Body-shaming statistics have indicated that 94% of teenage girls have been body shamed. But it’s not exclusive to just the female gender. Teen boys have been subjected to body shaming, as well, with nearly 65% reported to have been body shamed.
In autumn 2019, sisters Gisele and Sage Wilson experienced roughly three weeks of body shaming at their school in Texas. That is, until their mother, Jessica Brown Wilson, stepped in and took action.
“The body shaming started on the first day of school for the 2019-2020 year,” says Wilson, a Dallas lawyer who is also involved with podcasts on the #MeToo movement. “It was Aug. 19, 2019. The shaming was endured until Sept. 5, 2019, when I withdrew them from White Rock Montessori, where it was happening.”
Wilson says at the time of the body shaming, Gisele was 9; she’s now 10 years old, and Sage is 7. She says Gisele was crying every morning before school.
“She is a classical ballerina in training,” Wilson says. “She dances five days a week, in a leotard, in front of mirrors, and is critiqued on her body movements. Never before what happened in the fall of 2019 had she ever felt or experienced body shame. She was anxious and worried to go to school. This is a far departure of her normal, happy, bubbly, disposition.”
According to Wilson, the school never did anything to stop the bullying behavior against her daughters.
“In fact, they stood strong and defiant in their position that they would not change the admittedly gender-biased dress code,” she says. “There was no commitment to train the teachers who were shaming the girl students; in fact, there was a bold sentiment of ‘deal with it.’”
Wilson gathered other parents for meetings. She wrote emails.
“I met in person with the director,” she says. “I wrote a letter to the board of directors and the response was no action. After I withdrew my daughters from the school, in retaliation, White Rock Montessori filed a lawsuit against me, seeking additional tuition of $5,000.”
She says the school sued her in an attempt to silence her because she was vocal about the body shaming and gender discrimination. As a result, she filed a counterclaim lawsuit for Title IX gender discrimination on behalf of all girls at the school who endured the body shaming the gender discrimination and retaliation.
Scenarios like Wilson’s daughters are far from unique. Body shaming happens more frequently than we think, and like Gisele and Sage, it can have a profound impact on our mental health. Educate yourself about the effects of body shaming, the mental health aspects of it, and how to overcome it.
Body shaming is intrinsically about shame, which is the sense people have that there’s something wrong with them, as opposed to guilt, which is the sense that they’ve done something wrong or didn’t do something that they should have done, says Nina Savelle-Rocklin, a Los Angeles-based author and psychoanalyst specializing in food, weight and body-image issues.
“People who experience body shaming, or who body shame themselves, may avoid social events, anxiety about being with other people, and devaluing themselves,” she says. “Reactions to body shaming include depression, anxiety, anger and self-hatred. Body shaming can also lead to disordered eating, especially binge eating disorder, which is the most prevalent type of eating disorder.”
According to Savelle-Rocklin, people are body shamed at all ages and genders.
“I have patients in their 60s and 70s who remember being teased or made fun of because of their size when they were children,” Savelle-Rocklin says. “Body shaming is a term that describes what was once thought of as teasing. So, body shaming has been around for a long time.”
Although women were once seen as more likely to experience body shaming, in recent years, there has been increased pressure on men to look fit, too, Savelle-Rocklin says.
“Social media and other media influences urge guys to forgo the ‘dad bod’ and be ripped and muscular,” she says. “The notion that masculinity includes big muscles and six-pack abs or more contributes to ‘bigorexia,’ a subclinical condition in which men feel compelled to work out, often compulsively, so that they gain muscle and are bigger to fit what is perceived to be a cultural ideal.”
Stop the shaming
Dr. Janice Asher, an OBGYN and former professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a book about body shaming, says it may also lead to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, which puts people at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
“Body shaming begins in youth and continues throughout adulthood,” Asher says. “Women are at greater risk. But it’s hard to say by how much, since most of the studies have been done with women. Body shaming is so damaging to kids. They are more likely to be bullied, to suffer decreased self-esteem, and to have lower academic achievement. As they grow up, they have fewer higher academic and job prospects. They are at greater risk for depression and anxiety throughout their lives.”
To overcome body shaming and keep your mental health intact, Asher says, the first step is to stop shaming yourself.
“Catch yourself when you’re thinking cruel things about yourself, and replace those thoughts with more positive ones,” she says.
Savelle-Rocklin says it’s important to cultivate an attitude of gentle kindness toward oneself and don’t be the food police.
“Turning your inner critic into a friend is an essential part of emotional well-being and makes a huge difference when it comes to being able to withstand the stigma of body shaming,” she says. “Saying something along the lines of, ‘Do you really need to eat that?’ is not helpful. Never in the history of time has anyone responded, ‘Good point! I actually don’t need to eat this. Thanks for your help.’”
As for Wilson, her two daughters are no longer at the school they once attended.
“But from what I have been told from parents who are still at the school, the school is now retaliating against any children or parents who raise these issues,” she says. “The gender-biased policy in still in effect. The offending teachers have not been disciplined or trained, and girls are still shamed and sent home — in front of everyone — if the teacher thinks their shorts or skirts are offending the policy.”
Wilson hopes to eradicate this type of conduct, particularly in schools where young girls who haven’t reached puberty are being taught there is something wrong with their bodies.
“I want to empower my daughters and other girls to stand up and speak out against injustices,” she says. “In an elementary classroom, all children should be excited to learn. White Rock Montessori stole that excitement and replaced it with fear, anxiety and self-consciousness. I withdrew my daughters from White Rock Montessori because I refused to pay to have them traumatized. But I also took the step because I wanted them to learn through my example that you do not have to sit back and take bullying, harassment or shaming.”