What a Shame: The Origins of Body Shaming

Emma Hanson explores the long history of the changing ‘ideal’ body type, and how it’s linked to society’s ideas of class and status.

Shame is a significant emotion. It is what is known as a ‘social’ emotion, in dialogue with societal expectations and the opinions of other people. The feeling of body shame is therefore in conversation with societal expectations of how a body should be or look, arising when people consider their body as lying outside the constructed definition of the acceptable body. But, historically, who has decided what makes a body acceptable, and more importantly, why?

In Ancient Greece, through to the Renaissance period and Victorian Britain, larger bodies were idealised. Reading this, you can bring to mind the images and statues of bodies with their fuller figures. This type of body was idealised in periods with an unequal wealth distribution as it represented the wealth of that person; the rich had access to food, and didn’t need to work the land, so as a result were larger and paler – two physical traits which were coveted. Tuberculosis and other diseases resulted in losing weight, adding further stigma to a smaller frame. During the Victorian period, Queen Victoria herself was a huge influence on standards of beauty – as seen by the idealisation of a larger body like hers. Admiration of the queen’s body makes explicit the parallel between body image and wealth; ‘acceptable’ bodies were physical manifestations of the upper class lifestyle. In idealising a body that evidences wealth, shaming bodies other than this ‘acceptable body’ is ultimately a criticism of poverty. 

Moving through to the modern age, benefits, reduced food costs, and universal healthcare have led to a changing perception of the ‘wealthy body’. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds still have access to food, so weight does not reflect one’s wealth as it did previously. The wealth gap has had to find different ways to physically manifest itself, and this perpetuates a different type of ideal body. Organic food, veganism and exercise classes were all within reach for those with enough income to buy typically more expensive foods. A slim, toned body became a physical manifestation of this new wealth distribution. A larger body instead became synonymous with a ‘lazy’, poorer background, a complete shift in how it has historically been viewed. Amy Farrell captures the synonymity of body shaming and poverty shaming, when talking to the International Business Times: “Having a superior body is how we demonstrate we’re superior. Culturally, there becomes a whole group of people who aren’t superior: the fat people, which links up to race, class and gender. We don’t call it that, though; we say we want to be healthier.” In literally moulding our bodies to fit our idea of the ‘acceptable’ body, we are perpetuating the idea that a certain type of body is superior. And by suggesting that a certain body is superior, we are creating space for bodies to sit outside of this ideal; the exact space where shame grows.

The body acceptance movements which now populate social media work towards normalizing all types of bodies. Looking at this movement, I came across a post by a dietician Anna Sweeney, who worked to unpick this obsession with the ‘healthy’ body. She writes: ‘”two people do the same exercise and their bodies won’t look the same. Two people eat the same food and their bodies won’t look the same. Two people practice the same health promoting behaviours and their bodies won’t look the same.” This quotation gets to the heart of body shaming. Our obsession with health, as dictated by wealth, has fed into idealising a body that we believe represents this. But as Sweeney eloquently says, diet and exercise do not have the same effect on all types of body. Wealth distribution ultimately cannot be evidenced by the shape of one’s body.

The focus on wealth and status as synonymous with an acceptable body has morphed into something much more sinister in our modern society, with the rise of cosmetic surgery. As a result, a preoccupation with the minutiae of appearance has taken over, as society shames the shape of your nose, the size of your lips, the lines on your face, even the distribution of your body fat. Body-shaming has morphed into a criticism of not just weight, but unchangeable (until now, that is) physical features. By inventing the new ‘ideal’ body, people with disposable incomes can keep up with the current trends by spending money on cosmetic procedures. This new body shaming has its uncomfortable roots in capitalism and using people for profit; the invention of a new ‘ideal’ body, which relies on fillers and artificial means to be achieved, has created a cosmetic industry worth £3.6 billion, as of 2018. This new industry perpetuates the Renaissance idealisation of the wealthy body. The ideal body has changed, but the acceptable body is still achieved through wealth. Instead of buying green smoothies to believe we can achieve the ‘acceptable weight’, we are now also buying DIY botox fillers to alter our structural appearance. We try to keep up with the ever evolving trends by changing our physical selves to engage with capitalist views on people as profit.

Naomi Wolf writes in ‘The Beauty Myth’ that it is “an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.” But this impossible definition, perpetuated by shaming the bodies which do not fit it, ultimately ties into capitalist and money-making views. If you are wealthy and have the income and time to sculpt your body into an image of ‘health’, or keep up with cosmetic trends, then you are accepted. 

So the next time you look in the mirror and subconsciously criticise some part of your body, try to unpick where this learned behaviour came from. Society has historically used your body as a means of capitalist engagement, but the body ultimately has no place in this agenda. 

Artwork by Amelia Elson.

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