What you need to know:
- Why do women often tear each other down over their body shapes and sizes, even when some of these are things we can’t change?
- Nairobi-based counselling psychologist Ken Munyua points at culture and socialisation as having significantly contributed to body shaming. “Women are brought up to be body conscious and so society constantly keeps an eye on them to look a certain way.”
- What behaviour are adults modelling? Let’s take a look at social media, where celebrities often fall victim to body shaming, as well as women in hair, beauty and make-up Facebook groups.
Francisca Nyamu has always been a curvy girl. Because of this, comments about her body were always forthcoming. However, an episode in high school conducted by those she considered her best friends was particularly cruel.
“A group of girls who were once close friends wrote a letter about me. They pointed out what they thought were my flaws, one of which was my legs. They said my legs were so big it was as if I suffered from elephantiasis. At this time, I was totally vulnerable. The words in that letter hurt me to the core. I even changed my way of dressing and started wearing long skirts to hide my legs, and baggy sweaters and shirts, too. I became anti-social and kept to myself.”
Welcome to the world of the mean girls, where women who should be supportive of each other are often the first ones to body-shame one does not look ‘like them’.
Francisca struggled to deal with the betrayal and hurt. Eventually, she confided in one of her teachers who taught her self-love and acceptance. “During this period of counselling, I learned to be my own person – to make decisions that were good for me, not because of peer pressure. I also learnt that it is okay not to be friends with everybody. High school was certainly my defining experience, one that molded me into the confident woman I am now.”
Today, she is the CEO and founder of Plus Fabulosity, a plus-size fashion and lifestyle hub. She no longer struggles with insecurities. She loves herself and appreciates that when it comes to body shamers, she is not the one with the problem. They are.
“For me, body shaming stems from insecurity. If one is insecure about their size or their general physique, they’ll feel threatened by the person they perceive to be ‘perfect’. But no one is perfect.”
Body shaming cuts across all cultures, sizes, race and gender but is entrenched most amongst women. This, according to 35-year-old Agnes, is simply a hazard that comes with being female. “Well, unlike a man, a woman’s attractiveness is often, if not always, pegged on how she looks so that even from a young age, we find ourselves comparing, contrasting, competing, commenting and all that. It is how it has always been and probably always will be.”
Nairobi-based counselling psychologist Ken Munyua points at culture and socialisation as having significantly contributed to body shaming. “Women are brought up to be body conscious and so society constantly keeps an eye on them to look a certain way.”
This, agrees 29-year-old Eunice, is one of the reasons people feel they can say what they want to her about her athletic physique. “Our culture has given us the green light to freely body shame others. I am considered too skinny in most cultural settings in Kenya. People always have an opinion about how and what I should eat to add weight. They think I have some kind of illness or I am starving myself. I am always annoyingly reminded by others that I am different in this way.”
Eunice wishes everyone would show sensitivity towards others. “In my early teens and all through to my early 20’s, I hurt very easily. I have worked very hard on myself to reach the point where I don’t cry at the slightest provocation. Some comments will still hurt but I am in a better place. I am however still growing into my skin and sometimes, just one word can destroy all that hard work. It would be great if we would all be mindful about what we say to others.”
What is considered acceptable in society is established from a very early age as children, especially young girls, begin to form associations and internalise what is considered pretty and beautiful and what is not. “They listen to and watch (adults), and do exactly what we are doing and saying. These experiences and behaviours are carried forward into adulthood,” says Munyua.
Meanwhile, what behaviour are adults modelling? Let’s take a look at social media, where celebrities often fall victim to body shaming, as well as women in hair, beauty and make-up Facebook groups.
32-year-old Anita does not think it is body shaming if the comment has a positive lean. “You know; I have actually never considered it body shaming. I mean for example, some women wear ill-fitting and unflattering outfits emphasising all their extra bits. Yes, self-love and all that but can we please look good while at it?”
SOCIAL MEDIA ANONYMITY
She defends her actions, saying that it is a way of building the other person up. “Say it was my friend and I point it out to her that she would look even better by covering up and emphasising her strengths. Is that body shaming? I think my silence about it is far worse than me actually telling her hey, you can still look good by dressing for your size so no, it is not body shaming. I am actually helping.”
Social media anonymity has given many people a sense of false security to boldly, and often times negatively, speak their mind. “I would say we women bring each other down through body shaming because many of us are walking around with huge insecurities and chips on our shoulders,” says Wanja, a 33-year-old post graduate student. “I do not think many of us have the confidence to really say what we think one-on-one. Social media just makes it easy to be meaner because it gives me cover to ‘throw stones’ unreservedly, without fearing repercussions.” She thinks that body shaming is similar to gossiping in that “it is like an itch that must be scratched and honestly, you do not always realise what you are doing is body shaming. You just join in especially if it is a funny trending topic and hit send, send, send until the next topic comes up.”
Perhaps all this body shaming stems from the ‘double consciousness’ effect, as described by W.D Dubois, where we look at ourselves through the eyes of others. “Notice how a woman will get upset if you do not acknowledge, say, her new hairstyle or outfit. They are doing all these things for the benefit of others rather than themselves, “says Ken Munyua. This then creates low self-esteem which further feeds body shaming others or themselves. His antidote for this is, “Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that there is no one else as beautiful as you. If you do not appreciate yourself, nobody else will. You have to learn to do so because there are so many divergent voices, and at the end of the day it is not about them, it is about you. Realise this, and you will be happy. When you do things under duress it doesn’t work – for example losing weight because your friends say you should, getting a new hairstyle for your husband, and so on. Do it for yourself. Be content with who you are and the rest will fall in place.”
Easier said than done. Mother of two Agnes takes a practical approach, “Why we body shame is a non-issue. I mean, I have had my fair share of it because I am no longer a size eight two babies later, so I don’t really care why a ‘friend’ would feel the need to gasp, ‘you have added so much weight, are you still eating for two?!’ I feel we should instead focus on what to do about it. As it is, there is no goodwill to change society’s narrative on the representation of women in media or our culture and until such a time, I can only prepare my girls for what they will inevitably face as women, by teaching them to be confident and assured in who they are and not defining themselves by how they look.”
Francisca agrees. “Once one stops lusting for the greener grass on the other side, they begin to accept and embrace their identity and reality. Confidence is an attribute you gain over time. As you age, you feel more comfortable in your own skin and you start to make decisions that are good for you and not for your friends or family. To break this habit (body shaming), women should stay confident in their bodies as flawed as they are. Confidence is you.”
What is body shaming?
- Body shaming is defined as negative statements and attitudes made about self or towards another, based on perceived body imperfections.
- The varieties are endless and are based on factors such as weight, height, sexuality, skin tone and choice of clothes.
- An example of a body shaming comment is, ‘he is so good looking, why is he dating that fat chick?’ Or ‘she is pretty but so dark skinned’ or, ‘I hate my thunder thighs’.
- Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and eating disorders, are some of the effects of body shaming on individuals, more so on young girls as they contend with social media onslaught.
- Surrounding yourself with positive influences and influencers, learning to love yourself, being kind to yourself and speaking up against a negative comment made towards you or another person are some ways of overcoming body shaming.