As a child I was as thin as a whip. My teenage years were no different. As a young adult I never weighed more than 95 pounds, and as a more mature adult I gained a few pounds, but not until after giving birth. I currently weigh 115 pounds and still wear size zero and extra small anything. "You need to eat, baby," a complete stranger advised me a few weeks ago, in a pleading and disapproving tone. It didn't bother me any because I'm very comfortable with my weight and the way I look.
But that was not always the case. You see, body-shaming, defined as "the action or practice of humiliating someone by making mocking or critical comments about their body shape or size," is a fairly modern term that has, in practice, existed for a long time. And one thing is certain, it is not just a fat-people thing.
Candace Santana, who was recently the centre of a body-shaming controversy when she was referred to as a "tub" by former health minister Dr Fuad Khan, was subjected to one form of body shaming because she is perceived to be "too big". Growing up I was called some of the most horrible of names because I was and still am perceived to be "too small." Names that made me constantly wish I could afford cosmetic surgery to make myself more voluptuous, because my genes have made it so that no amount of food, weight-gain supplements or gym time can help me with any considerable increase in the size of my butt, legs and calves. Names that messed up my self-esteem so badly that it took over three decades for me to learn to be comfortable in my own fashionably slender skin. Names that resulted in a socially awkward version of me that still surfaces from time to time.
Why? Because, in a subtle way, the pressures to conform to society’s beauty standards had hooked their tentacles into me, as with millions of women worldwide. Learning to accept and love my body was a lifelong work in progress that was not without many challenges.
But I think it goes even beyond body shape and size. It can be extended to include what people view as flaws in the way other people look, such as yellowing teeth, hair loss, abnormal fingers or toes, and skin conditions, all of which may have underlying medical causes. Most of us body-shame people on a daily basis, sometimes quite unaware that we are doing it.
"Kids can be cruel," freelance writer and photographer Rhianna McKenzie tells WMN. McKenzie has vitiligo, a skin disease in which the pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas, causing loss of skin colour in the form of depigmented patches of skin in any part of the body. There is a pink patch on one side of the hairline along her forehead, and the hair in and around the area looks grey.
"As a child I hated it. It garnered way too much attention, and there were one or two kids who shunned me because they thought it might be contagious." She recalls how the stress caused her hair to start falling out. But it was not just the children who were the cause of the shame.
"I once had a teacher that called out to me in front of the whole class, 'You! with the grey patch! Come here!' and everyone laughed. Those things were humiliating. I retreated into myself so much, that mom took me to a therapist. I stopped talking to people and it had long-term effects on me. Even as an adult it became hard to approach people because my experience as a child made me believe I was being judged, or people were looking at me funny. I felt contagious."
But maturity and education brought a whole new insight. "It grew into something beautiful, and I'm grateful for that. It's a constant reminder for me that nothing is permanent," McKenzie said.
Journalist Camille Moreno recalls her many body-shaming episodes. "As a child at school I used to be called Fat Mama and teased mercilessly," but said she found a way to get it to stop.
"I figured I could be the child who cowered and cried every day or fight back by insulting them. I would shout back, 'You're ugly,' and eventually all name-calling stopped." And although she admitted resolving the issue of body-shaming with body-shaming was childish and is not the best way to deal with the matter, she said there was a time in adulthood when she found herself resorting to it again.
"One of my worst body-shaming experiences as an adult was one time when I was playing mas. I was body-shamed by other masqueraders, who were not exactly fit. 'Have you looked at yourself in the mirror?' I asked them."
She said there was a time, as a result of childhood asthma, she had to join a clinic at the Port of Spain General Hospital. "The goal was weight loss, but I never slimmed down. I lost weight but I never became thin." She has also tried going to the gym, but the demands of her job made it hard to sustain.
As she gets older, Moreno said her body continues to change. "My metabolism is changing...I have lost some weight and I have to find out what my new size is."
But she no longer allows what people say about the way she looks bother her, and even when she is body-shamed, she sometimes uses it to her advantage.
"What I get now is 'Tants.' because of the grey hair," and her slow gait, the result of knee problems.
"It can sometimes be beneficial. When I get, 'Tants, come and sit, nah,' I'll take that," she chuckled. Moreno said what she also finds very amusing is that now there are mannequins that look like she does – plus-size.
While body-shaming doesn't affect her in the way it would have a few years ago, though, she is concerned about the role social media now plays in its perpetuation.
"My concern now is that because of social media it is so extreme and has a sustained life. This can be much more challenging to deal with and much more damaging to someone's self-esteem. And to make matters worse, it is extremely disappointing when we have policymakers who contribute to it. They may be well-meaning, but their delivery can be damaging."