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Fat Talk, Body Shaming, and Other Forms of “Self-Bullying"

26 Oct

I'm honored to guest blog for Belleruth while she travels this week. It is National Bullying Prevention Month, and for this column I decided to talk about extremely common forms of "self-bullying" – "fat talk" and body shaming. Both of these are unfortunately common and at odds with the expectation that we should treat everyone – ourselves included - with respect, compassion, and kindness.

As a woman, I'm struck by how often we criticize ourselves for being "too much of this" and "not enough of that." It is so ingrained for us to feel we must not take up too much space – literally or metaphorically. We criticize ourselves for the normal, largely unavoidable effects of aging, or for having bodies that differ from the airbrushed images we see in the media. We find fault with ourselves even despite objective information to the contrary.

Furthermore, a recent study found that both men and women view women's tendency to talk negatively about their bodies as "normal," although certainly this is not a standard to which we should aspire. Men also experience self-criticism and body insecurity, although they are less likely to discuss these feelings openly.

Some things we know from the body image research are:

  • Engaging in "fat talk" and other types of body shaming leads others to do the same
  • Fat talk is associated with increased feelings of body dissatisfaction and guilt
  • As many as 93% of young adult women reported engaging in fat talk with at least moderate frequency
  • Those with an eating disorder or body image issue engage in fat talk even more often
  • Fat talk has been linked to greater investment in one's appearance, increased depression and feelings of pressure to be thin, increased preoccupation with weight, distorted body image, disordered eating behaviors, and lower self-esteem
  • Fat talk is typically unrelated to one's actual size or weight

In contrast, self-accepting body talk has been linked to greater body satisfaction and self-esteem, and decreased likelihood of body image distortion.

So, why do we engage in fat talk and body shaming at all? The data suggest that doing so with a friend increases feelings of closeness and can reduce feelings of being alone in one's body dissatisfaction; however, it also predicts more anxiety and depression at the end of the day and over the course of six months.

As a clinical hypnotherapist, I would say that constant fault-finding with oneself cements an idea that we are not good enough, or "worse-than" – in effect, reinforcing a "trance of unworthiness." And it happens regardless of whether our negative self-evaluations have any objective validity.

Finally, putting all of our proverbial eggs in the basket of our appearance necessarily takes away from appreciating our other important and enduring qualities, including creativity, intelligence, spirituality, the ability to be good friends, partners, parents and siblings, the contributions we make for the greater good, and so forth.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking care of one's appearance; the danger lies in defining ourselves by something so subjective, ever-changing, and to some extent, beyond our control.

So, what is the remedy for "self-bullying?" Practicing self-compassion via loving kindness and other types of meditation can reduce body dissatisfaction and shame, and free us from defining our self-worth based on appearance. Self-compassion is also linked to greater happiness, emotional intelligence, and optimism, and decreased rumination, perfectionism, and fear of failure.

Loving kindness and mindfulness have other benefits as well, and can be easily paired with imagery and hypnosis. With practice, we can change the trance of unworthiness and self-criticism, remember our strengths, and experience gratitude for our bodies – our most steadfast allies.

So, this October, as we become more aware of the harmful effects of bullying, please do allow yourself space to be yourself, embrace who you are – even if there are things you are working on (and aren't we all?), and affirm what is wonderful, special, and unique to you just as you are in this very moment.

Be well!

Traci Stein

Traci Stein, PhD, MPH, is a practicing psychotherapist and Columbia-trained
clinical psychologist, ASCH-certified in clinical hypnotherapy. She has combined integrative therapies, including hypnosis, with conventional medical and psychotherapy practice. Her passionate commitment to mind-body healing has spanned two decades.