Due to her body size, most of people around Mariam Brashir keep on calling her names. Some call her ‘bonge’ a swahili name literary meaning ‘a large piece’. Some of her close friends nicknamed her ‘Big Mom’.
Unlike others with similar body structure, Mariam is not embarrassed at all with names her friends keep on calling her. She says she is comfortable with her looks. For her, having a big body structure is not a big deal. She has kept it since she was a young girl and on top of that, most of her family members have more or less similar body size.
“That doesn’t bother me right now but it used to hurt me when I was young. However, as I grew up, I came to realise that I can’t change the way God created me. When I was a student, my mother told me to love myself because hating the body I have does not change anything. I began to learn to accept my body, love myself and appreciate my looks,” she explains.
Today, Mariam is an independent and successful woman chairing a women and youth organisation that works towards empowering them economically and socially. She adds, “I love myself and I love fashion too although I am big. I look for something which goes with the size of my body.”
Mariam’s case is not a unique one. A study by Jean M. Lamont, a researcher at Bucknell University, tested whether body shaming was predicting poor physical health. That is, by promoting attitudes that are negative against bodily processes and therefore decreasing health assessments and having an impact on physical health. The results indicated that body shaming predicted poor self-rated health.
Body shaming might develop in perception of poor health and future research might consider employing methods to assess health outcomes that do not build on self-reports of health, the report said.
The findings from Jean’s study raise some important questions that need to be answered, for example how much health toll body shaming is taking. The results suggest that body shaming could harm our physical health and we could use that as a motivation to love our bodies.
There a hundreds of women across the globe who have experienced body shaming embarrassment due to their big body size and caught up in a dilemma of whether to love or hate their body structures.
One among them is an American actress, singer, dancer, fashion designer, producer and businesswoman, Jennifer Lopez. She was once quoted by a news website, independent.co.uk, “I was just trying to be myself without trying to fit into a mould of what everyone should be.”
She has been subjected to body shaming throughout her career and she was forced to lose weight by people in the industry in the past, including her own former manager.
“They kept telling me to lose weight, and I was a dancer and I was athletic and even my manager at the time, who I no longer work with, was telling me: ‘You need to lose weight, You need to be thinner,’ Lopez told the audience at an event for her television series Shades of Blue. “I was like, ‘No I don’t. If I lose any more weight it won’t be me’ ”You know what I mean?” she was quoted.
Youth are the target
Judith Mbilinyi, a teacher at St Dominic Savio Kigonzole High School, explains that body shaming is a situation where by someone feels uncomfortable, guilty or unworthy about how he/she looks like. It’s all about the pain which someone feels due to his/her own physical appearance. Body shaming is just a criticism of someone based on shape, size or appearance of their body structure. Such kind of criticism, she says, can create shyness on the part of an individual and results into lack of self-confidence.
“Most of this kind of body shaming occurs to women and this may cause them to lose confidence in one’s own worthiness, ” she says.
Judith says it is good to be positive about oneself regardless of the looks.
“Sometimes our own minds can deceive us, hence creating some behaviour into telling us how different we look. But if we embrace self-acceptance and learn how to speak positively about ourselves, it will help to build self-respect regardless of our appearance,” says Judith, who is also a motivational speaker, adding that it is also good to avoid toxic environments, especially from friends who always make you feel uncomfortable about your looks.
“Sometimes we feel bad on how we look like because of what people think about us or speak against us. So if there is such an environment, situation and friends who basically make us feel guilty about our appearance or looks, it is better to end such connections. Instead one should connect towards those materials and friends that can make them feel comfortable and self-respected,” she adds.
Friends can cause someone feels guilty about his/her appearances. The company of friends around them and the kind of information they always receive. Most of the problems that make people feel dishonoured in one way or another are due to comparisons from one another.
According to Refinery 29 website, 65 per cent of girls receive the first critique of their body before they turn 14.
The survey found 65 per cent of women heard the first critique about their body before age 14, and 41 per cent said that comment was made between ages 10 and 13. Which means that, from a young age, they’re told that their bodies aren’t perfect how they are.
A Pugu Secondary School teacher Erick Gamba is one among the victims.
“During my teenage, I was referred to as ‘Bonge nyanya’ (famous Swahili joke for a person big in size & weight), I faced a lot of difficulties as a teenager, I couldn’t enjoy much. Knowing that I can’t change the size of my body I told myself that I should love and appreciate myself. My parents used to tell me no one will love me if I won’t love myself,” he notes
Mr Gamba keeps on saying one can handle body shaming by saying good words about him/herself. “You should know that you are different from others and the world would be the most boring place if all of us were looking alike. Also avoid putting yourself down. This has got greater negative impact than the bullying from others,” he gives a message to victims of body shaming. Mr Gamba urges them to find out the motivation on how to love themselves and expect less from others. “I would like to recommend the movie Fat Albert. The movie insists on how pretending to be someone else results into losing the essence of who we really are,” he says.
As a result of going through a lot as a teenager, Mr Gamba now mentors victims of body shaming at his school, from which students are refusing to conform to being bullied about their bodies.
A Dar es Salaam based Sociologist Daniel Marandu says body shaming leads to the formation of unrealistic body ideals and low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, stress, and anxiety issues to both male and female. For instance, social anxiety (and even fear) can result from a desire to attain the unreal expectation of an ideal body image for example if one is too fat.
According to him, the fear of rejection due to weight and physical attributes can cause individuals to isolate themselves from the society.
“Moreover, females who have experienced relentless body shaming often feel ashamed of their natural bodily functions such as sweating, menstruating and eating, which become factors they work hard to hide. The media is particularly relevant in increasing body shaming worldwide and providing unrealistic body images to men and women,” he notes
The negative feelings and emotions of disgust, guilt, and depression and so on tend to accompany eating disorder. This can further lead to avoidance of certain kind of food or not eating regular meals at all, for example, overeating to cope with the negativity; thus creating a vicious cycle which is extremely difficult to break.
Erica Joseph, a make-up artist, says the best way to do away with body shaming is for the society to learn and understand that God created each one of us in a special way and that everyone is very unique. Everyone should appreciate the uniqueness God has given them.
Overcoming body shaming
Head of food and nutrition services at the Aga Khan Hospital Dar es Salaam, Nimtaz Walji, also a nutritionist, tells Life&Style that body shaming happens everywhere starting from one’s own home and extends to schools, societies and beyond. It is a huge problem especially among teenagers and a problem that damages ones self-esteem.
According to Ms Walji, she gets parents who complain about their children being bullied because of how they look, however, in her observation a lot of times, the parents and families are actually the ones who intentionally or unintentionally shame their children for having underweight or overweight bodies or for genetic disfigures and they are the ones who begin creating this expectation on their children.
The nutritionist says there are two ways to overcome a negative body image.
“First is by making one accept who they are and accept how they look through counselling and be okay about that and the second way is to help them in changing their physical situation if at all it needs to be changed. This is only possible if the person him/herself accepts their body to be what the society describes it to be,” she adds.
Ms Walji adds that there are techniques which she uses to help clients with a problem like this but it depends on whether it’s about body shaming to those who are in control of their body looks or not.
“For example, body shaming of a teenager who is actually obese due to over eating vs body shaming a teenager who is short genetically. If it is something in control then I think it begins with understanding what and how the client perceives the problems and then convincing them to accept what it is and how it happens and that there is a way to solve it. Once there is acceptance, we can work on making the client take responsibility for changing the same through adopting a healthy lifestyle,” she notes.
Many people don’t like their bodies due to the societal expectation of how one’s body should be. “I am not saying that it is okay to be obese but I am saying that it is not ok to shame that person for being obese as this is what makes people often not like how they look. It is about what the society tells you about yourself in many instances that makes you feel like you are not good enough,” Ms Walji explains.