I recently read a moving public plea from a well-known Irish woman. She asked people on social media to keep all opinions about her body to themselves. If I understood correctly, this was not just an attempt to limit derogatory comments made about his body; despite being a woman who inhabits a body, I imagine she suffered such negative comments throughout her life.
She was also talking about, as far as I know, the so-called compliments people might feel pressured to give about her body. She was saying, in short, “please don’t talk to me about my body”. She was saying what I used to teach my kids to say if something was going on that they weren’t comfortable with: “Stop it, I don’t like it.”
As someone with a body who has drawn comments from complete strangers and sometimes well-meaning friends my entire life, I had a deep understanding of his advocacy.
At 13 and for many years after, I didn’t know what to call verbal abuse, but nowadays we have a word for it: bodyshaming.
I will not name the woman because I would not respect her wish to have her body removed as a subject of comment or conversation. I will therefore relate, instead, an experience I had in a branch of a well-known convenience store last week.
I had made my purchase and stood in an aisle engrossed in the social media app on my phone. Further up the aisle, a man walking towards me with a box of pizza in his hand said in a loud, disgusted voice, as if addressing himself and everyone in the store: “Now I just have to try to pass this really big woman”.
This kind of thing has happened to me many times in my life since I was about 13 years old. By this kind of thing, I mean people – usually men or boys – informing me in various ways that they disapprove of my body shape. . This includes, but is not limited to, being yelled at “fat bitch” as I happily pedaled along the road one morning, only to be addressed to Dear Fatty in a memorable email from a reader of the Irish Times.
It is mainly men and boys who are responsible for the random, daily verbal abuse, while I have found that it is mainly women who will congratulate you on being pregnant, unable to understand that a woman could be a form different from them for any other reason other than she’s carrying a baby that’s coming soon.
At 13 and for many years after, I confess that I sometimes thought I deserved to be abused. It was my fault, I thought, for eating too many crisps and inhabiting the wrong body type.
But I’m a 50-year-old grown woman now. I know now that I don’t deserve it. I don’t believe that my body (or your body), whether bigger or smaller or anything in between, is anyone else’s business. Also at 13 and for many years after, I didn’t know what to call verbal abuse, but nowadays we have a word for it: bodyshaming.
You’re doing your thing as a human but all of a sudden you’re shrunk down to your body size, no longer a human
And yet, no matter how much I’ve evolved, no matter how many new words are coined, those moments still sting. I know objectively, factually, that I’m fat or overweight or fatter or whatever it is that you yourself have, but when your body shape is used as a weapon to shame you, the words always land like a dehumanizing shock to the system.
You’re doing your business as a human but all of a sudden you’re shrunk down to your body size, no longer a human, just a buildup of fat cells that someone you’ve never met in your life wants attack.
This is to explain that I was in pain as I stood in the aisle of the convenience store. Hurt like you would if a random stranger came and slapped you.
As he passed me – there was, despite his fake concern, plenty of room for him to pass – I asked him, “Why did you tell me that?” He looked me up and down and with a scathing look said, “Because you are, you’re very, very fat.”
I said something then that I now regret. I said, “Well, you’re very, very ugly but I wouldn’t tell you that because it’s mean.” It was a lame response. I had fallen to his level and he hadn’t even bothered to turn around to answer. He and his pizza went down the aisle.
I then had to meet someone for the job. And after that I had to meet someone else for a drink. So I put my feelings in a box and didn’t think or talk about them for three hours. When I went out to unlock my bike, it was dark. I was a little tipsy. My feelings were bursting out of the box.
Hurt people will continue to body shame and shame and use our body as a weapon against us
I saw a man approaching and decided it was the man from the store. He was the same age and the same build, he had the same gray hair.
“Did you just call me fat in the store?” I asked the confused-looking man. Now that he was next to me, I could see he was a completely different man. I stood there, cold and emotional, explaining to the man what had happened.
Maybe this man was friends with the Dalai Lama, because without wasting time he told me that what the man said in the shop had nothing to do with me. That it was something the man was going through, the pain he was carrying.
“I’m sorry this happened, but it’s not about you,” he repeated. “Now watch yourself.”
Hurt people hurt, as a friend of mine always says. Hurt people will continue to shame the body and shame and use our body as a weapon against us. There’s nothing I can say to them – “stop it, I don’t like it” – that will prevent that from happening.
People who do are not interested in our polite requests on social media or in newspaper columns. They don’t want to hear from us. Maybe they can’t.
All I can do is understand, deep inside, that their opinions, judgment, ignorance and hurt have nothing to do with me.
This knowledge will not prevent the words from stinging. But it gives me the freedom, when I’ve dried my tears, to put the pain firmly in its place. With them.