As soon as a camera is pointed at us, most of us immediately suck in our tummies and put on a pout, lest the camera zooms in on our cellulite, wrinkles or pimples. There is nothing wrong in trying to look your best in public, but body image issues can go deep for some and turn into a fear of being shunned by society for looking anything less than perfect. It is not uncommon to be subjected to demeaning comments about one’s body in social gatherings, and people sometimes do not hold back.
“Why don’t you put on some weight?” “This dress would have looked great on you if you had lost some kilos.” “Your hair is too thin for this cut.” “This colour doesn’t suit your dark complexion.” We have all heard such comments. And if you have had such toxicity directed at you, you have been a victim of body-shaming.
Celebrities such as Ashley Graham, Jameela Jamil and Ashley Tisdale have all spoken out on the toxicity that emerges when your body is in the public eye and under scrutiny all the time. Body-shaming is suggesting that someone’s body isn’t good enough, and they cannot be satisfied or comfortable with its current proportions or appearance. Without realising how rude and disrespectful we are being, many among us constantly body-shame others destroying the confidence of the person who is the target of these unkind remarks.
Negative commentary on people’s appearance not only hurts their feelings, it has the potential to affect their physical and psychological health as well
Hareem Farooq, the young film and television actor, was body-shamed by her audiences when her weight became a bigger concern rather than her craft. In an interview, she said that she later lost weight, not because of the criticism but because she started focusing on loving herself, eating healthy and working out and, in that process, she lost some pounds. As for those who body-shame, she said that sometimes people make others feel bad just to feel good about themselves.
The talented actor and model Aamina Sheikh turned to Instagram to address and share her own experience of body-shaming. In an interview she said, “In school, they used to say to me, ‘You have a hockey field for a forehead, Aamina’ and I used to find that hilarious! Even now I find myself quoting that when notable designers, directors, photographers, make-up artists or colleagues admire my forehead.” Some people still suggest that she cover it as “it’s too big and makes the face look strange.” She said people tell her not to tie her hair tightly as it’ll further recede her hairline and that she cannot afford that.
According to Fariha Rasheed, a psychologist who has worked at Mayo Hospital and at Beaconhouse National University and Autism Care Centre, “Body-shaming is brutal, as it can ruin a beautiful person mentally. It is usually related to physical appearance, such as skin colour, body structure, acne, birthmarks, wrinkles, ageing, curly hair, etc. And it is often promoted by advertisements where they want you to be perfect physically to find the perfect husband or even a job.”
With the emergence of social media and appearance-enhancing filters, that can thin out your face and acquire a clear skin, the younger generation is more susceptible to being judged and keen on judging others’ physical attributes. Generally, it is family, friends or neighbours who can talk callously to you without realising the gravity of what they are saying. When one is constantly body-shamed or criticised about one’s looks, etc., the negativity starts to fester in one’s mind. This can lead to the body-shaming victim to detest everything about themselves — their looks but also their personality.
Zainab, a schoolteacher, went though years of struggle as a victim of body-shaming. “After I got married, I constantly got to hear that I was unattractive, flat-chested and skinny,” she says. “I felt very depressed, and the stress resulted in my losing more weight. The worst part was that my husband would also ridicule me about it. It was the hardest to cope with because your spouse’s behaviour can make or break you. I lost all my confidence so that even when my friends and my parents would praise me, I’d doubt it.”
When she started teaching, Zainab had some sessions with a counsellor at the same school. “Some positive colleagues and students helped me regain my confidence.”
Years later, Zainab realised that she wasn’t less than anyone in anyway. She started believing that a person’s body is not anyone else’s business to decide what suits them. “I realised that I need to be strong and I need to let go of what people think, and especially what my husband thinks about me. I realised that, no matter how good or bad you are, people will always judge you,” she says.
Judging people for what they look like or wear could be unintentional, but it is also intentionally used to degrade or demotivate a person. If you are shamed by someone, you may not be able to take it merely as a joke. It attacks your core and puts you in an extremely unhealthy frame of mind, and this can flare up unhealthy emotions in turn, such as anger and depression and other psychological effects.
Askari says the key is to accept ones appearance. Involve yourself in healthy activities, for example volunteer work for a good cause. This can help build a positive outlook. “Body-shaming is often done by people who themselves have deep-rooted conflicts,” she says.
“Body-shaming causes such a devastating effect on a person’s mind that the victim suffers from low self-esteem, lack of confidence, social anxiety, and even inability to work in real life,” says Bushra Askari, a psychologist working in a rehabilitation centre. “Sometimes, phobias may develop along with panic attacks.” For example, if it happens to a child in school or college, the person is not able to perform well academically. If it happens to someone at their workplace, it may result in poor work performance. Among siblings, it may give rise to jealousy and rivalry. In a marriage, husband-wife relationships are at stake. “Moreover, the person becomes withdrawn, socially isolates him/herself, is unable to perform, suffers low confidence, at times becomes aggressive and develops poor coping skills,” adds Askari.
“One of the most important things is self-confidence,” says Askari. After years of low self-esteem, Zainab now emulates this quality. “Now, although I am still underweight and weak, I am trying to improve both emotionally and physically,” she says. “I want to gain weight, but only for the sake of health and fitness and not for being attractive, because I believe that I always look my best when I’m happy,” she says. Her body may still not conform to the conventional norms of beauty, but her mind is now in a better state. That has made all the difference for her.
Askari says the key is to accept one’s appearance. Involve yourself in healthy activities, for example volunteer work for a good cause. This can help build a positive outlook. “Body-shaming is often done by people who themselves have deep-rooted conflicts,” she says. “A person with a healthy mind won’t ridicule anyone. So it reveals a sick mentality. The victim must not go into a shell or hide from others, as it is a form of bullying. It is better to confront the bully.”
Rasheed believes that counselling in this area is not as simple as one may think. “We can counsel victims through motivational seminars and training sessions, but it is difficult as it is a deep-rooted societal issue,” she says. According to Rasheed, “We blame society for such issues but we need to realise that we make up the society.” Many women’s groups and fashion designers are making their products for the plus-sized women, and many modelling agencies are hiring women with diverse looks. They encourage ordinary women to be confident with the way they look and assure them that they are no way less than anybody else.
“Embrace who you are, choose kindness and empathy,” says Rasheed. “See the beauty in everybody. We each have a staggering array of our own flaws to focus on, let us not mock others for the way they look or are.”
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 11th, 2019