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The GOOD Dictionary: What Does “Body-Shaming” Really Mean?

A trendy term that may actually fuel our obsession with image

This week, we kick off an online series, “GOOD Dictionary,” where we take an in-depth look at the words and phrases that become part of the conscious person’s vernacular. This week’s phrase: Body shame.

Body Shame: /?bäd?/ /SH?m/ noun

  • inappropriate negative statements and attitudes toward another person's weight or size.

Hardly a day goes by in the world without someone being “body-shamed,” or “shutting down” and “slamming” body-shamers. On Monday, the story of the day, published by Refinery29, was about a fitness instructor named Liz Krueger. Krueger had posted a photo of herself wearing a tight minidress to Instagram detailing an experience she had while at a friend’s wedding. “If only I knew that choosing this dress for a wedding on a 90 degree day meant so many women would be outrightly rude to me, and even come up behind me slap my ass as I'm standing alone,” she said. She then wrote that she was starting a women’s movement called #KruegerKindness. Refinery29 called it “An Inspiring Response To Being Body-Shamed At A Wedding.”

The problem is… What Krueger experienced wasn’t body-shame. It was harassment. She wasn’t being shamed for or about her body. Her body was being violated and objectified in a physical way. There’s no denying, either, that Krueger occupies a slim body, the kind of body we see well-represented in most mainstream media.

It’s notable that Refinery29 chose to categorize what Krueger faced as “body shame”—it’s not a phrase that Krueger herself uses in her Instagram posts. In recent years, “body-shaming” has become a popular subject for internet news headlines. Body-shaming is so clickable, it earns its own hashtag on some news sites. Body-shaming happens to celebrities. It happens to pregnant people. If you have a body that is not thin, or white, or able, you are particularly susceptible. We live in a culture that privileges beauty, and often a specific type of beauty embodied by white women.

The anatomy of a body-shaming story goes something like this: a person—usually a woman—is derided, or criticized, or otherwise made to feel shame about her body. Often the target is being singled out for occupying a body that is not thin. That person makes a social media post “calling out” their body-shamers, taking an admirable stand against bullying. If this person is a celebrity, they might do an interview about it, or release some kind of defiant statement.

Google Trends analysis of “body-shaming”

Look at the links that populate this Google Search: body-shaming is not so much a fresh cultural phenomenon as it is a media phenomenon (GOOD often covers body-shaming stories. This writer has written one or two. We also wrote a post about Krueger, though we described the incident as bullying). A Google Trends analysis says the phrase began to gain currency in 2012—with a spike in October. That was the month that local TV news anchor Jennifer Livingston went on air to publicly respond to a letter from a viewer who castigated her for her “physical condition”. Video of her retort received attention from national news outlets. That was also the same month that Plus Model magazine released it’s “Love Your Body” issue. “Body-shaming is present in our lives,” said editor-in-chief Madeline Jones, “…We see bigger women being put down for being too big but we also see men and women body-shaming smaller models for being too small.”

Google Trends reveals that online interest in “body-shaming” nearly doubled in 2014, and peaked in October 2015—that month, Ronda Rousey, Vin Diesel, Selena Gomez, Khloe Kardashian and British girl band Little Mix all made headlines for being victims to body-shaming. Even the irreverent cartoon show South Park addressed the issue in an episode about “safe spaces” in an episode that aired that same October.

“Body-shaming” as a cause is a pretty honorable one. There is no moral ambiguity here. As a society, we’ve come to collectively agree, at least in public discourse, that body-shaming is an incontrovertible sin. No one should feel bad about their bodies! And yet body-shaming, in some way, happens to everybody. If you have a body of any kind, you have probably been conditioned to feel some kind of shame about it. That’s why it’s so easy to get behind. It’s a cause that implicates no one but the body-shamer. The rest of society is off the hook. This explains why it’s become the cause du jour of any celebrity who wants to drum up a little goodwill, or free PR. It’s a cause that will offend no one but terrible people.

But the recent focus on body-shaming represents a more troubling trend of the ways in which feminist principles are sublimated into more palatable forms of popular discourse, and made toothless through their depoliticization. As the concept of “body shame” is expanded to include everything that happens to every person’s body, it becomes meaningless (See, also: Jia Tolentino on bullying).

Worse, it elides context: that certain people are made to feel a specific kind of shame for their specific kinds of bodies. That fat bodies, and disabled bodies, and trans bodies, and brown and black bodies are stigmatized and objectified at greater magnitude than thin white bodies. That certain bodies are inscribed with a kind of deviance that rouses hatred or malice. That certain kinds of bodies face a fatal kind of violence if they don’t blend in well enough in a crowd. When we center “body shame” as an issue, beauty is the right we’re fighting for. And other political priorities fall by the wayside: for example, the fact that many people don’t even have reproductive control over their own bodies. Or the fact that the state inflicts violence on the bodies of vulnerable people, including those who are incarcerated or living in marginalized communities. A focus on body shame only fuels our obsession with image, and ignores the fact that many people are unable to even ensure the physical safety of their bodies.

And that’s what’s missing here: What happened to Krueger was bad. But “kindness” doesn’t work as a political project. What we need is systemic change, and for that we have to be specific, and deliberate, about the words we choose and the violations we choose to name.

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