Body Bullies

The tendency to attack appearances is especially dangerous for teens, whose bodies—and identities—are still developing.

Deni Mcntyre Will/Photo Researchers/Getty Images

Somehow it has become totally normal to nitpick how everyone (celebs, our BFFs, even ourselves) looks in swimsuits and selfies. Are you part of the body-shaming trend?

Mary Streech and her friends stood by the water fountain, talking casually as the lunchtime roar boomed around them. It was like any other day in seventh grade, Mary remembers, until someone pointed to a girl walking by and said, “She’s so chunky.”

As the others joined in, it became clear: “Chunky” was a crime. And this girl was guilty as charged.

At first, Mary felt relieved that they weren’t ragging on her, but by that night, the day’s events had given her a stomachache. “After that, I became hypersensitive,” she says. “If anybody looked at me too long, I’d assume they were sizing up my body.”

By high school, she says, “it was like being in a shark tank.” Snarky comments about people’s bodies were the norm, so Mary started to diet—she wrongly believed that watching her weight could shield her from their judgment. And sadly, by sophomore year, that diet had developed into a full-blown—and totally devastating—eating disorder.

Snark Attack

Now recovered, Mary is fighting to end that culture of hurtful comments—what she calls “bodysnarking.” And her timing couldn’t be better: As we spend more and more time critiquing each other’s selfies and reading blogs bashing celebs’ “beach bodies,” openly judging other people’s looks is becoming a national pastime of sorts.

In fact, many experts believe body-shaming others has become a way to cope with our own emotions. “Sometimes our natural response is to lash out at an easy target when we feel hurt or insecure,” says psychologist Robyn Silverman, author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat. “So if your friend gets attention from your crush, you might make a comment about her thighs.”

This tendency to attack appearances is especially dangerous for teens, whose bodies—and identities—are still developing. According to one study, 65 percent of eating disorders are linked to bullying. And another study showed that boys who don’t feel muscular enough are more likely to become depressed or take steroids.

Words Wound

Even if someone else’s insecurities are fueling the verbal fire, it’s hard to see it that way if you’re the one being criticized. Take Ariel, 16, a swimmer from Long Island in New York. After hearing “You don’t have the hips for that” every time she went shopping with friends, she became so ashamed of her thin frame that she refused to wear anything other than baggy sweats that hid her body. “The comments affected my thought process,” Ariel says. “Did I really dislike my body, or did I only dislike it because other people did? It was hard to tell.”

Boys often feel the same way, according to Aaron Blashill, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. Paul, a 15-year-old New Jersey high school freshman who plays football and lacrosse, says that he wishes he could vent about the comments he endures about being “scrawny.” “But if guys talk about it,” he says, “people think we’re soft, which only makes things worse.”

Instead, Paul bottles it up and hits the weight room, hoping to show his teammates who call him “dainty” that he’s not the “wimp” they say he is. He also drinks protein shakes and admits that he’s researched supplements he might take. “It’s become kind of an obsession,” he says.

 

No More Shame

Fortunately, there are much healthier ways to deal with body bullies. Silverman believes in the power of a good comeback—one that’s not rude and might even be a little bit funny. Or, she says, take the person aside one-on-one, when they’re less focused on impressing their friends. Say something like, “Dude, I know you think you’re being hilarious, but at this point, you’re not. So I’m asking you to stop.”

At the same time, it’s just as important to find ways to stop ourselves from being a part of the body-shaming cycle. Before impulsively tossing a verbal dart at someone’s body, ask yourself: Do I really want to hurt this person? And if I don’t, what feelings are really behind my criticizing how they look?

But the best news of all, says Blashill, is that our most effective defense against the culture of criticism is to not be our own body bullies. He has conducted studies showing that there’s a strong link between how we feel about our appearance and our overall happiness, despite whatever shape or size we happen to be. “It’s more important to change how you think about your body than to change what it looks like,” he says.

Mary Streech agrees wholeheartedly. After starting the Mary Streech Project to raise awareness about positive body image, she’s using her own shift in perspective to help others. “I think just talking about this openly is a huge change,” she says.

You too can be a part of that conversation. So use your voice to boost confidence—not tear it down.

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