Hey, Maria here. I knew body shaming had affected me, hence why I invited Eva Glasrud – a psychologist and one of my favorite writers plus her friend Sam – to contribute on this issue, but it was surprising to me that this happened when I was about to do the final edits for this article:
I am currently 8 months pregnant. While I try to look like this most of the time, I’m not always successful.
While editing this article, literally while sitting on my desk typing on my computer, it just so happened that I noticed just how weird my belly button looked. It’s not that I had not noticed before but this time I really noticed.
Were stretch-marks making an appearance? Did this mean that even if I returned to my previous shape and size I’d never look the same again? How bad would it be? How bad could it get?
Now so far so good. This is a normal (and human) initial reaction to change. But this is where it gets weird:
I caught myself thinking, “If I return to my previous shape/size, but do have stretch marks, then I’ll appear more “real!” And people will like that.”
Having an momentary freak-out when you see something alarming is normal; thinking that even if that happens you’ll appear more “real” and feeling relief because of it is not.
So what, was I not “real” before? Did my belly need to be less flat to get the “real” effect? Did my belly need to have scars to become real?
The only reason I even thought about that was because of body shaming criticism I had received before – that my figure was “unrealistic,” that my belly was the result of good genes and completely discrediting my habits of exercising 5 days a week and eating right, that I should pretty much hide my flat belly because otherwise “I’m sending the wrong message,” etc.
This is what led me to momentarily feel relief for…possibly getting stretch marks.
So I’m not saying that to complain about how bad I had it but to highlight that fit shaming is a real thing. Whether you’re fit shamed because you’re a “bulky” woman, or “too muscular,” or don’t have “real curves,” “look like a man,” or “are too pretty and far from what real women look like,” it’s still body shaming.
This is also definitely not a competition between people who look fit or thin and heavier individuals. Fat-shaming is extremely prevalent and can be very damaging on those receiving it. Its negative consequences can be both diverse and extreme, and many people who are fat-shaming others (or even themselves) are completely oblivious to their bias (check out these popular weight loss quotes for fat-shaming examples.)
Enter Eva and her friend Sam who’ll go into fat-shaming, fit-shaming, and body-shaming in detail:
I was fit shamed, and it was incredibly uncomfortable.
“Hey, I just wanted to let you know that you can’t wear that here. You have to cover your upper arms when you’re in the gym.”
I exhale and lower my dumbbells, convinced I must have misunderstood.
The fitness center employee looks at me apologetically, and sheepishly explains, “You just… can’t wear tank tops here.”
“I’m not that sweaty – but I can wipe down the equipment.”
“It’s not that. We’re trying to create a comfortable environment, where people don’t feel intimidated or compare themselves to other individuals.”
I look around the gym. It’s 9pm, and the free weight area is basically empty.
“Sorry,” the attendant says, motioning towards the locker room. “You’re welcome to stay if you have another shirt to change into.”
A “comfortable environment,” huh? I didn’t feel very comfortable in that moment – it’s incredibly awkward to have someone interrupt your workout to criticize your clothing. I’d been in the zone. Now, I just felt self-conscious and embarrassed. Were people looking at me that whole time, thinking I was somehow trying to “show off”? Or is this just what it’s like to attend a liberal arts school?
We’ve all heard of fat shaming – and it’s horrible.
It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise intelligent, compassionate people seem to think obesity is a simple matter of, “Well, they should just exercise more and eat less.”
Yes, calories in vs. calories out plays a large role in determining one’s BMI. However, the more we learn about biology, the more complex we realize obesity is. Genome-wide association studies show that obesity is heritable; they’ve even identified clear evidence of the effect of genes on metabolic phenotypes.
Similarly, research also shows that epigenetics, or the effect your environment has on gene expression, plays a role in determining your BMI. One study found that the number of fat cells in our body is set by adolescence, and that fat cells are somewhat “immortal.”
In fact, a recent study even found that a virus called Adenovirus 36 can cause obesity.
Not to mention sociocultural factors, like “food deserts,” and the fact that cheaper food is usually more calorie-dense.
Obesity is clearly much more complicated than calories in vs. calories out.
That doesn’t stop the stigma that fat people face every day. The glares. The unsolicited advice. Concerned trolling (“Are you sure you want to order the burger? I’m just worried about your health.”). The automatic assumption that they are fat because they’re lazy, and if they could just learn to control themselves, they would all be size 2’s.
Let’s all agree right now that there is no good reason to treat fat people badly.
But… can we also agree not to be prejudiced against skinny people, either?
Fit shaming is still a form of body shaming.
Let’s go back to the story Sam shared in the beginning of this post. Can you imagine the liberal outcry that would have followed if a gym employee told an overweight patron to “cover up”?
Or, let’s talk about an experience Eva has on a regular basis.
Eva is a lot of things. She’s an experienced blogger and content marketer, with a graduate degree in psychology from Stanford. She’s spent years studying adult playfulness – including dating, social skills, and leisure skill development. And she’s a world traveler; in the last five years, she’s spent ten months traveling through South America and Southeast Asia – alone.
Despite her qualifications, Eva’s articles on The Happy Talent are often dismissed by other women. Not because they have a fundamental disagreement, or because they’ve read conflicting research.
But because Eva is “conventionally pretty”.
Apparently, Eva’s education, background and experience don’t matter, because she benefits from the “beauty bias” and has “thin privilege.”
That’s a pretty crappy way to treat another woman, isn’t it? To just dismiss all of her ideas because of how she looks? Because there’s no way what’s in her head matters more than how much (or little) fat is on her stomach?
So, yes. Fat shaming is a huge problem… but fit shaming is real, too.
This isn’t to say that fit and fat people experience equal amounts of oppression. Only that it is problematic and contradictory to the mission of social justice to judge, censor, or dismiss someone because of their body type.
Now that we’ve stated the obvious, here are three more reasons we’re tired of fit shaming.
1. Not everyone who is “skinny” wants to be skinny.
Not everyone who is “fit” is healthy, just like not everyone who is “skinny” necessarily wants to be skinny. According to the National Association of Anorexia Disorders, 1.5% of women suffer from bulimia nervosa in their lifetime. 0.9% of women suffer from anorexia. At least 30 million people of all ages, races, and genders in the US suffer from some kind of eating disorder, and every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a result of their eating disorder.
Not to mention the fact that 33-50% of anorexia patients have a comorbid mood disorder, such as depression.
Likewise, orthorexia is on the rise. Orthorexia is an eating disorder classified by an obsession with healthy living and eating. It’s counterintuitive that this could be considered a “disorder” – but imagine not being able to get through a meeting without worrying about your diet. The overwhelming guilt, shame, and anxiety people who suffer from this condition feel isn’t dissimilar from what other disordered eating patients feel.
So, fit shaming someone you don’t even know could very well be ableist – it is still discrimination based on appearance. You could very well be contributing to the shame and isolation a distressed person already feels with your glares, comments, and judgments.
Don’t forget: you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life.
2. Fit shaming is just another form of bullying.
We learned in grade school that bullying is wrong. We learned that is is wrong to bring other people down instead of lifting yourself up. People are extremely sensitive to social rejection (it’s an evolution thing that has been well-documented in psychology), and shaming anyone for their body type is hurtful.
Eva recently recalled a conversation between several women about what it’s like to be fat. One overweight woman commented that, whenever she goes out to eat, people raise eyebrows and object to her food choices if she orders anything but the salad.
Another woman, who, along with everyone else in her family, is naturally underweight, interjected:
“The same thing is true for me. But opposite. When I go out with friends, I never order the salad, even if that’s all I want. I still order a full meal, even if I just had lunch two hours ago, because I know someone will make a comment. ‘Is that all you’re having?’ ‘You really need to learn to live a little.’ ‘That’s unhealthy.’ These are all things I hear on a regular basis.”
And, the woman continued, when she feels ravenously hungry and orders a large meal, she has to be careful not to go to the bathroom after. “I see the looks they give each other. They think I’m puking.”
Which, again, is a really ableist thing to judge someone, especially if it is not true.
Let’s revisit Sam’s story at the beginning of this post. When Sam was confronted about “exposing” his upper arms (his upper arms! How ridiculous is that?!), it tore him down. He’d been “in the zone,” focused on his health and his breath. He’d been present and focused, until someone yanked him out of it and instead, made him feel ashamed and judged for no good reason.
This wasn’t the only time Sam had been fit shamed, either.
Another day Sam was at the same gym playing basketball. He was playing hard and was, naturally, extremely sweaty. He decided he wanted to lift in the gym after his game. His shirt was drenched, but he thought it would be okay to work a few sets in the gym without the gross feeling of a cold, wet shirt to detract from his experience.
Yet, once again, he was made to feel ashamed. Sam was soon confronted by a gym employee who said, for the sake of the other gym patrons, Sam had to put his sweaty shirt back on. Of course, Sam obliged but then had to put up with a nasty sweat rash and he left wet spots on all the equipment he used. All of this due to the off chance that his upper arms or exposed skin might offend someone.
This is madness. And it’s bullying.
People should be able to wear what they’re comfortable in at the gym. No one should be forced or bullied into a gym burqa – especially considering that wearing smaller, shorter, and tighter clothing can help us keep track of our form.
This is true for general exercise (yoga, lifting, dance, etc.) but it’s especially true for physical therapy and rehab. The authors of this post met playing basketball, but they bonded over the fact that the’d both had shoulder surgery. Afterwards, they both endured months of physical therapy.
During physical therapy, good form is crucial to a healthy and speedy recovery. Patients need to be able to watch their form, to make sure their shoulders are moving correctly.
This was especially tricky for Eva and Sam because they weren’t working on large muscle groups. They were working on super tiny, specific ones around the shoulder, including the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and serratus anterior and posterior.
Careful and correct rehab required watching their movements closely – with either sleeveless or no shirts on. Beyond self-monitoring, it would be difficult for someone to correct their form during physical therapy if they wore big, baggy clothes. They needed not only to be seen by their therapist, but also corrected through touch and have the appropriate muscles engaging in any shoulder movements.
For context: it took three months before Sam felt comfortable even grabbing food from the microwave above his stove, and another two more before he could do downward dog in yoga. Tiny, everyday tasks made him cry sometimes with his inability to perform them. Both Eva and Sam eventually redeveloped fully-functioning shoulders and got back to their activities that kept them fit and healthy… but it was a long journey.
This is a long-winded way of saying, again, that you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Before you assume someone is vain or showing off, remind yourself of this. You’ll be a happier person for it.
3. No one owns body positivity – You have a right to feel it just like we do.
The authors of this post love their bodies, and there is nothing wrong with that! In fact, here are some obnoxious gym selfies we took last week, just because we were stoked about ourselves:
Even though, as Eva wrote on her blog recently, there is no proven benefit to having self-esteem, there is a correlation between happiness and self-esteem. Scientists don’t know if happiness causes self-esteem, if self-esteem causes happiness, or some third factor causes both.
All we know is that it feels good to be body positive, and it’s hard to imagine our lives without it.
You can get pissy… or you can be happy for us. We can only speak for ourselves – but it fills us with joy to see our friends and acquaintances feeling confident and strong.
Then again, if my body or my self-esteem affects you negatively, maybe the problem is you.
To us, body positivity doesn’t just mean we love the way we look. It means we love our bodies because they allow us to be alive, they allow us to live life to the fullest.
Another reason we love our bodies is because they didn’t just magically happen to us. Sure, it’s true that we have some advantages when it comes to health, such as educated parents and enough money – but we aren’t just automatically fit and healthy, we worked for it.
We see the term “thin privilege” as kind of a misnomer, because if you work for it, it’s not entirely a privilege. Outside of something rare like a myostatin deficiency, we all have the ability to gain muscle and lose fat on our bodies. Personal time, effort, and dedication spent on healthy living are all factors that weigh heavily on the appearance of your body; at the end of the day, it is on you to make the changes that are visible.
Beauty is only skin deep. But muscles are underneath skin.
The moral of the story is that fat shaming is horrible – but thin shaming is, too. We all have a right to be proud of who we are and what we’ve worked for, and bullies come in all shapes and sizes.
Let us know in the comments below, have you experienced a type of fit shaming before?
Bio: Eva Glasrud is a psychologist and blogger at TheHappyTalent.com. She enjoys surfing, rock climbing, and basketball, and spends her winters traveling.
Bio: Sam Ransohoff is a psychology student and lover of all things physical. He enjoys powerlifting, basketball, and mountain biking.