In second grade, I liked to wear my grandmother’s old clothes. My sister and I would play dress-up with her glamorous gowns and other outfits and have our pictures taken. I’d wear plum lipstick and stare solemnly in the direction of the disposable camera, which was maybe held by my babysitter, my mom, or my sister.
One day my friend came over, saw a picture of me in a midriff-baring shirt, and said I shouldn’t be showing off my outie belly button. I don’t know if her comment sparked it, but I remember one of the recurring prayers of my girlhood was for a belly button like my sister’s—a dark little tunnel you could poke your finger into.
By age 15, I was smitten with an 18-year-old boy who, as we sat making out in his truck, said to me once, “You’ve got cankles.” I couldn’t have been more than around 110 pounds, the thinnest my post-puberty body would ever be. (I would always try, and fail, to get back to that weight.)
From him, I learned it was gross that I didn’t shave as much of my body hair as I should and that I must’ve been a prude or a lesbian for not “going further” with him. The bulk of our relationship took place over AIM, where I mostly remember him sending me pictures of other girls and calling me an idiot.
I’ve wondered how differently my life would’ve gone if I’d realized sooner that a man’s desire for my body did not mean he cared for it.
At some point, women come to understand that their bodies are public domain. They are something to be apologized for, too much or not enough, and always subject to the opinions of loved ones and strangers. Whether they’re too fat, too skinny, too dark, too pale, too voluptuous, too flat-chested, too pretty, too plain, too made up. Whether they’re not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not curvy enough, not approachable or accessible enough.
Women’s bodies are always wrong, and there is no shortage of people to tell them exactly how.
As we absorb the idea that our worth is inextricable from our physical appearance, we become unconscious disseminators of this message ourselves, doling out what we’ve been fed on for as long as we’ve been aware of our own bodies.
When I was bored in middle school, I used to make over female classmates in my mind, the same way I mentally made myself over. I shared makeover suggestions with my friends because this was a currency I understood. It was the central plot line to so many movies I loved, like Pretty Woman, She’s All That, Never Been Kissed, and She’s Out of Control.
Beautification as spiritual transformation: This was the story of female triumph I knew.
Finally, one friend told me that my “tips” were unwelcome, that they made her feel bad. I was shocked, defensive. I’d seen them as compliments. They were my way of saying, “You have this feature that I really wish I had and if I did have it, this is what I would do with it”—but, centrally, they were unsolicited. It’s this kind of ignorance that can be so damaging, carried out by people who haven’t yet learned better ways to love.
We know now that body shaming is contagious, so how can we do better?
In an article for The New York Times titled “Why I Talk About My Daughter’s Body,” writer Jeanne Sager reflects on her efforts to raise a daughter with a positive body image even as she battles bulimia herself. After her 11-year-old daughter has broken her foot, the focus stays on what Sager has always tried to keep the focus on when it comes to her daughter’s body: function.
“We talk about the muscles that are being pulled taut across the top of her back as she works to push down on her crutches,” she writes. “We talk about the legs that will power her across a soccer field again once her foot has healed.”
The next time you want to talk bad about your body, think instead of what it does for you. Then show it love.
Recently I reached out to my social media network and asked people who’d grown up in female bodies to share their first, or most memorable, instances of being shamed for them. Maybe half an hour later, I already had multiple direct messages. Comment after comment, friends and acquaintances repeated the variety of messages they’d received about their physical appearance.
Here are their stories.
“I had a teacher pull me out of class, expose her stomach and legs and tell me that the way I was dressed was disgusting.”
I was 13, wearing a skort [because] I was self-conscious about being tall. I had a teacher pull me out of class, expose her stomach and legs and tell me that the way I was dressed was disgusting and asked me if it was ok for her to do and told me I was “just looking for male attention” (I was wearing a skort (perfectly “dress code legal,” a t-shirt and a long sleeve jacket) –Megan, 28, Missouri
Body shaming in eating disorder units among patients. “She’s not good enough to be here” there’s some sick stuff that went on –A*, Idaho
I remember a certain idiot I dated in college who told me my [butt] wasn’t big enough, I didn’t wear high enough [heels], I didn’t wear enough makeup, and that I “used to be cute in high school” –Megan, Missouri
I was in eighth grade at lunch and my “friend” called me fat a**. –Name withheld, 31, Tennessee
In Brazil on mission trip. The doctor with us told me I should weigh no more than 120 and did I reaaaaally want to eat that. Yay. I was 16 –Amy, Arkansas
I remember being 9 and this girl making fun of me for having hair on my big toe! –Katie, New York
Not so much body shaming [as] color shaming… From about Kindergarten to 6th grade I would get asked if my mom cheated on my dad or if they just adopted me from Africa because I’m tan… Totally appropriate questions for a small child right? –Kelley, 28, Missouri
“I was mortified. Everyone laughed.”
In third grade, some older kid (at least sixth grade) stood up at the front of the school bus and started making fun of everyone, going down the rows, one at a time. I remember almost crying before he even got to me bc everyone was laughing, and I was painfully shy. He got to me and said, “and you don’t have any boobs.” I was mortified. Everyone laughed. My brother was on the same bus. He stood up and started yelling back at him, calling him a pimple face something or other. Looking back, it’s ridiculous. Of course a third grader not having boobs is perfectly normal, but I will still never forget how it made me feel at the time! And how sweet it was for my brother to stand up for me. –Anna, 28, Arkansas
In fifth grade someone told me the dark circles under my eyes made me look like a “pale holocaust victim”. I’ve worn concealer everyday since. –Sarah Beth, 29; lives in Davis, California, from St. Louis, Missouri[I was was 13 when] a guy poked my arm pit fat and made fun of me. Been self conscious of it ever since. –Julie, 30, lives in Spain; from Texas
In ninth grade library one of the really cute boys told me I had chicken legs and shouldn’t wear dresses. –Diana, Texas
I was a young girl, around age 8 or 9. My younger brother would always call me fat and “fata**” and then him and the neighborhood kids would gang up on me and call me that. I went through a chubby stage growing up, before I hit puberty. If you’ve seen the show This Is Us that was pretty much my life. My mother was super thin and beautiful and I always felt like the ugly duckling. She’s a very healthy eater too though and always walks and exercises and lives a healthy lifestyle. I know my mom was just looking out for me, but when we would have cookies and milk growing up, she would tell me I could have 2 and my brother (Sean) could have 8 if he wanted to, because everyone has different bodies. Kids don’t realize how much their words hurt sometimes, but I can remember my brother and all of the neighborhood kids calling me “fata**” growing up, [then] guess what happened? When I hit age 13, eating disorder central. Anorexia, bulimia, ipecac, I was obsessed. It’s something I’ve struggled with ever since. I don’t think I ever showed how hurt I was back then, as naturally, I’m a very strong person, but, that stuff sticks with you man. –Caroline, 33, Massachusetts
“I have been told throughout my life that if I am harassed, it is due to my behavior or attire.”
When I was around 11, my grandfather asked if I “really wanted to eat ALL that [because I would] be fat.” Great for the self-esteem.
I went through puberty a bit early in that I needed an underwire bra by sixth grade. I was groped at a school dance by a seventh grader once. Another time, by an eighth grader in front of the school. When I reported the incidents to the male principal, he suggested that I ought to cover up more because my shirts attracted attention. I was a kid!!!
In the 8th grade, I got into an argument with two “friends” who told me that […] because I had large breasts [I] needed to buy different clothes.
I’ve been asked if I had black eyes due to my dark circles (allergies and depression) so I never left the house without full-face makeup. It took motherhood to lift that burden of feeling the need to please others.
I have also been asked if I had ever broken my nose (no) and have been told as recently as LAST MONTH that I needed a nose job. That was from a female who resorted to personal attacks who disagreed with my opinion on pit bulls. And, yes, I am INCREDIBLY self-conscious about my nose. It already bothers me since I get this trait from my biological mother, but when people draw attention to it, I just want to crawl under a rock. I honestly want a rhinoplasty.
I have been told throughout my life that if I am harassed, it is due to my behavior or attire. If I have an appetite, I will be fat (FYI – Fat does NOT mean ugly). And any “flaws” as perceived by others should be covered, concealed or corrected. –Jena, 29, Texas
“My friend’s dad called me ‘Big Bertha NoA**AtAll’ growing up.”
My friend’s dad called me “Big Bertha NoA**AtAll” growing up. Started when I was about 11. –Sarah, 29, lives in Sacramento, California; from rural Arkansas
The first thing that came to mind is an instance that took place in the seventh or eighth grade. A friend and I found out that some other girls in our grade had been calling us “pudgy.” It hurt me, and I’m pretty sure it hurt my friend, but we tried to make light of it by writing “pudgy 4 life” on what, looking back, was the type of stomach most 12-14 year old kids have. –Dana, 29, Central Arkansas
I was in middle school and another girl on my bus called me a “gorilla” and made fun of the hair on my arms and legs so often that I went home one day and locked myself in my parents bathroom and tried to shave my legs which resulted in many nicks and my Dad having to finish shaving my legs while I was crying. Funny now, kind of sad then. –Ashli, 27, Arkansas
Have been told forever I’m “too big”… In elementary school I was told I had a “bubble butt” by another third grader. At the fifth grade health fair when I was over 5′ and weighed 99 pounds, one of the girls asked why I was “so big”? This could go on, but that’s where it starts –Natalie, 28
I remember in seventh grade a popular boy giving me the nickname “Splinter” because he thought my face resembled the rat from teenage mutant ninja turtles. The next year, my boobs doubled in size and instead of him calling me splinter, he dubbed me as a “butter face” (everything is hot but her face). I was self conscious and very critical of my appearance from then on. A**hole. –Lauren, 29, Arkansas
When I was in elementary school (in Georgia at the time), I had bad teeth (antibiotics reaction I think). All the kids referred to me as “butter teeth.” I (and my parents) spent $5000 to get veneers. I still carry floss in my purse because I’m so self conscious about my teeth.
Once, while bartending, I was reaching up to get a beer out of the cooler, and a guy thought it appropriate to yell at me “Damn girl, you have some huge calves!” ….uhhh, thanks? I was really mortified. –Renee, 28, Arkansas
“They thought it was hilarious. I cried. A lot.”
In fourth grade someone drew a “cartoon” of me with an exaggerated gap. I’ve been self conscious about my teeth since then. (I’ve always had a speech impediment that caused my teeth to space out) In college a group of guys changed my profile picture (I had forgot to log out) to a skinny man with a huge gap. They thought it was hilarious. I cried. A lot. –Alyssa, 26, Missouri
I changed to a religious school for the start of second grade. I’m pretty sure it was then that my classmates started calling me “Dumbo”, since my ears stuck out. Luckily I’ve grown into them, but to this day, I still worry about my hair styles and and hats and if they [make] my ears look big or not. –Allison, 32, New Jersey
Middle school being named called for big teeth and “chubby” cheeks, ferret and chipmunk. Still struggle with my teeth to this day.
All my life I’ve been thin with a big appetite. Constantly told to eat a biscuit, put some [meat] on my bones Or any other way you could tell someone to gain weight. Then on the reverse while eating a lot like I did I was told to watch out one day it will all catch up to me and I actually gain weight eating the way I do. –Morgan, 30, Arkansas
“In the fifth grade a boy asked me if I ‘was even really a girl.'”
In the fifth grade a boy asked me if I “was even really a girl” because I was SO flat-chested and all (in retrospect, probably just a few) of the other girls had started showing some signs of development and I very much did not so the next day I stuffed my sports bra with socks(!) to try to look more “girlish” but it was a rather, erm, obvious change overnight, and I just got made fun of even more. (Hindsight, and all that).
I was always really flat and self conscious about it. I even ended up getting breast augmentation surgery when I turned 21. The truth is, if you think cosmetic surgery will make you feel better about yourself—well—it probably will. —Jada*, 29, Little Rock, Arkansas
I was crazy about this guy when I was 15 I think. A friend of mine went to see that guy and told him: ‘Hey Gloria really likes you and would like to date you’. He said: ‘I can’t, she has the body of a 6-year-old girl’ (because I was -and still am- flat) –Gloria, 33, Paris, France
Third grade (8 or 9 years old)- got nicknamed the Big Show after the wrestler. I was already tall and wearing juniors clothing. I don’t recall I was particularly overweight then but definitely didn’t have the body of a normal 8 year old. –Kara, 27, lives in Mississippi; from Arkansas
In fifth grade my nickname was “double d” boys would stuff softballs up [their] shirts and ‘pretend they were me’ (it stuck all throughout middle school, my friends would even introduce me as double d instead of my actual name to new students) –Lauren, 29, Missouri
Right after the birth of my first son (27), I was putting my baby in his car seat after grocery shopping. Three “men” were sitting in a truck right next to me. They kept saying, “Look at that fat ass”. I finished with the car seat, walked up to the truck window and said, “I may have a fat a** but I can lose the weight. You all are f***ing ugly and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.[“] I got in my car and drove away. –Jeni, 56, Missouri
*Names have been shortened or changed. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.