For ages now, body shaming has been a topic of interest. Campaigns have been launched and books written. Yet, in the current era of social media and mainstream media, the issue has become worse.
There appears to be an idealised idea of what a ‘perfect’ body is and this has made some people critical of their own bodies, pushing them to dangerous extremes in the hope of achieving the irrational standards.
Body shaming manifests itself in three main ways -- criticising oneself, criticising someone in their presence, or criticising someone behind their backs.
Sadly, body shaming can result to short- or long-term psychological issues, if one is not strong-willed to withstand the pressure. So, how do you stand out in a society that wants you to conform? How do you rise above the vicious comments?
Read inspiring stories of five young people who experienced and conquered body shaming.
At about eight years old, when Sharon was in standard three, her parents transferred her to a school populated by students of Asian descent.
“The pupils would mock and encircle me during break times to touch my skin and see if it could leave dirty patches on their fingers. I became shy, afraid and withdrawn. School events were the worst for me because I didn’t want to appear in front of other people. I thought everyone disliked my skin colour,” she explains.
At home, Sharon didn’t mention the ill treatment to her parents and the situation continued all the way to standard eight. The low self-esteem was reflected on her performance because she came close to the bottom.
“When I completed class eight in 2008, I had performed dismally that I had to repeat the class. I had no friends. It was tough,” she offers.
After the second take, she acquired good grades and was enrolled in a mixed secondary school. The school allowed girls to plait their hair but her parents thought it wise that she clean shaves.
“Right from the admission day, I knew life would be difficult for me. Other students would stare at me and they would sometimes tell me to my face that with my dark look and shaved hair, I would have been prettier as a boy. Adolescence was at its peak and as my friends got boyfriends, I remained reclusive and forgotten,” she recalls.
When she couldn’t take it anymore, she poured herself out to her father who encouraged her to shame those who looked down on her by performing well in her studies.
“I took his advice seriously and I started working hard in class. I managed to attain a good grade during the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examinations (KCSE) exam, which enabled me to join the university," she says.
Sharon is currently a third-year student at Baraton University studying accounting. She says life changed for the better when she joined the university.
“At the university, there are so many dark ladies such that it never bothers me. Unlike before, I now get people complimenting my looks. My self-esteem has since improved and during the start of the third year, I was elected a student leader. I am in charge of gender and special interests. I fight for the rights of those who have been looked down upon in one way or another. I am happy for who I am and grateful for my skin colour."
Age: 22 years
At first glance, you are unlikely to notice anything different about Meraby and it is only at a closer look are you able to notice that her eyes are smaller compared to what is considered the normal size.
However, her classmates in primary school were keen enough to note this and although they didn’t mean harm when they said it, it was the first kick to Wambui’s journey of body shaming.
“We were five Wambuis in my class and to differentiate me from other Wambuis, my classmate would describe me as the Wambui with small eyes. It really did affect me and I became shy and withdrawn,” she says.
In secondary school, things got worse because some of the teachers joined in the mocking.
“I remember one time when we were having an exam, the teacher handed me the paper and as I was going through the instructions, a hot slap landed on my back. She thought that I was asleep. Sadly, the other students laughed and this affected me deeply," she notes.
Back at home, although no one used to comment about the size of her eyes, Meraby occasionally found herself bringing up the subject. She compared herself with people on screens and on the magazines, with her elder sister being the judge.
"If she said that I had smaller eyes than the person I had compared myself to, it would crush me and nothing would uplift my spirit than being told that mine were bigger," she adds.
By doing this, she didn’t know that she was sabotaging herself and it is only after some time that she realised she was sinking into shyness and low self-esteem.
“I have lost many opportunities because of lack of self-confidence. When someone tells me that I am good at something, my first subconscious response is doubt. For instance, when I completed high school in 2011, my friend and I wanted to join the acting industry and we would often go for auditions together. However, I would shy off when auditioning or start off very well only for the inadequacy to kick in. My friend progressed and I was left out.
"Also, I didn’t know much about speaking up for myself. If someone sidelined me and picked someone else for my role, I used to think that they were justified,” she offers. Although Wambui hasn’t reached where she wants to be on the journey of self-acceptance, she is happy about the progress.
“First, I no longer compare my eyes with other people's. I have learnt to love them. Besides my smile, I love my eyes most. Secondly, I research a lot about how to deal with body shaming and how to gain self-confidence," she explains.
Age: 27 years
“I was born and raised in a locality where drinking water contained significant amounts of fluoride and as a result, my teeth got fluorosis. At home, it wasn’t much of a bother because I could see other children from our neighbourhood who had the same problem,” he says.
However, at school, it became a serious issue because he got nicknamed ‘meno nyeusi’ (dark teeth), a name that spread all the way to his home's playing grounds.
“By that time I was at the peak of my adolescence but I couldn’t approach any girl because I feared that I would be dismissed for my black teeth," he says.
“In 2013, at 23, I joined Amazing Facts Centre of Evangelism, an evangelical centre and it was while there that a classmate took note of my reticent nature and got concerned. When I explained that my dark teeth were an impediment to my happiness, he offered to guide me to a dentist. It took less than two months to have my teeth cleaned. I appreciated my new look and consequently, I improved in my studies,” he says.
Flashing a wide smile as if reclaiming lost smiles of yester years, he says that he was finally able to get into the dating scene and this year, he settled down.
“It is wrong to body shame anyone and while we think that it is a problem affecting adults, its foundation is in primary and secondary school. I am a testimony of its effects,” he shares.
Age: 26 years
All through primary school, Titus stammered and it was there that he discovered that he was different from other pupils. However, it is not the difference that bothered him most but the attention he was drawing from other pupils.
“When I was talking, most of the students would gather around, mostly to laugh and mimic me," he explains. This pushed him to withdraw from other students and he was mostly a loner.
When his parents noticed the change of behaviour, they sat him down and gave him a secret.
“They advised me that the best solution would be joining other students in the joke. When I started joking about it myself, the mimics and jokes receded,” he offers.
When Titus joined high school in 2011, he had one resolve; to join rugby. However, students from upper forms advised him that to join the team, he needed a big body.
“I was quite slender then and because I really wanted to be part of the team, I became a glutton and I would stuff my body with junk and wheat products. We had a school canteen where that junk was easily and readily available,” he explains.
By the time he was joining form two, at 13 years, Titus weighed almost 80kg up from the 50kg he weighed when he joined the school. For this, he became the school’s laughing stock.
“The students would wonder why I was so big yet I didn’t even have beards. In ‘funkies’ (functions), girls avoided me. It really affected me and my performance deteriorated. With that, I developed another character, I became a bully. I used to despise petite boys and I would often start fights with them for no apparent reason,” he confesses.
To his advantage, the fourth-year bachelor of mass communication student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) was accepted into the rugby team but interestingly, he didn’t last six months.
“The passion, the urgethat I had to join the team fizzled and I wanted out. I had also become quite lazy and slow to the displeasure of other team members,” he explains.
One day, one of the teachers who had watched the change and had heard the wicked comments gave him a piece of advice that changed him.
“He started by asking if I had noticed that I had added weight and if I was happy with the gain. When I dissented, he guided me on how to lose it through a formula he named 'NEWSTART'. By the time I was leaving high school, I was almost back to my normal self. However, it took me time before I regained my self-esteem,” he offers.
Although his fellow students’ comments might have helped him realise that he needed to change, the bashing affected him.
“I think it’s important that instead of talking to someone about their flaws, it is best that you ask if they are okay. Some have inherited the weight issues or there could be other health reasons behind it,” he concludes.
Age: 22 years
One of the mundane questions that Violah gets from her acquaintances is whether she is a model. A response to the negative is followed with, ‘you got the body, how come you aren’t?’
“My body size has always been a topic of discussion with most people wondering why I am not a runway model yet I have a slender body. Some people do not understand that not all people who are slender wish to be models and each time I get that question, I think of the plus-size women who aspire to be a model. It must be harder for them," she says, noting that on the flip side, there are others who act concerned and ask if she eats enough and even offer unsolicited advice on what to eat and what to avoid.
“Throughout primary and secondary school, I didn’t receive any bashing about my body because I was of ‘normal’ size. However, it was after I completed school in 2011 that my world changed. I earned myself a nickname ‘bony’ for being too thin."
This crushed her self-esteem and she would find herself eating more than enough in a quest to add some weight to please the naysayers.
However, no matter how much she stuffed herself, her body did not change. If anything, at one point, she became smaller.
“In 2015, I fell ill and was bedridden for a week. I lost quite some weight and I felt like I had owned the ‘bony’ title. When my ex-boyfriend saw how thin I had become, he left. We had been together for about seven months and unbeknownst to me, my body size bothered him,” she explains.
After this, the 22-year-old sunk into a mild depression and it took the intervention of her friends who helped her start appreciating herself.
“They used to tell me how beautiful I was and one of my friends, who is a photographer, would take photos of me. Gradually, I learnt to appreciate myself,” she offers.
Interestingly, when she started loving herself, she started attracting positive comments from people complimenting her on her body size and others asking for the ‘secret’ to a body like hers.
“Nowadays, I get these questions a lot especially from ladies who wish to lose t weight and I take advantage of the opportunity to explain how much time it took to accept myself," she notes.
According to Violah, one of the best ways to conquer body shaming is by surrounding yourself with the right people.
“When I started the journey to self-acceptance, I had to cut links with anybody who was pulling me down. My circle, though small, is comprised of people who respect and understand that our differences make us unique," she adds. Violah has so much love for herself that she no longer depends on other people to compliment her.
“I have learnt to love myself so much that I even if I became more slender or added weight, I would still be at peace. My body size no longer defines me,” she says.
Nobody is immune to body shaming
Kim Kardashian, Serena Williams, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ed Sheeran, just to mention a few international celebrities, have at one point experienced body shaming on various forms of media.
‘Height shaming’ is just as bad as ‘size shaming’. Isn’t it ironical how ‘you are too short’ or ‘you are too tall’ is not supposed to hurt as much as ‘you are too thin’ or ‘you are too fat’?
Friends and relatives contribute to body shaming. Some people confess to having been body shamed by their parents, siblings, relatives, friends and significant others. Although body shaming comments from strangers hurt, it is worse coming from loved ones. It is therefore important that you treat your loved ones with respect and learn to love them just as they are.
Body shaming people behind their backs is just as bad as doing it in their presence. We tend to think that it doesn’t cause any harm when you secretly body shame someone; but it does. It changes how you treat that person and you also influence others to note the ‘flaws’ in that person.
On social media platforms, using pseudo accounts hurts as much as using your real account.
Dealing with Body shaming
Surround yourself with people who are body-positive. These are people who look beyond peoples’ physical appearances and don’t waste time analysing other peoples’ physical features.
If you want to change something about yourself, do it for you and not for validation. What don’t you like about your body? Why?
Remember that one of the ways that body shaming manifests is criticising oneself. A step towards self-acceptance is changing your perspective about your body. If you have a big forehead, embrace it. It makes you unique.
Phrases that are actually body shaming.
Are you on a diet? You need to eat something.
You are really pretty for a plus-size girl.
Are you sure you don’t want to wear heels?
If you didn’t have a forehead you’d have a beautiful rounded face.
Why bother wearing eye shadow, who will see it anyway?
You are very short for a guy.