Changing the narrative of body shaming

Young feminists are working to put an end to the stigma that surrounds body shaming in queer and minority communities in Central New York.

At the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump out on comments he made about former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. Trump body shamed and stereotyped Machado, the first Latina to win the pageant, by calling her Miss Piggy (because she gained weight) and Miss Housekeeping (because she’s Latina). The second presidential debate was preceded by a leak of offensive comments about women Trump made during a bit he had done for Access Hollywood in 2005. “Grab her by the pu—y,” he now famously said to Billy Bush in the recording.

Trump’s comments on women have historically been sexually charged, often reducing the women he’s speaking about to their physical appearance: if a woman does not live up to his standards, Trump will label them as almost sub-human; if they do live up to his standards, they are just a number on his predetermined scale for beauty, another notch on his imaginary bedpost.

Trump’s remarks have sparked a national discussion on body shaming and fat shaming. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, the number of women reported having anorexia has gone up every decade since 1930. In 2010, 69 percent of elementary school aged girls who read magazines said the pictures influenced what they thought the ideal female body should look like; 47 percent said those images made them want to lose weight.

Delsy Joya-Reyes, a senior at SUNY Oneonta and first-generation Latina, says the shame she felt about her body started very early, since she hit puberty before all of her friends. “I was no longer ‘Delsy, the funny girl,” Joya-Reyes says. “I was ‘Delsy, the girl with the huge tits and the big butt and the big hips.’”

Joya-Reyes says her family and friends’ changed perceptions about her body influenced her to see herself as nothing more than a body to be consumed by men and women alike.

The pressures she felt as a cheerleader to stay thin like her teammates eventually led to an eating disorder. She remembers her team captain ridiculing her for eating more food than the other girls.

“People don’t really take into consideration how much words can truly affect you,” she says. “I went months without eating…I thought I was disgusting.”

The trend of body image issues and body-shaming starting at a young age can also be found with Yasmine Montes de Oca, another senior at SUNY Oneonta. She says discovering feminism and her queer identity her freshman year drastically changed the way she thought about her body.

As a young Dominican-American girl, Montes de Oca was teased by other children for being very tall and curvy. “I understood I was beautiful,” she says, “but I didn’t understand why other people couldn’t see it.”

Both Joya-Reyes and Montes de Oca say traditional American beauty standards are not inclusive of women of color.

“You have all these white girls around you that are mostly all small and short with long, straight hair, and they kind of embody this ideal beauty standard of femininity…and I wasn’t that,” Montes de Oca says.

The most glaring problem with body shaming is how young boys and girls are when they first begin to experience it, because of the rapid rate at which children are exposed to the media. Katie Tastrom Fenton, a local lawyer and freelance writer, says she has made a conscious effort to teach her children to step in whenever they see body shaming. 

“Kids really see it, but if we don’t talk about it, it makes it seem like there’s something wrong with being fat,” Fenton says. “Kids are going to get the messages from everywhere.”

Soleil Young, a senior at Syracuse University, says changing how we talk about different bodies is key to reducing the frequency of comments like those made by Donald Trump.

“A lot of the time, fatness and skinniness don’t necessarily correlate with health,” Young says. “Someone can be really skinny and really healthy, and someone can be really fat and very healthy…” and vice versa.

Resources for young men and women struggling with eating disorders have become more accessible as the stigmatization of disordered eating has decreased. Ophelia’s Place, a recovery center, is one of those resources. It was founded by MaryEllen Clausen 14 years ago in Liverpool, NY.

Ophelia’s Place is known for its unique take on rejecting the clinical stigma that surrounds eating disorder recovery centers, opening Cafe 407 in the early 2000s. Cafe 407 offers an alternative to a traditional clinical setting for those struggling with eating disorders, says Gillian McGann, the current director of Ophelia’s Place. The Cafe is warmer, more welcoming—patrons can grab coffee and a scone, and all of the profits go directly to Ophelia’s Place.

McGann says hating our bodies is not inevitability. “It is actually possible to love your body and love yourself and live as though that were true every single day,” she says. 

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