Body shaming no harmless game, it's a matter of shame

April 24, 2022 | 04:47 pm PT
Vu Hoang Long Journalism graduate
I've always been a sickly child – thin and muscle-less. As a boy, I was nowhere near what people would call "manly". Forget eliciting sympathy, I was derided as a deviant.

Even as an adult, when I grew my hair long as a personal preference, there were neighbors who remarked that I had "deviated from gender standards," whatever that means.

Body shaming is as clear an indication of discrimination and social bias based on outside appearances. But because it is so prevalent in everyday life, it has not been looked at as the highly problematic behavior that it actually is. Most often, people would think of it as harmless jokes, rather than cruel bards that hurt deep.

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on the Oscar stage for making a joke about Jada's alopecia, many realized that people shouldn't be shamed for how they look, I think. Of course, I am not condoning violence in any kind or form.

In the face of cheap shots about my appearance, I often ignored my own desires and dressed conservatively, or defended my long hair by pointing out that a local leader sported a ponytail. But, by and large, I saw no other way to eliminate biases from people's mind other than waiting for society to change at whatever pace it would.

In a 2014 study on the socio-cultural meaning of the human body, Niall Richardson and Adam Locks said the body was the foremost way that an individual presents himself or herself to the world. As such, it also becomes the easiest criterion for people to judge each other. Anyone can be a victim of body shaming, and anyone can be a body-shamer.

Ideas of how an ideal person should look have constantly been molded and reshaped by different forces throughout human history. Society has always looked for a "normal" body standard, using adjectives like fat and thin, tall and short to define it. Even gender and racial factors come into stereotypical play. Women should have long hair and men should have short hair. Those who are thin and tall are seen as calm and collected, the obese are deemed slow and lazy.

Because people perceive each other and compare between themselves based on body standards, "stereotypes" start to form. They eliminate the inherent diversity of the human body and limit self-expression. Most dangerously, they cause people to associate one's appearance with a particular set of personality.

As a result, anyone who doesn't look like a supermodel or star actor; who doesn't seem typical enough, can be a target of body shaming. A person's natural qualities can always be overwritten by unfounded biases.

When this happens, it sends the message that one's body might not always be accepted by society, thereby leading to warped perceptions among people about how they look and even spark extreme, violent tendencies within themselves.

So many are caught within the ruthless cycle of trying to change themselves and hiding from the world, getting into excessive dieting and endless hours at the gym. And sometimes, when people get confident enough about their own body, they begin a new cycle of body shaming others.

But there is only one truth: one's outside appearance doesn't define who one is, but is also a part of you at the same time, just like one's name. Respecting who someone is as a person also means respecting the body he or she is housed in.

It is impossible to make body shaming disappear overnight, of course, but we downplay it at society's peril. Turning a blind eye to how body shaming can hurt others will legitimize cruelty. Do we want this to happen?

*Vu Hoang Long is a journalism graduate at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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