Why we can't stop body-shaming

Story highlights

  • In an image-conscious society, women are held to an impossible ideal
  • Criticism over weight turns into "fat-shaming," with destructive effects

(CNN)Showing a little flab? Enjoying the skin you're in?

Good luck to you.
    These days, any sign of body imperfection, particularly being overweight, will bring down the wrath of society -- that is, the Internet. In recent weeks, comedian Amy Schumer, actor Wentworth Miller and model Iskra Lawrence have all faced digital scrutiny of their bodies -- but whether you're a celebrity or not, you may find yourself the victim of image-shaming.
    Renee Engeln, a Northwestern psychology professor and the director of the university's Body and Media Lab, notes that our image-heavy (pardon the pun) culture has brought out the critic in everybody.
    We've always cared about appearance, particularly for women, she says, but technology has made the focus stronger than ever.
    "It's never been this intense, this relentless," she said. "There have never been so many forums in which you can gaze at different images of women, evaluate them, comment on them (and) share them with your friends."
    And it's not just celebrities anymore, she adds.
    "There used to be a class of people who had to worry all the time about how they looked, because it was their job," she said. "Now we don't really have a front line between those people and everyone else."

    'The F word'

    Our media culture loves thin.
    To look at movies, TV shows and photo spreads is to enter a world where there isn't an extra ounce to be found. Women show off impossibly sleek dresses and revealing bikinis; men wear slim-fit shirts and boast washboard abs. Reality shows make a virtue of weight loss; tabloids sneer at celebrities who have "let themselves go."
    Want that to be you? Diets and exercise programs promise a healthier, fitter life in mere weeks -- sometimes days.
    Nobody wants "love handles" or "bingo wings" or the dreaded "belly pooch."
    Indeed, "fat" is the word that dare not speak its name: Large women are "plus-size" or "Rubenesque" or "zaftig"; large men shop at the "big and tall" store.
    Author Jennifer Weiner called it "the F word," "this dreaded, stinging word."
    And yet thin wasn't always in, as fashion and branding expert Rachel Weingarten points out, noting the large bellies and hips of ancient fertility goddesses and the fleshy models of the Old Masters (including, of course, Peter Paul Rubens).
    "If you think about it in terms of history, the point was that people who had meat on them, that means they could afford food," she said. "That was a status symbol."
    Today, says Engeln, status has gone the other direction.
    "In countries that have a lot of stuff, it's not hard to gain weight. It's hard to stay thin. So being thin becomes a mark of status, because it means you can afford the gym or all that healthy organic food, and you live somewhere where it's safe to go out for a walk every night," she said. "So thinness has really become a marker of status, and when things are associated with status, we want them."
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    Tricks of technology

    And we don't want to be fat. The fat person is an easy target -- even for children.
    "Fat hatred has become so pervasive that it is part of the fabric of our language and interactions," Robyn Silverman, author of "Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It," said in 2012. "Fat and thin are no longer simply assessments of size or weight but rather of character. So you can imagine why adoption of these attitudes, diet talk and disordered behavior is happening earlier as well."
    All this comes as Americans are getting bigger. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult American woman weighs 166 pounds. That's up 25 pounds since 1960. (The average American man has gone from 166 to 196 in the same period.)
    "An awful lot of us hate fat people, and the fatter we become, paradoxically, the more we hate them (us)," Richard Conniff wrote in a Men's Health essay titled "I Hate Fat People."
    Though nasty comments about looks are associated with Internet trolls, it can also play with our own minds -- particularly adolescents, says Engeln. In a selfie-loving society, it's not unusual for people to take dozens of pictures of themselves before posting just one image, she says, all to get that key social currency of "likes" and "favorites."
    "There's a series of consequences to thinking of yourself always in how you look to other people, and that's what a lot of this intense media focus has done," she said. Eating disorders are one effect of this thinking, she observes, but not the only one: it may also lead to depression and anxiety.
    Don't expect it to get better. Technology, particularly Photoshop and CGI, can perform tricks that would make a Mannerist painter chartreuse with envy.
    "For the next generation of teenager, it's going to be hard not to hate yourself a lot more physically, because what we mirror to them is so godlike," director Nicolas Winding Refn told New York magazine recently, noting the prevalence of CGI body-tweaking in film. "If you look at the greatest movie stars, we identify much more with imperfection than perfection."
    Engeln, who's 40, sees it in her students.
    "I'm thankful every day that I did not grow up in the era of digital photography and social media," she said.

    Fighting back -- with empathy

    There are certainly good reasons to lose weight. Obesity brings with it a risk for health disorders including diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea.
    But nobody has ever had to be told that they're fat, says Engeln.
    "If you're commenting on a stranger's appearance, it's not because you care about health," she said. "You don't care about people's health by shaming them."
    So what can be done about the shaming trend?
    Some women are fighting back.
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    Sewing blogger Jenny Rushmore started a trending hashtag after a commenter told her to "eat less cake."
    And after YouTube comedian Nicole Arbour posted a routine mocking fat people, "My Big Fat Fabulous Life" star Whitney Way Thore responded with her own video.
    "Fat-shaming is a thing; it's a really big thing, no pun intended," Thore said. "It is the really nasty spawn of a larger parent problem called body-shaming, which I'm fairly certain everyone on the planet, especially women, has experienced.
    "The next time you see a fat person, you don't know whether that person has a medical condition that caused them to gain weight," Thore added. "You don't know their mother just died. You don't know if they're depressed or suicidal or if they just lost 100 pounds. You don't know."
    Indeed, though it's probably a kumbaya pipe dream, a little more empathy would probably do society a world of good -- especially in the age of selfies.
    "Why does anyone have to be 'other'?" asked Weingarten, the fashion expert. "As a culture and as a society, it will never go away fully, but ... we should try not to be judgmental."
    That's what actress Melissa McCarthy, who has known her share of criticism over her size, said about the most recent imbroglios.
    "We have to stop categorizing and judging women based on their bodies," McCarthy wrote in an Instagram post. "We are teaching young girls to strive for unattainable perfection instead of feeling healthy and happy in their own skin."
    Something worth considering, whatever your skin may hold.