Early in September, Nicole Arbour, an obscure Canadian comedian with a YouTube channel, caused a minor stir with her video titled Dear Fat People. Arbour, speaking directly to the camera for six minutes, went on what could only be considered a social media diatribe about her distaste for obese Americans, couched in a specious desire to help the obese improve their health.
Google, owner of YouTube, shut down Arbour’s account for a brief period of time after an outcry denouncing Arbour’s message as fat-shaming. Her account was restored after Arbour claimed censorship and major news outlets picked up the story. Just a few days afterward, her video had gotten 20 million views on her Facebook page and over a million on her YouTube page, according to CNN.
The incident raises the more expansive issue of the propriety of expressing our unsolicited opinions of other people’s bodies. While fat-shaming might be a very salient example of body-shaming, it is only one part of the shaming spectrum, a spectrum that parallels the spectrum of different body types that we as human beings inhabit. Perhaps you have heard a thin woman being exhorted to “Eat something!” or have seen someone post that “Real Women Have Curves” on social media. Maybe you have heard whispers that a male weightlifter at your health club is “juicing” or that a woman bodybuilder looks “like a guy.” Live a sedentary lifestyle and gain weight and someone might call you a slob; dedicate your time to regular trips to the gym and healthy eating and someone might accuse you of body dysmorphic disorder.
An act of body-shaming can spring from a spectrum of different motivations. At its worst, body-shaming is an intentional act of outright hate. This likely is the reason that Google acted to shut down Nicole Arbour’s YouTube account; if you’ve ever read the comments on a YouTube video, you are aware that the level of discourse generally goes downhill quickly. Body-shaming might also be the result of jealousy or feeling self-conscious about our own body. While the “Real Women Have Curves” meme might be posted in support of average and plus-sized women, it does so by denying the femininity of thin women.
Body-shaming is often unintentional. Sometimes it might be a seemingly innocent comment made without thinking about how it might come across to its object. For example, you might know someone who’s lost a significant amount of weight; telling them that they look really great now might sound like you did not think they were attractive human beings before they lost the weight. If they happen to regain the weight for whatever reason, they are likely to be painfully reminded of what once seemed like positive feedback.
Sometimes body-shaming comes from a legitimate concern for someone else’s health. You might have an obese loved one who you fear is going to develop long-term health problems if they do not start to make positive changes in their life. But asking your loved one, “Wouldn’t you rather be skinny?” is not likely to effect positive change. In fact, studies show that individuals who feel stigmatized or shamed about their weight more often engage in excessive eating, avoidance of exercise, and other unhealthy behaviors, despite anecdotes you might have heard about individuals who lost weight because they got tired of being the butt of fat jokes.
The next time that you feel compelled to make a comment about someone else’s body, analyze what you are about to say. What is your motivation? Do you believe that your comment is coming from a positive place? Are you sure that the person you are making the comment to will feel the same way? If not, perhaps you should keep your comment to yourself. Ask yourself if there is something about the way you feel about your own body that is compelling you to make the comment; you might realize that you have body issues that you have heretofore avoided addressing.
Finally, if you do have a loved one whose health you feel is in danger, take the time to hone your message so that it is clear that it comes from your love for them. They may bristle at the unwanted attention you are paying to their bodies, which is why it is important to tactfully express your deep concern for them and their well-being. Your loved one is likely aware that their health is at risk but may feel powerless to enact the changes they need to make to improve it; they might even be in denial that anything is wrong. Let them know that they have your love and support, and offer ideas for incremental healthy changes. Be prepared for some foot-dragging; they may only see an unfeasible end-goal of a “perfect” body, when all you are asking of them is healthy changes to their diet and being more (or less) active than they currently are. Consider consulting with their doctor, a dietitian, and personal trainer to help make sure that they have all the tools they need as they begin their journey.