At age nine, P.E. Dance teacher Dasha Plaza knew what it was like to have her body heavily scrutinized. At age 15, Plaza often heard the words “fat,” “untalented,” “stupid” and “dumb” tossed in her direction. Some questioned her dancing ability based on her body type.
As a young girl growing up in a ballet boarding school, Plaza remembers constantly looking at herself in the mirror, wanting to perfect her form and appearance, noting how her more athletic build compared to other dancers’ willowy figures.
In fields such as dancing and modeling, an individual’s appearance is of utmost importance: Dancers are expected to have tall, lean bodies, and models often undergo extreme diets to maintain size zero figures. Even in everyday American society, the pressure to achieve an ideal body outstanding. Media outlets, like Instagram and fashion magazines, also amplify the severity of America’s obsession with “skinny”. Photoshopped images and model displays like those in Victoria’s Secret store windows are used as marketing tools to perpetuate unrealistic body standards.
As a result, body shaming — where individuals are criticized for their appearance — has become a prominent issue in today’s society. It is all too easy to associate a larger body mass index number with unhealthiness. According to the CDC, in some cases, being larger leaves a person more prone to certain diseases such as coronary heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. But that does not mean heavier people always have higher blood pressure and likewise does not indicate that all thin people are healthy. Furthermore, what American media labels as “thin” is an unrealistic way of measuring the healthiness of a thin person. Using “unhealthiness” as an excuse to body shame others is invalid.
Yet in the United States, terms such as “obesity epidemic” are tossed around so much that it is has become easy to associate the word “fat” with a negative, unhealthy image.
Linking thinness to health is an inaccurate representation. Senior Ankita Agarwal recognizes that while she considers herself a thin person, her eating and exercise habits are not as healthy as they could be.
Agarwal’s regimen consists generally of a protein-heavy diet, with the occasional pack of Doritos from the cafeteria, and dance practices, some of her friends regularly go to the gym and restrict their diets to mostly quinoa and vegetables. Because of the routine Agarwal has built up, there are aspects of it where she knows her appearance doesn’t compensate for the condition of her health.
“I know sometimes when I dance, when I go on stage, I do get tired easily,” Agarwal said. “So just because I’m skinny doesn’t mean I have an excuse to eat junk food and the same way, just because you’re “fat”, it doesn’t mean you can’t.”
The social trend of linking a slim build to strong health is not a universal position, or even a historic one. In America, body image standards may be pushing towards thinness, but some other cultures may prioritize different body shapes.
Junior Sherwin Zhang recalls how his relatives in China often ask him why he is so skinny, and encourage him to eat more food at family get-togethers. He remembers asking his parents why his family members kept commenting on his skinny build. His parents simply replied that in their culture, skinniness is sometimes mentally associated with sickliness. Furthermore, his parents elaborated that money played a significant role in body size in the past.
“In older times in China, being fat meant you could afford a lot of food — you could afford to get fat,” Zhang said. “But here, it’s really easy to get fat even if you’re poor.”
Yet appearance is not directly linked to health — being skinny is not an end-all, be-all indication of fitness. The knowledge behind health regimes are just as important as the regimes themselves in influencing people into being healthier. During her time in boarding school, neither Plaza nor many of her friends had heard about anorexia or bulimia, eating disorders often related to negative perception of body image, and thus had a smaller chance of purging. Only after she came to the United States and had to write an essay about bulimia did Plaza acquire knowledge of the condition.
“The more people hear about things, the more curious they become, and the more they want to try it. If you didn’t know what bulimia is, you wouldn’t think of it,” Plaza said. “Now, we almost have too much access to too much information that not everybody can process in a good and safe way.”
It is this unlimited access to seemingly innocuous information that can prompt harmful actions and self-hatred. It is easy for people, both common citizens and celebrities like Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence, to be bullied online based on their appearance. As a person who is interested in the neuroscience side of studying brain perception of emotions and thoughts, History and Spanish teacher Ashley Stolhand describes a bully’s motivations.
“There is no one, ever, that comes from a secure place and tries to knock someone down,” Stolhand said. “If they’re trying to knock someone else down, if they’re body shaming, you already know they’re insecure about themselves.”
While the perception is that physical appearance alone acts as a way to judge someone, much of the action is mental. Since the brain develops during childhood, comments made during that developmental stage stick more. For Plaza, who was heavily criticized starting from age nine, it was hard to get over these insecurities.
“My mom was the biggest support system because [she]was a professional coach and a professor at a university so I always had such a great role model,” Plaza said. “She always reassured me that I’m beautiful and I’m smart and talented. I built that internal character and that internal core strength to know that ‘yes I am, I am a worthy person.’”
During the teenage years, it is easy to get caught up in the web of other people’s opinions. When people use the excuse of appearance as a way to shame a body type, it requires mental strength and a sense of self love to ignore the comments. Stolhand believes that it’s a matter of controlling how much power people have over self opinion.
“You look at the evidence and you have to write a paper. You look at the evidence and you evaluate the source, ‘Is this credible or not?’” Stolhand said. “You’ve got to do that to people too. Whatever people say about you, you’ve got be like ‘Is this person credible?’”
Despite any connections between a person’s outer appearance and their internal health, there’s an inevitability to life. The best way to ignore these body shaming excuses is to learn to love ourselves. Self-love promotes the idea that while other people’s opinions may play a part in a perception of ourselves, the strongest and most important opinion is our own, not influenced by media or peers.
“External beauty comes and it goes,” Plaza said. “You’re going to get wrinkles and you’re going to get bald. But it’s all part of our living.”