If you have ever been overweight in the festive time, your Christmas lunch plate has probably been the target of shocked eyes and verbal missiles from a gogo or a tipsy rakgadi (paternal aunt).
It doesn’t really matter where they come from, when those insults land, they hurt.
Melissa Naik from Pretoria recounts an excruciating experience of body shaming she once had with a family member just before the festive season. The guilty party? A cousin. Her only “crime” was mustering up the courage to finally post a full-body picture on Facebook.
“A lot of it [body shaming] does not come from strangers, it comes from your loved ones, your friends, your family, friends, your colleagues,” she tells Health For Mzansi.
“That day I felt comfortable and confident enough to put it [the picture] out there for the world to see. And it was not a stranger or any other random troll on the internet, but someone whom I love who knocked my confidence to shreds. My cousin, who is younger than me, who is someone I admired and respected.”
Silent shaming is deafening
When you are overweight at a dinner or lunch table, a side of fat talk and diet talk usually go hand in hand with that second helping of potato salad you just could not resist. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, after all.
And while many do not intentionally fat shame, judging others based on their body size and shape is ingrained in our culture and society.
Thato Gaoboihi is a mother of two and a body positivity activist from the township of Galeshewe in Kimberley. While she loves who she is, it is the stares and glares, and the unsolicited medical advice from street “doctors” that will shake her confidence.
“We do not speak about silent shaming enough. That is the one that really kills you on the inside, where you need to gather more internal strength to keep walking with pride in any room you enter.”
The summer time is especially a difficult season for Naik to navigate. “You have nothing to hide under [when it comes to layered clothing], like you do in winter, and you feel more vulnerable in a sense. Body weight is not something you can hide like a drug addict.”
Impacts of body shaming
According to Pretoria clinical psychologist Lumka Mabo body shaming is “the criticism of another individual’s body size, making unkind remarks. Sometimes they are obvious. They may also be hidden in nuanced phrases that would be culturally accepted by society like, ‘Yho, Awsemhle mntase, kodwa utyebile [You are beautiful, but man you are fat.]”
Mabo tells Health For Mzansi, “It would be nice for people to genuinely be sensitive when making remarks or giving compliments.”
The psychologic effects of body shaming includes:
Low self-esteem: Self-image and self-worth decrease because of hurtful words.
Isolation: People who are constantly harassed about their weight will also be withdrawn. “They will be too scared to come to the table, others might even lie and say that they are not hungry because of how others may look at you. You tend to feel lonelier in that space and you cannot be yourself,” says Mabo.
Eating disorders: Some people will eat because they love the taste of food but eventually you find them in the bathroom trying to purge.
How to keep your chin up
Kindness begins at home with parents, Mabo believes. “When we raise our kids, praise those bumps, affirm them. Let them feel comfortable in their own skin. When you are raising boys, allow them to eat as much as they can, and as they grow older, ask them if they want muscles and teach them how to get those muscles. If they choose otherwise, there is nothing wrong with that.”
Adulthood is where it gets tricky though. “You are old enough to decide where you are lacking emotionally. Identify which parts of your emotions are moved by certain remarks and then work through those.”