As the very unwelcome narrative of critiquing and commenting on others’ bodies seems to be growing in momentum again, columnist Michelle Elman lays bare the myriad of reasons why this conversation needs to be shut down, immediately
For a moment in time, I was actually getting a little hopeful about the reduction in body-shaming comments. It seemed like people had begun to understand ‘your body, your business’, and actually stopped comparing women in those awful ‘who wore it better’ segments. Those dreaded features like ‘circle of shame’, where women had their cellulite highlighted on the front pages of magazines, seemed to become a thing of the past, but, recently, it feels as though there has been a downward slide. Things appear to be going in a direction that makes me feel like all the progress that has been made in the name of body positivity is coming undone, whether it’s speculation and comments about Madonna’s plastic surgery, or Halle Berry being shamed for posing nude in her 50s.
You should never comment on anyone’s body. Ever. There are no exceptions. I would even argue that when you ‘compliment’ someone, you are in risky territory, however well-intentioned your words might feel. I remember I once had a friend who would ‘compliment’ me every time she saw me by saying “You’ve lost weight.” I had never lost weight, and it always made me feel awkward, because weight loss is very much associated with the periods in my life when I was hospitalised and bedridden.
A lot of these comments are under the guise of concern for someone’s health, but the reality is that another person’s health is none of your business and, most importantly, you can’t tell someone’s health from their appearance.
A key example of this can be when people lose weight because of illness, while some gain weight due to the medication they take. When I gave a talk for the Teenage Cancer Trust to an audience of 15 to 17-year-old children, the main concern that arose during the question and answer segment was that these children didn’t want to take their medication because it is well known that steroids can make people gain weight. If that doesn’t demonstrate that people’s concern around weight is not about health, then I don’t know what will.
All of this shame that comes from commenting or criticising another person’s physicality can cause the individual on the receiving end to become isolated, as they withdraw from society for fear of this judgment and ridicule. And here is the great irony: loneliness is believed to be a greater killer than obesity, with a study by Brigham Young University, in Utah, finding that social isolation can increase the chances of premature death by 50%. So, commenting on someone’s appearance, under the excuse of concern for their health, and the resulting shame, can lead them to pull away from society, and deepen the impact of isolation – to the detriment of their health.
With all this in mind, it’s so important to be aware that someone’s weight loss that you’re ‘complimenting’ could have occurred as a result of grief, depression, or illness. Likewise, you could be shaming someone for weight gain that may be due to pregnancy, medication, or eating disorder recovery.
Even if the change in appearance is a result of not taking care of their health, shaming them is not going to improve that health. And, I’m going to say something controversial, if they don’t want to take care of their health, it’s on them. They are allowed to deprioritise their health. They will either be content with health sitting lower in their values than, for example, family, friends, a social life, or even work, or they will learn from it and the consequences that might occur. But it is their choice.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why someone’s body is changing; their body is none of your business, and just because you notice a change in someone’s physicality doesn’t mean you have to comment on it. They will be more conscious and aware of the change than you, and you don’t need to notify them of it. Ultimately, keeping your opinions about someone’s appearance to yourself is a good boundary. Your opinion isn’t being asked, and therefore to offer it assumes you know better about the person than they do.
Ariana Grande said it best when she defended her own body earlier this year: “You don’t know what someone is going through.” Stop assuming you know someone’s life by what they look like, and stop assuming everyone wants to look the same. How you look is the least important thing about you. We must be able to find a more interesting topic than someone’s body.
Love, Michelle x
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