The Epidemic of Appearance Shaming

Body shaming has reached a fever pitch.

You are always overdressed. Your hair’s always so “done.” You don’t work out hard enough. You work out too much. You’re too thin. You’ve gained weight. You wear too much makeup. You don’t wear enough makeup. You always eat salads. You eat too many french fries, too much dessert.

I’ve heard every single one of those comments from friends, family, acquaintances. Even virtual strangers. I am apparently a baffling enigma — sometimes a glaring contradiction, it would seem, if we added up all the words used to size me up.

It’s almost a subconscious thing, the words and the reactions are often so subtle. Sometimes it starts with a backhanded compliment. Sometimes it’s a passing critique. But something in her voice is off. The tone is meant to scold, rendered with an air of derision. You know it when you hear it. And afterwards, you feel that slow chain reaction in the body. The words cause that familiar, uncomfortable heat to rise from somewhere down deep inside you.

It’s called shame.

“You must put a lot of effort into all that,” said one friend, waving a hand in front of my frame like you might wave a magic wand.

I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of self, but I wasn’t built with steel. Like curvy, athletic, 20-year-old model Gigi Hadid bravely said in her open letter about body-shaming in September: “So many people are so quick to comment… I’m human, and I’m not going to lie, I did let the negativity get to me a little.”

During past seasons of my life, shaming words got to me, too. Anything that made me different, made me feel I had to realign closer to the norm. So I deliberately chose the light pink lipstick when I wanted to choose the deep violet. I let my hair go natural, but wanted to do big, full curls. I chose a basic LBD for the party when I wanted to wear the jumpsuit.

It’s silly, really. These changes are so slight, most people would never notice. But I felt their weight, their meaning, and why I was carrying them out: I didn’t want to be myself if it meant alienating others or giving them reasons to think less of me.

One of my best friends from high school recently detailed experiences that felt alarmingly similar. “My co-workers always comment about my diet,” Cara explained. “That I should just eat donuts with them for breakfast — I don’t even like donuts. They think the fact that I work out in the morning is crazy. And if I drink anything that’s remotely green, like a smoothie, then they tell me how gross that is. If I do yoga at lunch and grab sushi on the way back, it’s, ‘Look at you, being so healthy.’”

Cara said it doesn’t affect her self-esteem in the obvious way, but by way of social exclusion. “It is uncomfortable,” she confessed. “I don’t want them to feel like I think of myself as, in some way, better. I’m trying to be healthier now — my best possible self. But I also don’t want there to be a divide between us.”

As a culture, for centuries, we idealize certain facets of beauty and health. But no one ever fits that neat, tidy box of stereotypical perfection, in part because it’s always changing and also because everyone has their own idea of perfection. Yet when we make these comments about a woman’s appearance or perceived wellness, we are creating divides. We are fueling what culture currently idealizes as beauty instead of what we should actually embrace as beautiful: differences, female empowerment, health, positivity, body love, and self-esteem.

Although we’re getting better at appreciating differences, we’re not digging deep enough into what it means to truly accept a woman for all the nuanced things she is. We still seem to judge everyone up against that “ideal” standard — often with a joke and a smile, or a backhanded compliment tainted with a confusing sense of guilt. This behavior only hurts and divides us.

Us versus Them. You versus Me. “Ideals” versus “Other.” Measurements and comparisons that breed contempt and shame.

Amy Schumer drew that line when she called out Khloe Kardashian’s recent shape-up in her opening monologue for SNL in October. “We used to have Khloe. Khloe was ours, right?” she mock-lamented to the audience. “Khloe… she lost half her body weight. She lost a Kendall, and we have nothing.”

And there it is. Divisions.

“The difficulty with female competition is that it is often shrouded in verbal gymnastics,” my friend Karla told me. She is a psychologist and counselor who regularly writes about body image and comparisons.. “Female competitiveness tends to be more subtle or indirect, which can lead to increased pressure to achieve an ideal.”

You feel the shame more than you can pinpoint it. It’s that comment with that undertone. “Ugh, but why do you always look so pulled together?” or, “You’re so skinny, though, eat the cheeseburger” or, “That honey-blonde hair is so basic — except yours! Yours is perfect.” It is a toxic, slow burn.

Never quite fitting in with the norms, Karla has battled her own appearance-shamers for most of her life.“I was one of the girls in the ‘80s who had an asymmetrical haircut,” she explains. “One side short, one side long. I loved it, and it was way ahead of the times — but my English teacher once made a point to discuss, in class, how girls who would do such things to themselves ‘got what they deserved’ when people gawked at them.”

Knowing the comment was directed her way, Karla absorbed the hit before gathering herself enough to raise a hand. “I remember telling her that the only thing I deserved was to simply get to be me, and not to be judged because she preferred her style over mine,” Karla said.

There is a certain discomfort in breaking the norm and being yourself — really, authentically yourself — before the crowd. It is vulnerable. It says, “This is me,” and automatically invites others to assess and take shots.

I contemplated my appearance, the risk, and the feeling of shame for years before I slowly began adding more and more of those vulnerable “differences” back into my look. I had to do it.

I have grown into a more outspoken woman, but I was once a very shy girl with a lot to say — just never out loud. I slowly realized that my wellness, beauty, and style habits have always been a special form of self-expression for me. And I didn’t want to censor myself in that way any longer. I wanted to honor these daily decisions, ever-evolving; this was always my quiet, steady voice when I wasn’t quite ready to speak out loud.

Authenticity is something to celebrate with a sincere compliment or silent appreciation — not shame. I’m working hard to remember that.

Jenna Birch

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