This is How Body Stigma Can Cause Chronic Diseases

Body Stigma: International Women's Day

An Ode to International Women’s Day

Last week, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. There are tons of gender equality issues I could delve into, but I wanted to write on a topic that I’m personally impacted by. Only in the past few years have I finally been comfortable enough to talk about my issues with body image. I share my experience with and knowledge on body stigma in hopes of showing others that they are not alone in their struggles.

I want to preface by saying that body stigma knows no boundaries, no matter what size you are, there will be some haters who have something to say about your appearance. This post does NOT aim to judge any body type. It only speaks to my own experience in the body I’ve been given, which happens to be a “bigger” body. I also acknowledge my privilege – I recognize how body stigma has worsened effects on already discriminated groups like people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Some of the language I use to describe my experience may not apply to everyone who identifies as a woman. I urge you to simply take from this what speaks to you.

Okay, let’s get into it!

Adverse effects & Western ideals

Having been a public health student for almost 5 years now, I’m fascinated by the science-based evidence behind the health impacts of body image issues. I took a course in undergrad about how adverse childhood experiences can decrease life expectancy, contribute to chronic illnesses, and overall decrease quality of life. It talks a lot about the effects that children have growing up in high-stress environments like experiencing gun violence, domestic abuse, divorce, corporal punishment, poverty, etc (peep the ACEs study as previously linked!) and how that affects their future. It made me think about my own “adverse experiences” and how they’ve shaped me today. Unfortunately, there’s not enough research on how body weight stigma fits into this picture yet, but there are many observations to make about it from experiencing American culture.

First, we have to recognize that Western culture has undoubtedly created a standard of beauty and the “ideal” body, by praising thinner bodies and shaming “fat bodies”. There’s notably a similar shame associated with looking “too skinny”. The history behind this shift is fascinating, and I encourage you to do your own research around how the standard of beauty transitioned from bigger bodies to thinner bodies. We see this ideal everywhere, in magazines, movies, on social media, etc. From my lens, it seems that we’re in an age where only if a woman is “thick” or has a curvaceous or athletic body is her heavier body praised. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to body stigma.

An Added Stressor on Women

This type of pressure to fit into a certain image can contribute to already placed stressors on women. On International Women’s Day, I saw a screening of the documentary Missrepresentation (available on Netflix FYI!) and was extremely disappointed by the statistics. For example, I’m sure it’s no news to you that women make $0.79 for every dollar a man earns. Less than 20% of women hold seats in Congress, but comprise over 50% of the U.S. population. 67 countries in the world have had female presidents or prime ministers. The U.S. is not one of them.

Further, the gender inequality statistics reveal some REAL health impacts on body stigma and body image issues for young girls. For example; 53% of 12 year old girls and 78% of 17 year old girls feel unhappy with their body, 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder, and rates of depression among girls and women have doubled between 2000 and 2010. The American Psychological Association calls self-objectification a national epidemic; women and girls who self-objectify are more likely to be depressed, have lower confidence, have lower ambition, and lower GPAs.

Hearing educators and other professionals talk about these body stigma issues was both troubling and motivating for me. I found myself thinking back to that undergraduate class. Clearly women are being impacted by the struggle to succeed in society in a system that isn’t set up for us to have as much success as men. How does the impact of body image in particular fit into the picture of these adverse effects on women? Why is no one talking about it? Where’s the research being done on body stigma?

“Flight or Flight”… What is that again?

To switch gears for a second, let’s talk about the science around stress. You’ve probably heard about this ol’ term. Our ancestors relied on their body cues to run from the big hungry tiger or to fight it. Our body’s stress system is designed to have us on high alert because we lose reasoning in high stress environments. So when we experience something scary or nerve-racking, those spidey senses cue said something as a threat to the brain, and it then signals our body to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are meant to kick our butts into gear and back into safety. We’ve all experienced some form of this stress before, your heart races, your hands tremble, you start to sweat. And once that threat is gone, we start to come back to a state of normalcy again.

Pretty dope, right? We’re literally designed to survive and act in high stress situations.

So it helps us to survive, isn’t that a good thing?

Well, yes and no. While these hormones and body cues are essential to surviving high-stress situations, our bodies weren’t designed to maintain high levels of cortisol. For example, cortisol can act as an immune suppressant when present for long periods of time. This is also known as toxic stress, which is essentially the wear and tear on our physiological systems as a result of prolonged activation of the stress response systems. If you live in a high stress environment, you are less likely to understand that you can avoid this type of stress (that “fight or flight” decision) and are more likely to engage in it (aka, make the “wrong” decision and keep your body in stress mode).

Body Stigma: Fight or Flight Cartoon

Further, toxic stress can have severe physical and mental health effects. It can increase blood pressure levels that eventually lead to cardiovascular diseases, increase your likelihood of depression, disability, asthma, unemployment, lowered educational attainment, diabetes, and more. These effects can also be cross generational through our DNA. Telomeres are a protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA, and each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. When toxic stress occurs, our telomeres can shorten and diminish over time to a point where the cell dies. This shortening of telomeres becomes a part of our DNA, and makes our bodies less resilient in the face of health risks.

In other words, own prolonged stress can affect not only our own livelihoods, but those of our future children, making them more susceptible to these noted health risks as well.

Okay, but what does this have to do with body stigma?

Well, everything. While it may be pretty rare for us to be in a room alone with a ravenous tiger, we are now experiencing those high levels of stress from the pressure of Western society’s standards. This goes back to the connection I made earlier; toxic stress isn’t just limited to those experiencing ACEs, but to any other pressure to conformity in our society today.

As young girls, we’re indirectly (and directly) taught that our value has to do with our physical appearance. Remember the weird adults that came up to us saying, “Aw, you are such a sweet little girl. You are so pretty, you’re going to be a beautiful young woman some day”. I remember a man who cut my hair once saying, “You could be a model one day”. What do these messages tell us? That if we don’t fit into the standard of beauty that society agrees on, then we lack of self worth and capability to succeed. Seriously, where were the adults saying, “Wow, you are so (insert: smart, clever, talented). With that (insert: curiosity, mind, drive), you’re going to change the world.”.

My personal struggle

I remembering feeling the pressure of being a certain weight when I was 10 years old. I went through puberty at a young age, getting my first bra in 4th grade and my period in 5th grade. During those years, one of my grandmothers would tell my mom behind my back that I needed to lose weight. I was always the “bigger” girl amongst my peers. According to my doctor, I was technically considered overweight for my age group (but also… the inaccurate measurement of health by the BMI is a WHOLE different story for another day). I found myself becoming self conscious about not being as small as my peers or women in the media. As a TEN year old, I was embarrassed by my bigger body.

As I got older, I got more and more worried about not looking like the thinner women I looked up to. In 9th grade, my dad and I had a trainer together. I really wanted to lose weight so I could look smaller, thinking it’d make me more “likable” and “dateable”. Before leaving the house, I started changing outfits at least three times trying to decide what clothes would make people see me as less fat. I honestly still do this today. While I had great friends who never directly commented on my body, I still developed this internal struggle about my weight. I constantly thought about how other people would judge my body, and worried about how other women or men would make me feel unsafe about wearing something that showed my “bigger body”.

Body Stigma: Beach

This consistent stress and anxiety about my body image had a snowball effect, and I developed an emotional eating problem with binge eating episodes. I’ve heard so many similar stories to mine. Many stemming from the same type of emotional trauma experienced by body stigma. Granted, I also struggled with other unresolved emotional trauma that contributed to my anxiety. But the heightened stress I had around food and coping in the form of overexercising/overeating didn’t just come out of nowhere.

Connecting the Dots

When women are under the learned message that physical appearance determines their worth, of course we’re constantly thinking about what others are going to perceive our appearance. Just as if there was a tiger in the room, we start to see our “non-ideal bodies” as a threat when they don’t look “thin” or “thick” enough to others. We release those same stress response hormones that our body creates for high stress situations, but at a more constant rate to where it feels pretty much normal to us. More and more, women are experiencing toxic stress because of body stigma. Simply because of the stories we tell ourselves; that if we aren’t meeting the physical ideal, we can’t reach our fullest potential in the world.

Where do we go from here?

It ironically stressed me out when I started thinking about the real health impacts of body stigma. How can we combat body stigma and pressure when we can’t quickly change society standards on women? How can we find happiness in our own skin?

Well luckily, we all have a voice, and I believe we should always use it to speak up for ourselves and others in the face of discrimination of any kind. It is going to take a long time to reach a place of gender equality in our country, but I strongly believe that progress will come. Just think about how many incredible people spoke up in the #MeToo movement this past year. As G.D. Anderson said, “Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”

Body Positive Call to Action

Here are some things that, regardless of gender, we can all do to work towards body positive mindsets:

  • Hold people accountable for their words & actions; call out people for how their comments can be harmful, demeaning, or uncomfortable.
  • Make space for the women in your life to be heard without judgement – Listen to women’s valid concerns, without the “here we go again” attitude. Also, don’t assume that she is “just being emotional”. Believe in women and their experiences.
  • Support woman’s movements by participating in conversations about attitudes toward women, or even by attending marches or events regarding gender equality topics.
  • STOP following Instagram accounts that make you feel bad about your body.
    • FOLLOW body positive, uplifting accounts… I try to be one of those!
  • Exercise because it makes your body feel good, not just to reach a body weight goal. Listen to your body when it needs a break!
  • Wear clothes that you feel GOOD in, not that you eventually want to “fit in to”.
  • Meditate – The ability to calm anxious thoughts with our own breathe is incredibly empowering. It’s another positive coping mechanism to have in the tool belt. I use the app calm.
  • Surround yourself with people that lift you up/value you for who you are.
  • Practice self-care/ self-love every day. You gotta be kind to yourself, this stuff is a lot to unpack and healing takes time.
  • Write down things you love about yourself that have nothing to do with your appearance; keep them somewhere you can read them often (a mirror is a great option 🙂 )

We women are incredibly resilient, intelligent, and powerful warriors. If you’re still reading up to this point, know that you are loved, appreciated, and capable of anything. Whoever you are, regardless of gender, I hope these words inspire you to acknowledge gratitude for yourself.

Body Stigma: Curves

With Love and Light,

 

Carly Marie

 

Acknowledgments

*My information is knowledge I gained from lectures given by my fantastic professors. They have years of experience in public health, psychology, medicine, and even law. Feel free to contact me for further verification of those professor’s qualifications!

*This post was inspired by podcast called Nutrition Matters Podcast with RDN, CD Paige Smathers. The episode is called Becoming Body Positive. It features Clare Sheehan, who talks about her journey with body stigma & the complexities of body image issues. If this post peaked your interest, definitely give this episode a listen!

*A shoutout my incredible mama. She lost her person (my stepdad) this month and I cannot even begin to fathom the heartbreak she’s experiencing. All the while she continues to show me the true meaning of love and strength every day of her life. She never made my weight an issue for me, and NEVER made me feel like my body needed to change. I could never thank you enough mom.

*Thank you to my partner in love. Despite all my anxieties, he shows me patience, kindness, and shows me unconditional love. Lastly, the rest of the women in my life who inspire me every day. (SCL, AR, RSM, CT, MS, MM, SM, etc… all yall know who you are!).

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