By Shannon Sevigny / May 2020
I saw the picture that is circulating. The comments applauding her weight loss and tiny waist. The comments telling her she looks incredible. The comments congratulating her for essentially having shrunk herself, for looking different from before. Being stunning now. What a threat now. I froze. I was immediately consumed with feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing.
The soundtrack started playing in my head. Classics such as “You Aren’t Enough” and “You Are Disgusting.” Hits like “You Should Be Smaller” and “You Could Just Diet (You Could Be Worthy).”
And then, I felt hatred towards myself for feeling this way. The shame of my shame. Because I work very hard at body positivity and self-love. I normally do not think or feel this way about myself. It’s just hard when we live in a world of ever-present, unsolicited commentary about women’s appearances.
A quick search on Twitter brought up hundreds of articles, memes, podcast clips, and tweets about everything from opinions about her beauty “before or after” to those expressing a sense of betrayal by her weight loss. I’m not saying her name in this post because she should not be defined by this situation and she did not give us permission to use her as part of this debate. Or to talk about her appearance at all. I am referencing her only to provide context, and I am uncomfortable even with this. The irony is that we still need to have these larger conversations and debates to eventually stop having them. And debate did originate from the posting of her picture. But before I discuss that, I want to say that what has upset me the most is the commentary and debate in general. That we are focused on the appearance of someone. That we collectively feel entitled to comment on her appearance in any way.
I don’t want to sound like I’m moralizing, but someone’s body is not a social commentary and is not open for social commentary, speculation, or debate.
Someone’s physical decisions and changes are not spectator sports.
No one needs justify their own or someone else’s choices about their health, body, or appearance. What makeup we wear, how we dress our body, what surgery we have, what weight we gain or lose, is literally NOBODY’S BUSINESS.
So yes, I will say that I was triggered. Not by the picture, but by the commentary. Being triggered doesn’t represent my mental strength or where I am in my recovery; it’s not so black and white. It just means I was put in a head space that made me incredibly vulnerable. In this case, to disordered eating behaviour. I will share my experience another time, but I can say that I could write the textbook on low self-esteem and body image issues.
But isn’t it interesting how these things are pathologized this way, as “issues”? How “She has low self-esteem” is whispered judgmentally and condescendingly, as though it’s the definitive character flaw?
So, you get to be insecure about your insecurity. In my opinion, low self-esteem is not an individual pathology in so much as an inevitable response to an oppressive sociocultural environment that promotes impossible standards for us to live up to. The impact of this social conditioning is ultimately what the debate is all about.
The debate: One side is reminding everyone of the risks of praising and romanticizing weight loss. The risks of communicating a collective benchmark for acceptable and desirable body size or shape. The risks of strengthening associations between thinness, beauty, happiness, and worthiness. One major risk is how these messages contribute to the maintenance of diet culture and disordered eating attitudes/behaviours. The other side doesn’t quite see it this way. For one, they assume we are bitter and jealous. They say we are deluded in thinking we have the power to alter what are universal standards of attractiveness and fitness. (FYI, Joe Rogan: these worldwide standards don’t exist, but thanks for your input on women’s body image issues). They say the criticism of the praising is unfair and dramatic. They say that someone can and should be commended for making healthy life choices and achieving a goal. It’s not fatphobia, they claim, to applaud a “healthy” body. Some simply wonder how saying something positive about someone’s body could possibly conflict with the body positivity movement.
This is an incredibly multifaceted issue, and too complex for me comment thoroughly or remotely eloquently on. What I will say is the following:
No one is saying that “health” or “positive changes” cannot be celebrated. However, you cannot assume happiness or health from how someone looks.
The correlation between health and shape is largely arbitrary, and the comments are rarely about making healthy changes and goal achievement; they’re about size changes and appearance.
It is completely ignorant to deny how dangerous these congratulatory comments are towards those of us with disordered eating history. If you don’t understand this link, then please educate yourself. If you think “dangerous” is too strong of a word, or roll your eyes at someone being “triggered” by something like this, then consider yourself privileged. Your lack of experience with eating disorders or body image issues have given you a mental health advantage many of us do not have when we are exposed to this type of content.
This content is everywhere. It ranges from remarks about worry of “quarantine weight gain,” to congratulatory comments about weight changes, to praising of waist and butt shape, to promotions for weight loss products, to body shaming, to harassment about body size. The jokes about needing to be careful about eating too much pizza. The acclamations of “bravery” for someone just posting a picture of themselves in a bikini. We see it online, in Instagram comments, magazine articles, commercials. “Freshmen fifteen.” “Beach bodies.” “Baby weight.” “Is that a baby bump or…?”
Questions of weight loss or gain are the ultimate gossip. Weight loss is revered. Weight gain is frowned upon or “sympathized” with. As though this is a terrible plight.
Decisions about appearances are constantly openly questioned, criticized, or opined. And regardless of content of comments, the context of comments about our bodies/appearances heightens our awareness that we are constantly scrutinized and evaluated. We absorb this into our schemas of worthiness. Of what defines us. We even start to question our own agency in making decisions about our appearance: “Who am I really doing this for?” Is this really about health? Am I a disgrace to the body positivity movement because I do want to lose a bit of weight?”
I know that many people are irritated by the concept of being “triggered.” I’ve heard the argument that others shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells to accommodate those who have “issues.” In this scenario, the general sense I get is that we are taking it too personally. That it’s our fault for being triggered by the innocuous “encouraging” comments. Being triggered is now a character flaw. The onus is placed on us to be able to discern the messaging for ourselves and manage our reactivity.
No one is saying that an individual doesn’t need to learn how to respond to triggering situations. We’re quite aware of this. We work hard at this, more than you will know. Triggers are everywhere and our brains are constantly on alert and fatigued from this battle of responding versus reacting. Of challenging the default setting that eating disorder rationalizations come to be. We constantly try to justify what we see or hear from others. We put things into perspective. We know how to consider someone’s intent and their lack of knowledge or understanding of something. But this battle is harder at times and exhausting overall.
For me, it’s exhausting feeling that the onus for trigger management is all on us. Being told this is invalidating towards a struggle that does not occur in a vacuum.
Eating disorders are fueled by diet culture. By a culture that promotes that worthiness is inextricably linked to everything from appearance to discipline to achievement. We aren’t “pouting” that we are triggered. We are frustrated that the triggers that could be mitigated are not. That others don’t recognize how the responsibility for mental health exists also on a macro level. With this being Mental Health Awareness Week, I think it’s important that we continue to bring awareness to the sociocultural narratives that greatly contribute to our mental health and mental illnesses. Awareness is more than just increasing understanding of the prevalence and experience of mental illnesses; it’s also about highlighting major causal and perpetuating factors. My hope is that there can be a shift from sensitivity shaming to exposure empathy. Because what’s ultimately most triggering for me is knowing that triggers, and the gaslighting of these triggers, will always be there.