Body Shaming: Causes, Effects, and Improving Your Body Image
Hearing negative comments about your appearance can impact your body image and leave you feeling anxious, embarrassed, and self-conscious. But there are ways to manage critical comments and achieve body acceptance.
What is body shaming?
Body shaming involves humiliating someone by making inappropriate or negative comments about their body size or shape. As well as “fat shaming,” you may also hear negative comments if you’re underweight or in reference to a specific body part.
This type of criticism can be made to others or yourself. You may feel unhappy with your weight or how your body looks and judge yourself harshly. You may even engage in negative self-talk, such as “I feel so fat today” or “I need to stop stuffing my face with food.”
The act of body shaming can be carried out in person or remotely via the internet and social media and can be done by your parents, siblings, friends, or people you’re not even close to.
Even in a joking manner, remarks about what you eat or how much food you consume constitutes body shaming. Giving someone advice about dieting or praising weight loss is also considered body shaming, whether intentional or not. Often, your friends and family members don’t want to hurt your feelings, but their comments can still be of a critical nature. They may not realize the negative effect that questions like “Have you lost weight?” or “Do you really need to eat all of that?” can have.
While nobody is immune to societal pressures to look a certain way, comments about your body are unnecessary in any context. Whether the body shaming is being done by yourself or others, there are ways to overcome the problem, build body positivity, and learn to look at yourself in a more compassionate and realistic way.
Social media and body shaming
Social media often emphasizes physical appearance and makes it easy to post hurtful comments about others. The overall message is often that you should strive for the perfect body and find ways to hide your flaws. This can have a huge influence on your body image.
Body shaming on digital platforms is related to cyberbullying, but there are ways to fight back against those who body shame online, overcome the pain and anguish they cause, and reclaim your sense of self-worth.
Causes of body shaming
Our “selfie” culture emphasizes outward beauty and we’re constantly bombarded with images of glamourous celebrities in magazines, advertisements, TV shows, and other types of media.
What you see every day on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram can understandably make you feel envious of others or focus your thinking on your physical appearance and any perceived flaws. You may struggle to live up to these standards and experience negative feelings and judgements about yourself. This can become destructive when it diminishes your self-worth and body image.
A fixation with how you look can create unrealistic expectations that are impossible to achieve. Even when you know that these idealized images are digitally altered or enhanced, it’s easy to fall into the trap of unfavorably comparing yourself—or others.
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Body shaming in teens
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to body shaming, weight shaming, and appearance-based shaming. In the teen years, your attitudes and beliefs about body image and self-esteem are largely influenced by your family members, peers, and social media. Mothers can often be role models for their daughters, for example. If your mother is continually complaining about her own shape or weight, or pointing out problems in how you look or eat, it’s bound to have an impact on how you view yourself.
As you develop during adolescence, it’s normal to be highly sensitive to comments about body shape, weight, and appearance. Weight-related bullying during adolescence contributes to negative body perceptions and preoccupations with specific body parts. Adolescents who are overweight are particularly vulnerable, and this can often lead to depression.
You might think that only teenage girls are the victims of body shaming, but boys can also be affected. They may be particularly concerned about not being muscular enough in relationship to the popular concept of masculinity.
Effects of body shaming
Even supermodels and prima ballerinas have insecurities and imperfections, but we still tend to perceive them to be the ultimate representations of beauty. If you don’t measure up to these standards, you may feel inadequate and unworthy. And if you experience body shaming by others and take their negative comments to heart, it can lead to unhealthy behaviors and mental health problems, such as:
Having a negative body image is one of the main factors for developing disordered eating or an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating.
You may start a diet that involves restrictive eating in an attempt to change your body shape or size. But such dieting can spiral into harmful behaviors like skipping meals, fasting, vomiting after eating, excessive exercising, or overusing laxatives. Over time, you end up depriving your body and brain of essential nutrients that are necessary for optimal health.
Body shaming comments such as “Did you lose weight? You look so much better,” can be triggering and create more disordered eating habits in an attempt to maintain or lose even more weight.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)
Experiencing body-shaming can interfere with your self-image and make you feel extremely self-conscious. This can escalate into body dysmorphic disorder, where you become obsessed with a perceived appearance flaw that can create repeated avoidance behaviors.
Your daily life can become consumed with concerns about a small flaw, or one that is not apparent to others. You may constantly look at yourself in the mirror or avoid mirrors altogether, conceal body parts you don’t like, pick at your skin, or frequently ask others if you look okay.
If you are constantly ashamed of your body, it can also impair your performance at school and interfere with your relationships with peers, teachers, and family members. Fears about being judged by others may cause you to limit or avoid social activities.
Being physically active is normally one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being. However, if it becomes an addiction and you engage in compulsive exercising, it can lead to persistent fatigue, injuries, and susceptibility to illness or trigger anxiety, depression, or irritability.
If you are exercising compulsively, you may also start to withdraw from social situations as exercise becomes your main focus. Excessive exercising can progress into a syndrome called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) which occurs when your calorie intake is not sufficient for the amount of energy you are expending to maintain healthy functioning.
Anxiety and depression
Body shaming can trigger or worsen existing symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you are body-shamed in public or on social media, you may try to avoid going to school or other situations where this shaming might occur. You may withdraw from others and feel isolated and alone.
Hearing critical comments about your appearance can also be humiliating, heighten your insecurities, and damage your self-esteem. Consequently, you may engage in negative self-talk as you internalize these feelings of worthlessness. You may tell yourself things like “I am a bad person” or “I am completely worthless.” This can escalate into extreme loneliness, depression, anxiety, and poor body image.
Physical Health Issues
Fat shaming, in particular, is rampant in our society as obesity is associated with being lazy, unattractive, and lacking willpower to lose weight. In one study, over 70% of adolescents reported being bullied about their weight in the past few years. This can be harmful to your physical as well as psychological health.
Rather than being a motivating factor for losing weight, fat shaming actually has the opposite effect. The stress has been linked to a reduction in physical activity and the consumption of more calories.
Being the target of weight bias and discrimination can also affect your metabolism, lead to further weight gain, and increase your chances of becoming obese. This in turn can elevate the risk factors for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and other physical health problems.
How to turn body shaming into body positivity
In recent years, there has been an effort to reverse the body shaming emphasis and promote more love and acceptance of how we look. Social media platforms have utilized body positivity hashtags to gain more followers and help address the appearance-based prejudices that have been ingrained in us.
Of course, it will take time to change longstanding ideals of beauty. We have all internalized these messages in different ways based upon our cultural beliefs and norms. As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and this also holds true for our views about various body shapes and sizes.
How to build body positivity
Body positivity is a continuous journey towards accepting yourself and others. It takes patience and practice to alter longstanding cultural beliefs and learn self-compassion. You can’t control what others say or do, but you can change your all-or-nothing thinking and start to view yourself as a whole person.
Following these basic steps can help you overcome body shaming and build body positivity:
- Cultivate self-love.
- Replace negative self-talk.
- Manage your time spent on social media.
- Make friends with food.
- Reach out to someone you trust for guidance and support.
Turn body shaming into body positivity tip 1: Cultivate self-love
The first steps to protecting yourself from body shaming are to stop body-shaming yourself and develop self-compassion. Remember that your health status takes priority over your physical appearance, and that should always be your primary concern.
Don’t hide or isolate yourself from others. We all have days when we don’t look or feel our best, but don’t let this destroy your self-esteem or sense of worth. Take a step back and think about the critical inner dialog you are imposing on yourself. Is this really an accurate representation of who you are? Say “no” to yourself when you’re looking in the mirror and feeling disgust for your face or your body.
Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, as you would a best friend. Taking care of yourself is not a selfish act; it’s necessary for your personal well-being. Exercise, eat healthy food, enjoy the company of people who care about you, and spend some time outdoors to refresh your body and your mind.
Manage stress. Experiencing body shaming can be extremely stressful. Relaxation techniques such as exercise, meditation, and deep breathing exercises are all good ways to build resilience and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by negative experiences.
Embrace the power of your body. Our bodies serve us well on a daily basis to function effectively and keep us healthy. Rather than being upset about your appearance, express gratitude for this “sacred vessel” you inhabit. Take notice of simple things you often take for granted, such as breathing, blood pumping to the heart, and your miraculous senses. The most important thing you can do is strive for a healthy body, which is separate from your feelings about your weight and desire for perfection.
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Tip 2: Replace negative self-talk
While you can’t control what others say about you, you do have the power to focus on the positive aspects of yourself, rather than dwelling on any perceived flaws. Learning to accept your own imperfections will ultimately free you from placing unfair judgments on yourself or others.
Replacing negative self-talk with positive thoughts and affirmations can be useful for making you feel better about yourself and your body.
Shift your focus to the things that you like about yourself. For example, if you have beautiful hair or eyes, this is just as important as the features you dislike or that others try to ridicule. The next time you look in the mirror, notice these positive attributes.
Instead of repeating negative messages, accept yourself without criticism. You can tell yourself: “I accept my body just as it is,” or “My body is strong and healthy.”
Be proud of your individuality. Your value as a human being is worth much more than your physical body. Remembering the positive qualities that you bring to the world is the foundation for attaining body acceptance.
Start off with body neutrality. If you’re not quite ready to embrace body positivity, work towards having body neutrality. That means you are accepting and respectful of your body, without having to either love or hate it. When you practice body neutrality, you place the emphasis on what your body can do, rather than what your body looks like. For example, you can remind yourself: “My legs enable me to walk and run long distances.”
Don’t body shame others
Research shows that when you promote body positivity to others, you also feel more positively about your own body. Surround yourself with people who are courteous and treat others with respect. Avoid bullies who engage in body shaming and talk about the flaws of others.
Establish boundaries with your circle of friends and make it clear that you will not tolerate comments about your body or weight. You can also set an example by standing up for others who are the targets of body shaming.
Tip 3: Manage time spent on social media
Spending too much time on social media can add to your anxiety, loneliness, and body dissatisfaction, reinforce unrealistic expectations of yourself, and expose you to body shaming and cyberbullying.
If you reduce your time on social media, you will be able to participate in other activities that elevate your mood and tap into your creative potential. Try:
Connecting to others in-person. Cutting down or stepping away from social media can give you an opportunity to connect in-person and improve the quality of your social interactions. Communicating face-to-face is nature’s antidote to stress and can be a lot more rewarding than texting or messaging.
Physical activities like walking, running, swimming, dancing, and other fun sports. Being active is important for your overall health and well-being and can help increase your confidence, self-esteem, and sense of accomplishment.
Practicing mindfulness through yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or journaling.
Tip 4: Make friends with food
If you are shamed or ashamed about your weight, it’s easy to develop an unhealthy attitude towards food. Mindful eating can help you remember that food is not the enemy and whatever your weight, you can still find enjoyment in eating.
To make friends with food and eat more mindfully:
- Tune out all distractions while you’re eating, such as phones, TV, and other types of multitasking in order to enrich this pleasant experience.
- By concentrating on the present moment and accepting your thoughts and feelings, you can savor each bite, eat slowly, and respond to your body’s needs.
- Planning nutritious meals ahead of time or trying out new recipes are other great ways to make friends with food.
Tip 5: Reach out to someone you trust
You may feel embarrassed about confiding in someone about the body shaming you’re experiencing, but there’s no reason you have to handle this on your own. Reach out to others for guidance and support and let them know what you have been experiencing.
It’s crucial to find someone you trust and feel comfortable sharing your feelings with. Having a safe outlet to express your emotions can help you cope with the distress and humiliation of being body shamed.
If you need additional assistance in the recovery process, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with a licensed mental health counselor or therapist. They can offer unbiased advice to help you feel more empowered and heal from the effects of body shaming.
How to help a loved one with body shaming
If a friend or loved one is being body shamed by others, your compassion and understanding can be invaluable.
Let them know you are concerned and how much you care about them. You can say, “I feel worried that you are always talking about your weight,” or “I feel sad when you speak negatively about your appearance.”
Be patient and listen to their concerns. Don’t assume that you know what your loved one needs, but rather ask how you can best support them. They may just want a shoulder to cry on, someone to listen to their worries without judgment.
Try to shift the focus away from your loved one’s body to something else you admire about them. For example, you can remind them about their wonderful sense of humor, how smart they are, their adventurous spirit, or highlight a particular talent they have.
If your child has been body shamed
It can be extremely hurtful to learn that your child or teenager has been body shamed. But like any bullying or cyberbullying behavior, there are steps you can take to deal with the problem—or even help prevent it before it starts.
Educate your child about body shaming. Let them know that people can sometimes be cruel to each other and how your child should value and respect both themselves and others. Remind them that body shaming in any form is unacceptable.
Talk to your child’s teachers or school administrators if the problem is occurring at school.
Encourage your child to seek new friends if their current ones are engaging in body shaming. Enrolling in sports teams, youth clubs, and after-school activities are great ways for your child to expand their social circle.
Be a good role model. Speak positively about your own body and catch yourself if you say something negative about your own appearance. Try to use body-positive or body-neutral language to set a healthy example.
Reduce the time your child spends on social media. Be aware of what your child is posting and reading about on social media platforms. The more you know about your child’s life online, the sooner you’ll be able to identify and address any body shaming issues.
Reassure your child. Let your child know that you love them unconditionally for both their inner and outer beauty. Refrain from criticizing or teasing a child or teenager about their appearance, even in jest.
Encourage a healthy lifestyle that nurtures your child’s body—but keep the subjects of appearance, weight, and dieting out of the discussion. Focus instead on what your child’s body is capable of. Remind them how well their body serves to help them run, jump, draw, play a musical instrument, or solve puzzles.
Bolster your child’s self-esteem and resilience through exercise and creative endeavors. Having them involved in team sports, volunteer organizations, or group activities can help build self-confidence and improve social skills. Physical activity can also help to relieve anxiety and stress and boost your child's mood.
Authors: Alice E. Schluger, Ph.D.
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U.S.: 1-800-273-8255 – Crisis Call Center
UK: 0845 22 55 787 – National Bullying Helpline
Canada: 1-877-352-4497 – BullyingCanada
Australia:1800 551 800 – Kids Helpline
India: 1098 – Childline India
Eating disorder helplines
In the U.S.: National Eating Disorders Association or call 1-800-931-2237 (National Eating Disorders Association)
UK: Beat Eating Disorders or call 0345 643 1414 (Helpfinder)
Australia: Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders or call 1800 33 4673 (National Eating Disorders Collaboration)
Canada: Service Provider Directory or call 1-866-633-4220 (NEDIC)
Last updated: November 17, 2022