Posts Tagged ‘body shaming’

How It Feels To Be Told You Look Small

[TW: Body Shaming]

Friday night my boyfriend and I went out to BBQ with two couples we love to go out with. One of the women complimented me on my dress when I sat down, and then told me I “look small.” My immediate reaction was a smile, but I didn’t really know what to say back, so I just said, “Thanks, I guess.”

I didn’t really know what to say because there was so much analysis happening in my brain all at once. First and foremost, I took her words as a compliment. There is no doubt in my mind that’s what they were intended to be, and she meant well. She meant I look good. And then I thought about how, in that context, small was synonymous with good; you look small meant you look good. The last thought I had before blurting out a half thank you was why is ‘you look small’ a compliment?

I want to look at the detonated definition of small. Google tells me the adjective form of small means “of a size that is less than normal or usual; little.” One of the synonyms for the adjective form listed is thin. So in that exchange, my friend was not only telling me that I look thin (good/small), but also that I look less than usual. What does this compliment mean to women? To be told you look small is, for one second, to feel thin.

Do you remember that old, awful saying propagated by Kate Moss in the 90s, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels?”  What does “feeling thin” really mean? In the context of my story, it means receiving a positive compliment on my body for the first time in a long time. It means, for one second, feeling unashamed about what I was going to eat. Whether or not you are thin by society’s standards, it is how you perceive your body, and how you think others perceive your body, that fills you with shame or confidence. If you see yourself as big—big taking on the negative societal connotations here—it doesn’t matter what you weigh or what size you wear. And because big is seen as bad/unhealthy/wrong, women hurt themselves just to hear those words You look thin; you look small.

I’ve always hated that small is a compliment for women. This is a great example of a gendered compliment. A gendered compliment is when someone gives you what is meant to be a compliment about your body, appearance, or behavior due to gender. In my case, being told I look small was a compliment precisely because I present as female. By society’s beauty standards, being told you look small puts you closer to the ideal.

Truly, I have a problem with any ideal. Having an ideal, whether it is gaunt frames or pear shapes, is dangerous because it asks people to be something other than themselves. It says bodies should be one way, and if they aren’t that way, they are worthless. Many people internalize these ideals and become ashamed of their bodies. For a lot of women, being told they look small is something they long to hear simply because of body ideals.

I don’t want small to be a compliment. I don’t want big to be an insult. These words in the context of our bodies are responsible for so much shame and bigotry. When we are not talking about bodies, these words have interchangeable positive and negative connotations. In that exchange with my friend, I felt the flicker of internalized body shame: I smiled. She told me I looked small and I smiled. And I smiled because, in relation to my body, I’ve been taught that small is good; small is feminine; small is desired; small is sexy; small is a compliment. But as Google showed us earlier, small is none of those things; it’s none of those things unless I define it that way.


Excuse me while I punch the screen

Yep, I’m watching Oprah again. And yep, her show is the catalyst for another post. I’m watching an episode where Oprah talks to Geneen Roth, author of the book “Women, Food and God”. Oh man, this episode has some hardcore mixed messages. As a disclaimer, I have not read this book, I’ve only perused excerpts on the web.

Look, Geneen Roth’s book is probably pretty accurate as to how a lot of people feel when they eat. Our society has attached moral value to food that I find truly bizarre. That it’s bad to eat cake, it’s good to eat vegetables, that kind of thing. And then when we eat the “bad” foods, we shame ourselves. When they read excerpts from the book, I fully agreed with it. Fat people (any people, actually) need to stop equating their self-worth with how much they weigh, and/or what foods they eat. Everyone needs to stop judging themselves as ugly, bad, or not the ideal.

It was actually a comment by Oprah that make me want to punch the TV. “Any time you better yourself, whether it’s losing weight, or getting a job or improving yourself in any way, and the people around you are not happy for that. It is their self loathing, it is their insecurity, it is their dislike and disrespect of themselves that they are reflecting out to you. It has nothing to do with you.”

I say this to you, Oprah. Any time you equate being thinner with improving oneself, you are perpetuating that same culture of self loathing, shame, and hatred over your appearance. It belittles the hard work people put into improving their self esteem. My appearance is not an indicator of my health or wellbeing and especially not my worth as a human being. We  need to stop beating ourselves up. We need to stop the shaming. This is completely irrespective of weight.

I don’t understand this episode. First they say that you should love and respect yourself, and look past all your “flaws” and see the real you. And then it’s all brought back to losing weight. How are you loving yourself as you are if you’re still trying to change the way you look?

So conflicted. Have you seen this episode? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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