When it comes to judgment of their bodies, women can’t win.
“Research consistently shows the pressure to maintain a particular physique is stronger for women,” said Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Brownell, an expert in weight bias, says women are valued more for their appearance, and there is less acceptance of variation in body shape and size.
People often make fat jokes, but shaming of obesity is no joke. “People who experience weight discrimination have more daily stressors, physical symptoms and negative emotions,” according to a 2016 study published in Obesity.
There is ample research revealing the negative effects of fat shaming, but what about so-called “fit shaming”? Seeing how fitness is mostly lauded, it’s absurd to say fit shaming is somehow worse. Yet it’s worth examining to reveal how women constantly have their bodies policed by society, no matter their size or shape.
I spoke to three women who were shamed for being fat, and then, after losing weight and getting in shape, shamed in a different way for being fit.
Sarah Moore is a 29-year-old mother of three in Fort Wayne, Ind. Formerly a stay-at-home mom, she became a personal trainer after losing more than 100 pounds. She remembers the fat-shaming she endured before her weight loss.
“People I knew would say, ‘You have such a pretty face’ as a backhanded compliment,” Moore said. “Another time, at the beach, I wore a bikini, and I heard some teenage boys call me ‘disgusting.’” She talked about another time at an amusement park waiting to get on a roller coaster. People behind her were complaining about the wait, and the attendant told them within her earshot: “Don’t worry. She’s not going to fit on here, and you’ll be next.”
Family members would often say, “Are you sure you want another helping?” After losing weight, Moore said people commented on her body even more.
“When you’re in shape, people feel like it’s OK to say something,” she said. “Now I get comments like, ‘Are you sure you can eat that?’ because they’re worried I’ll regain the weight.” Some think she should only eat salad to stay lean. On her Instagram posts, many have said variations of “Muscles are for men.”
Friends have said of her new physique, “Aren’t you taking this a little far?” She also experienced criticism over her gym time with comments like, “Shouldn’t you be home taking care of your children?”
How does it make her feel?
“I feel like I take the fit shaming more personally because it’s a result of my choices; I worked really hard for it. Getting fat wasn’t something I did on purpose.” Overall, however, “fat shaming made me feel sad and helpless, and fit shaming makes me angry.”
The story is similar for Julie Stubblefield of Mechanicsville, Va., a mother of two who lost 70 pounds. She said friends began making her eating habits their business.
“I would be at lunch with friends who were thinner than I am, and they’d suggest I eat a salad instead of a burger,” Stubblefield said. “Or they’d say, ‘Do you know how many calories you just ate?’ Which is funny, because I thought about it every day.”
Julie Stubblefield, 42, of Mechanicsville, Va., is a mother of two who lost 70 pounds. She said friends began making her eating habits their business. Stubblefield said their concern was really a mask for wanting her to live by their standards. “This subtle shaming was more painful for me because it was constant. It made me feel less than.” She stopped going to social outings because she didn’t want everything she put in her mouth policed.
The shaming didn’t stop after she lost weight.
“The irony is that everyone still watched what I put in my mouth,” Stubblefield said. “I was reminded that desserts exist. I was asked if I had an eating disorder.” Some doubted whether she could keep the weight off, but she’s kept it off for six years.
“I became thinner and fitter than those who passed judgment on me, and it became, ‘She’s too good for us now that she’s lost so much weight,’” Stubblefield said.
Brownell explained that changes in body weight can disrupt relationships. “It can upset the balance. People can get jealous,” he said, adding that people who lose weight can experience personality changes, such as an increase in confidence, which also affects relationships.
Julie said her friends were worried that she would judge their eating habits, the same way they’d judged her. “It was a weird shift where I felt I can’t make anyone happy.”
She said that with fit shaming, she at least has her health now, which makes it less painful than fat shaming was.
Fit shaming has been harder to handle for Andrea Sereda, a 38-year-old social worker and mother of four in Calgary, Canada. She said judgment of her body is something she’s faced since she was really young.
“I was 6 years old when I became aware people had opinions about my body,” Sereda said. She was overweight as a child and remembers being told to suck in her belly for a photo. When she was 9, there was a family celebration, and the grandchildren were going to have cake. “My grandfather said, ‘I don’t think you should be eating cake. You don’t need any cake.’” He made comments about how many calories each bite contained as she ate it.
Andrea Sereda, 38, is a social worker and mother of four in Calgary, Canada. She said judgment of her body is something she’s faced since she was really young. Sereda recounted a fat-shaming incident in college, when she was cast in a show and the costume designer was fitting her. “I was just in my underwear and feeling vulnerable. After everyone left, he grabbed my abdomen in both hands and said, ‘You need to do something about this. You have a lot of talent, but if you keep doing this to yourself, no one is going to want to cast you.’”
The judgment of Sereda’s body increased after she lost 126 pounds.
“It’s worse with people that knew me from before,” Sereda said. “I’m fielding multiple comments each day.” People constantly call her “Skinny Minnie” or say, “You’re so skinny now you’re going to disappear,” or even show hostility: “We get it. You’re skinny. You can stop now.” Another is: “You have no boobs left!” She also got the warnings when she began lifting weights. “You don’t want to get too muscly.”
It was mostly acquaintances making such comments. Closer friends, conversely, engaged in self-deprecation, comparing their own bodies negatively to Sereda’s new physique.
Because of the frequent discussion of her new body, she sought advice from a psychologist. “I was dreading going out to social settings and having to field all these comments,” Sereda said. “I had to learn how to handle it.” It’s only been two years since she lost the weight, and she said the comments add to the pressure to not regain.
Understand that just because people have lost weight, it doesn’t make them fair game for commentary on their new shape. Everyone deserves to live free of being body shamed, regardless of size.