Whatever we used to say to our bullies about rubber and glue, the truth is, words can hurt, and they can stick with us for a really, really long time: especially those that make us feel bad about our appearance. According to a recent survey of 1,000 Refinery29 readers, more than half of us were shamed for our bodies by age 14. And those early weight-related comments can have profound, long-lasting effects, experts say: Even critiques that seem inconsequential or come from a "good place" can do damage that stays with us for decades.
"We live in a society that is structured to privilege and elevate thinner bodies over heavier ones," says Jeffrey Hunger, PhD, a researcher who specialises in the health effects of stigma at UCLA. "When someone is living in this anti-fat society and told that they’re fat, of course there are going to be long-term consequences — what they’re hearing is that they're going to be marginalised, looked down on, and discriminated against simply because of their body."
Hearing these critiques at an early age is especially intense. "For people entering adolescence who are just figuring out who they are, comments about appearance can be particularly influential," says David Frederick, PhD, an assistant professor of health psychology at Chapman University. "We care because we know that how we're viewed can have a big impact on our lives."
One factor that can make body-shaming more significant is who it's coming from, Dr. Hunger says. In particular, research suggests that negative comments from close friends or family members — a common occurrence, our survey responses indicate — tend to be much more impactful than those from strangers (although those are no good, either). That's because, under normal circumstances, your family is supposed to be the people you can turn to at any time for social support. "But if those are the people telling you that you could 'stand to lose a few pounds,' you're not only losing a source of social support, you're also getting these negative experiences," Dr. Hunger says. "It's a double whammy."
So is there anything we can do to help the young people in our lives have better relationships with their bodies? Absolutely — and it starts with modelling our own healthy attitudes towards our bodies. "As parents or people interacting with children, if we ourselves can get to a place where we’re comfortable in our own skin, we show kids that is possible," Dr. Hunger says.
On top of that, we can do our best to leave weight out of health-related discussions. "We can talk about eating well, staying active, and getting good sleep and not once do we have to mention the word 'weight,'" Dr. Hunger says. Part of that is also focusing on the way our bodies feel and what they do rather than the way they look, Dr. Frederick adds. For instance, checking in with your strength, agility, or stamina rather than routinely monitoring how you look to the outside world can help foster a healthy satisfaction with our bodies.