dangerous than you think. A 2015 study found evidence that weight discrimination is associated with higher mortality risk and may shorten life expectancy.

Apparently, the stigma associated with being overweight and the pressure to be at a certain weight is more harmful than actually being overweight.

Words Matter and Have the Power to Hurt or Heal

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Whoever said that was definitely never body shamed. Otherwise, he would have said:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can hurt and scar me forever, break my heart and soul, rip my skin apart, cause permanent psychological damage, destroy my mental health to the point that I will suffer from social anxiety for the rest of my life.”

Choose your words wisely and say NO to body shaming.