There are a lot of things that led to my developing body image issues as a teenager. A lot of this was teasings and comments from a few school friends, and for a long time, I wanted to blame my eating disorder on those specific people. But the older I grew the more I got intrigued by the role of the society in crafting our body image. Now I realize that’s it’s a more systematic issue. It is an issue of how we, society, perceive different body shapes and sizes and deem something acceptable and pretty and reject every other body shape and size.
The Role of Society in Crafting Our Body Image
Society has always had expectations of what is acceptable for both men and women. For women, here are a few:
If you wear short clothes, you are slut-shamed.
If you dress modestly, you’re called a prude and a bore.
If you are dark-skinned, you get backhand comments from every distant relative you meet all of who think it’s their business to untan your skin.
If you’re loud you are called bossy, but if you’re quiet you’re told to speak up.
If you embrace femininity and love makeup and dressing up you’re called vain and attention-seeking,
but if you’re not into any of those things you are told to take care of yourself better.
Of course, society also has a lot of these constructs regarding what an acceptable size and body are too. For example, if you’re too skinny you get comments about how you need to eat more, but if you do eat a good amount, and have a healthy weight, you are encouraged to lose weight.
I have struggled with all of these social constructs as I’ve grown up, but one of the main ones I’ve struggled with is body issues.
The Thin Ideal and Fatphobia
In my opinion, most body issues that teenagers and young adults struggle with stem within them from a young age. From a young age, teenagers observe the world around them and learn what body shapes are acceptable and which ones are not –
- They grow up watching their chubby classmates mercilessly getting bullied, and teachers sometimes contributing to it.
- They hear snide comments being made when an overweight family member or friend takes an extra dinner serving.
- They hear close relatives and friends make fun of that one fat friend. They see the fat character in cartoons being portrayed as ugly, lonely, and undesirable.
- They watch movies to see only the skinny characters have a happy ending, while the fat ones merely serve as laughing stocks.
- They see people getting congratulated for losing weight and reprimanded for weight gain.
- They see people and corporations encouraging diet culture, restricting food, and starving themselves just so that they are thin.
- They look at magazines and see only skinny people on the covers.
And so when these kids become teenagers and young adults, and they themselves gain weight (something completely natural in adolescents) they are already conditioned to believe that their weight gain is wrong. They believe that them not being exceptionally skinny is a fault of their own, and somehow downvalue their self-worth. They believe that they have to make an effort to lose weight to be pretty. This affects everything: their self-worth, self-esteem, mental health, and even physical health at times.
Consequently, from a very young age, we, humans subconsciously start believing that calling someone fat is an insult but calling someone thin is a compliment. When in reality, both the words just describe someone’s body shapes. They are descriptive words like ‘short’ and ‘tall’.
But because of how fatphobic society is in general, we grow up with a negative connotation of the word fat. We grow up with a bias in our mind, which in its simplest form is that thin is pretty and fat is ugly.
But this isn’t always true. Neither is the argument that all fat people are unhealthy, and all thin people are healthy. A lot of people show “concern about the health” of those around them that are overweight. But, food intake and activities aren’t the only things that determine someone’s weight. Health depends on a lot of things aside from the shape of your body, and some of the skinniest people I know have the unhealthiest lifestyles.
Additionally, there are a lot more factors that decide someone’s diet other than just being lazy and not taking care of oneself. Certain health conditions and hormonal issues are things that are under no one else’s control but play a huge role in regulating someone’s weight. The environment and the affordability of food also plays a role in the weight of a person. Being overweight or obese is painted as someone’s personal choice when it in fact is not. And even if it is someone’s choice, who are we to judge them?
Body Positivity vs Body Neutrality
Over the last few years, there has been an outcry against fatphobia and a movement to love and support your body, called body positivity. Body positivity in its simplest terms is a movement that encourages young people to love and accept their bodies irrespective of how they look and reject social constructs on how a perfect body should look like. The movement has created a safe space for not only those who struggle with body image issues but also those with disabilities.
However, while body positivity was well-intended, it’s not a movement I follow. The reason is that somehow while encouraging people to love their bodies, the movement has made people hyper-fixated on their bodies. To love your body, you have to think about your body. To a lot of people thinking constantly about your body, even in a positive light, is detrimental.
Thus, instead of body positivity, I try to follow body neutrality.
Body neutrality is a fairly new movement that tells you to accept your body, for its capabilities and functions instead of for its appearance. The movement tells you that it’s fine to not love your body, appreciating it, and taking care of it is enough.
Unlike body positivity, body neutrality does not focus on how good our body looks. It focuses on being able to acknowledge the wonders our bodies do for us, without reducing it to only its physical aesthetic.
That’s what I try to do. But I appreciate my body for its capabilities and that’s why I try to stay healthy.