Creating Awareness Around Different Forms of Body Shaming
Written by Fritz Nugent & Charissa Sutliff
We’re excited to write this blog. We want to openly talk about our body struggles and how comments made to us in the gym space impact us.
Some of our intentions for writing this article:
- Raise awareness that body struggles do not discriminate, they can impact anyone, and you never know who is struggling with them.
- Raise awareness of the comments or compliments you give people and how they might negatively impact people.
- Help start to normalize and change the narrative and conversation around body struggles.
- Help ourselves see more in others.
- Help you consider and start to change comments and compliments you give to people.
For those of us who have had any sort of struggle with our bodies, whether that be a negative body image, body dysmorphia, or eating disorders, we have likely been self conscious of our bodies our entire lives and have spent years trying to change our bodies to fit socially-defined and unrealistic standards of beauty, size and fitness. We are trying to force our bodies into something that according to our genetic blueprint and body set point that it doesn’t want to be, and with all those efforts of trying to force our bodies to fit a round peg into a square hole, we have injured ourselves physically, mentally, hormonally, emotionally, and even spiritually.
I (Charissa) spent years trying to make my body as small as possible, as lean as possible, which hurt me in many ways. I lost my menstrual cycle, and fitness and food were a way to control my body size and looks, not to take care of it. Having now healed my relationship with food and fitness, my body has changed. I will admit that gaining weight was terrifying, I was afraid that a bigger body meant that I wouldn’t be loved, accepted, or seen as a respectable coach. When my body changed, comments and compliments about my body followed. Here are some of the comments that I received. As you read this I would like for you to consider if you have ever said these to someone or how often you say similar comments to others:
- Have you been doing something different? Your arms look so jacked.
- What have you been doing? I want your butt.
- Wow you look so different since you started working here.
- Wow, your traps look amazing.
While all these comments or compliments were likely with “good intentions” they left me paralyzed not knowing what to say or how to respond. You may not have known, but these comments and or compliments hit me like a wave, and held me under spinning and swirling underwater for a while.
So as coaches and even as people in general, how do we respond in these circumstances? One of the reasons for writing this article is to open people’s eyes to how these seemingly innocent comments hurt people’s feelings and negatively impact them, even if well intentioned.
What is the correct approach here? Should I tell people not to make comments on my body? Should I tell people not to give me compliments about my body? Should I tell people that I’ve struggled with body challenges? Should I tell people they shouldn’t make comments about people’s bodies? Should I ask people why they are making comments on my body? Should I ask people what their intention is behind it? Should I say I focus on how I feel in my body and not what it looks like to shift the conversation?
I’m still working through how this should be done, and I believe that a great start is writing and sharing this blog with the intention of creating an open space and dialogue.
Want to know what else is triggering for some? Comments made about our food choices, like about how much we are eating, what we are eating.
So if you are reading this, I really encourage you from the most loving place to consider the things you say to people about their appearance, their body, their size. You might be joking. You might intend it as a compliment. However, intention does not quell impact. So from one human to another human, step into the shoes of others and really consider that these things you are saying might be more hurtful or harmful and certainly not helpful, even if well-intentioned to you.
When we are looking at people for how they look we are objectifying them, treating them as something to be looked at. This is dehumanizing. What I encourage you to do instead is:
- Notice if you tend to make these sorts of comments to people.
- Restrain yourself from making any comments to anyone about their body, beauty, or physical appearance.
- Start seeking to understand the people in your life for more than how they appear physically, more than their bodies.
- If you notice yourself objectifying them, stop, and instead begin to expand how and what you think of them as a person instead.
- Begin to train yourself to give people compliments on expanded views of their identity and humanity.
Charissa could say: “Fritz, every time I see you I am so encouraged by our interactions and conversations. You are so welcoming and open minded. I always leave with an enlightened view of something, encouraged to want to be better myself as a person and as a coach. I am thankful for your energy and who you are.”
Instead of commenting on something physical about Charissa, Fritz could say, “I learn valuable insights each time we interact and I truly enjoy your company. You seem content with who you are and I am inspired by your willingness to speak your truth on your own body image and your religion.”
Here’s some of my (coach Fritz’s) experiences:
- A client once said that I’m flexible because I “have zero muscle mass”.
- A client once said that I look “skinny as hell, despite always eating”.
- A fellow competitor in a strongman competition once said that I’m “way stronger than I look because I look like a distance runner”. I won that competition, beating athletes of all body weights, weight classes, and body sizes.
- Someone once said that he couldn’t believe that one of my athletes lifted the weight that they lifted because he’s just a skinny little guy. This guy is similar in size to me.
- I have tried to gain weight my entire life because I was very skinny in high school, was quiet and shy, and bullied for all of those things. I have a deep-rooted distrust from childhood bullying and have compensated by physically beating the bullies in sports, and showing off is one way for me to signal potential bullies that I have the physical skills to defeat them in a physical altercation (or at least put up a good fight) despite not looking like I could. This showing off has caused me to injure myself numerous times over my life.
I echo coach Charissa’s thoughts. There is a slippery slope when we begin to comment on someone else’s physical appearance, even if well-intended. I am also guilty of this, of course. I have commented on members and fellow coaches, and usually it’s to stroke their ego. I hope that I didn’t offend them.
Echoing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s, 1963 “I have a dream” speech, “When we can begin to interact with fellow humans focusing on the content of each other’s character instead of physical attributes, the world will become a better place.”
When we focus on the surface of our bodies chasing ego validation, this distracts us from nurturing what our souls deeply crave. We can start this dialogue even in a space like Invictus where people seem to be chasing physicality. I believe that deep down we all seek social connection and personal meaning in this world, which are both rooted infinitely deeper than body composition changes or a socially-accepted body.