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Body Image Issues: Why There Is a Need for Sensitivity Around Body Shaming

Do you often feel conscious about your body? Or often worry about how your body appears in a certain outfit? Or often base your eating habits on how your body feels to you instead of your appetite? If your answer to the above questions is yes, then you may be experiencing body image issues.

Body image issues, also known as body image dissatisfaction, refer to thinking and feeling negatively about your body.

Some examples of the way body image issues can get manifested are:

· Consistently thinking or talking negatively about your body

· Feeling negative emotions when thinking of your body or looking at it

· Spending a substantial amount of time checking how your body is looking

· Compulsive tracking of your weight and measuring of your body parts

· Feeling the need to wear baggy clothes to hide your body

Whether it is feeling ‘too fat’ or ‘too skinny’, body image issues are highly prevalent among Indians.

A survey conducted by Fortis Healthcare found that 89% of women in India experience body image issues (Hindustan Times, 2019), while a study found that 77.6% of adolescent girls experience body image dissatisfaction (Ganesan et al., 2018). Body image issues are high for men too, which are present among one-third of males (34.4%) in India (Soohinda et al., 2020).

Body image issues arise from the glorification of and constant comparisons with – perceptions of an ‘ideal’ body, which are increasingly becoming unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Body-shaming, which is ridiculing someone’s body size or shape, can lead to or worsen body-image issues. While social media and mass media play large roles in contributing to these unrealistic perceptions of the ‘ideal’ body and body-shaming, I will talk about how we, as individuals of society, also play a crucial role in the culture of body-shaming.

The culture of body shaming is everywhere, including in our schools, colleges, homes, and workplaces. Body-shaming and obsession with diet culture have become a part of conversations at every table – if people have gained weight or lost it, if they look fat or skinny, what they should eat or not eat to look a certain way, what they should wear or not wear to look a certain way, what is the trending diet – low-carb, keto, or the currently trending intermittent fasting, and it goes on and on. Body shaming has become so pervasive that people have internalized it to the extent of body-shaming themselves, only worsening their own body-image issues.

By constantly talking about certain body types, sizes, or shapes as ‘ideal’ in our conversations with others, we further glorify these unrealistic perceptions of an ‘ideal body’ for ourselves and others.

And by looking down upon certain body types, sizes, or shapes, we reinforce negative perceptions and attitudes towards them. Engaging in regular conversations around ‘bad’ and ‘good’ bodies or casually commenting on others’ bodies normalizes body-shaming as part of our day-to-day conversations. Moreover, using body shaming as a form of humour further normalizes it.

Whether it is our sibling, child, parent, spouse, friend, or acquaintance, we have assumed the right to comment about others’ bodies without considering how it may impact them. “I hate myself in these pictures”, “the comment really hurt me”, “I have been trying to hold my stomach in since their comment”, “I starved myself for days after my friends’ comments”, “I skipped breakfast after listening to them talk endlessly about weight and sizes”, “I hate going shopping for clothes” – these are just a few of the many ways I have heard people get impacted by body-shaming, as a practising therapist and also as a friend.

Hearing unpleasant comments about one’s body (also known as body-shaming) leads to body image issues which cause feelings of shame, embarrassment, hatred, anger, and a host of other negative feelings towards one’s own body and, by extension – oneself. Body image issues also negatively impact behaviours such as eating, choosing clothes, etc., on a day-to-day basis, and thus, occupy a large part of our life. These issues not only determine our behaviours (such as what and how much we eat) but also determine how we feel about our behaviours (such as how we feel about our eating habits – good about eating according to a planned diet, and bad and guilty for having strayed away from the planned diet). Body image issues have been normalized to the extent that people do not see their behaviours (such as compulsive tracking of weight or body size, engaging in crash diets, and numerous others) as unhealthy or toxic to their physical and mental health.

Formally, body image dissatisfaction has been recognized as a mental-health concern by the Mental Health Foundation, UK, as it is linked with psychological distress and poorer quality of life.

Further, body image issues have been found to greatly increase the risk of developing many mental health concerns, such as poor self-esteem, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety (Bell et al., 2016; Butterfly Foundation, 2018).

I have often heard people arguing that they are commenting on others’ bodies for their ‘good’ and to motivate them to lose weight. To these people, I would like to say – every person notices the changes in their own bodies and doesn't need others to point them out; everyone also knows the ways to lose weight and doesn't need your advice on it unless explicitly asked for; listening to negative comments about one’s bodies may motivate someone for a bit but for how long and at what cost to their mental health?

Having said this, it is important to acknowledge that moving away from body shaming is not equivalent to normalizing obesity or unhealthy eating habits.

Obesity and unhealthy eating habits can have multiple negative consequences on one’s physical health, including diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular diseases, etc. and thus, need to be worked upon. It is imperative for all of us to engage in healthy eating habits for the benefit of our physical as well as mental health.

Here are some things we can do instead of body-shaming (without normalizing obesity or unhealthy eating habits) when we are genuinely concerned for the physical health of those who may be experiencing constant or unplanned weight gain or weight loss. Some of the ways to do that include:

1. Genuinely expressing concern for the physical health of a close one by talking about aspects of their physical health, for example, cholesterol or blood pressure levels.

2. Shifting the narrative regarding food to what is healthy/nutritious or not for our body. For example, suggesting that someone should reduce their sugar consumption or fried food not because it may lead to weight gain but because sugar and fried food are unhealthy for our bodies.

3. Bringing a language change, which can involve avoiding the usage of derogatory terms like “fat”, “mota” (in Hindi), “skinny”, “teeli” (in Hindi) to neutral terms like heavy or light in weight.

In conclusion, we, as a society and individuals of the society, must develop more sensitivity towards people who may already be struggling with their body shape or size, and we must be mindful of how our words may impact others and act sensitively and responsibly.

Furthermore, if you are someone who is struggling with body-image issues and would like to address them, you can seek professional help for it. Psychotherapists at Begin Again use a combination of eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and cognitive behavioural therapy to work with body-image issues. To book a session, you can click on this link

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