Apparently, none of us really look good. We are all either too fat or too thin; our hair and skin are not of the right colour or texture; or some part of our body is not of the right shape, or size. If only that one aspect were different, if only…
WHAT IS BODY SHAMING?
In its broadest sense body shaming is, either overt or covert, criticism of deviance from an accepted body norm. This body norm attempts to codify how the body should be presented and represented if it needs to be perceived in certain ways – as beautiful, or as ugly, or funny, mysterious, etc. In its most simplistic and hyper-analysed form, one can think of a body norm as a two-dimensional table where body features or traits point to certain “meanings.” This is how “tall, dark, and handsome” means a desirable lover in romantic pulp fiction or in sitcoms, a short, bald, or fat guy has come to mean a shallow loser who provides comic relief.
WHY DO WE DO IT?
We have always been body shamers. We are social beings and there is an awareness of (consciously or unconsciously) agreed-upon norms. We show our conformity to the tribe by reiterating and reaffirming these norms. One way this happens is through the choices we make about presenting our bodies (including but not limited to body shaping, styling and even colours). However, sometimes we pledge allegiance by interpreting and then communicating value judgements (“I don’t think you should shave your moustache; it makes you look womanly” or “look at how high she wears those trousers”). In saying something positive, we may by accident, be body shaming.
WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
The body norm is neither universal (apparently, women with tiny feet used to be quite the thing in China) nor timeless (think of the robust beauties of renaissance art). It survives and is replenished through its agents – us. One way to fight body shaming, especially its more pernicious effects, is to offer a genuine counter discourse – one that stops short of a too lazy normalisation, one that is more inclusive and diverse in its representations, and one that not only accepts but also celebrates pluralism through its language. We have the agency and herein lies hope.
Written by Anshuman Manur, Teacher of English, British Council – Chennai