“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
It’s the age-old adage we’re taught as children, and the sentiment is clear: we should ignore name-calling and teasing, because it’s meaningless in the long run. Physical violence is far more damaging, after all… except that, now we’re all grown up, we know that just isn’t true.
Words are powerful. They can lift us up and inspire us to do incredible things, but they can also knock us down. And taunts about appearance are toxic: they stick with us for an incredibly long time, ringing in our ears whenever we look in the mirror, reminding us that, once upon a time, someone really thought it was appropriate to judge our worth by the sack of skin and guts we walk around in.
It’s no wonder that so many women remember the very first time they were body-shamed – as demonstrated by a hashtag sweeping Twitter.
Sally Bergesen, the founder and CEO of athletic wear company Oiselle, recently took to social media to share her own first time.
“‘Keep eating like that and you’re going to be a butterball,’” she tweeted. “[That was] my Dad when I was 12.”
Bergesen then asked her followers to share their own personal stories of being body-shamed with the hashtag #TheySaid, prompting an onslaught of messages from thousands of women.
Some had been shamed for being “too big”:
Random stranger in response to a race shirt I was wearing: "You must have walked that race right? You don't look fit enough to be a runner."— Meagan (@turkeyrunner712) May 26, 2017
Oh! But the very first? "You need to suck it in!" By a gymnastics coach. I was 7. #TheySaid— danielle henty (@dlittleone) May 26, 2017
"danielle's butt is so big, it always looks like she is wearing a diaper" circa 2002, first boy i ever kissed #theysaid— Danielle Prescod (@danielleprescod) May 31, 2017
"If you're chubby all the boys are going to run away." An uncle told me that when I was 11 years of age. #TheySaid— Alyssa Yeo (@AllyAshton) May 31, 2017
"You would be so beautiful if you just lost some weight" said my mom while I was getting ready for a job. #TheySaid— Joni DuPre RN (@jcdupre11) May 30, 2017
"Wow, you're still running? You're so much bigger than I remember." An old CU professor I ran into at Safeway...two summers ago. #TheySaid— Kara Goucher (@karagoucher) May 26, 2017
"She could stand to do a few sit ups". MIL to me in front of, and about my 7 year old beautiful, healthy daughter. #TheySaid— Kathryn Voorhees (@KatLeighV) May 28, 2017
"You'd be a knock-out if you lost 15 pounds". Spoken to me by my "boyfriend" who was about 30 pounds overweight.— Cory Benson (@coryrbenson) May 25, 2017
You'd be great (at ballet) if you grew 7 inches and lost 20 pounds. I was 110lb at the time. Became a Thai Boxer instead.— Carrie (@st33lma8nolia) May 25, 2017
"You're going to have to lose weight if you want to do fun things at school and be happy." - Mom, summer before I began jr. high. #TheySaid— Tara (@runningreading1) May 25, 2017
Others were criticised for being “too skinny”:
"You look great - have you lost weight?" after I had GAINED 10 lbs when I stopped starving myself— Shannon P (@kentuckyshan) May 25, 2017
"You look so skinny! You look beautiful!" My Irish dance teacher to 16 year old me after I'd spent a month starving myself for competition. https://t.co/tTUrgTQHJ1— Kelly Roberts (@KellyKKRoberts) May 25, 2017
"You look like a Holocaust victim." Family member, when I was in middle school. https://t.co/TvFMB2ollB— Jasmine (@runflamingo) May 25, 2017
"You don't have the curves to wear tight dress", my so-called feminist BFF when I was 13. I'm 17. Still worry about my waist size. #TheySaid— Lívia Maria (@studyativist) May 31, 2017
"Do you ever eat anything?" -Woman at relay race 2 wks ago. Response? "A lot actually." Mad that I felt I had to justify myself. #TheySaid— Sara Schwendinger (@SaraHackbarth) May 25, 2017
"You look like you need a cheeseburger": teammate's family (who didn't see me go back for 3rds at buffet, incl large slice of choc cake)— Cari Armstrong (@flyfreecari) May 25, 2017
Some were made to feel uncomfortable about their chest size:
"She thinks just because she's got big t*ts, she knows everything..." said my stepfather to my little sister when I was just 12 #theysaid— Clint & Leesa Wilson (@wehavenobaddays) May 26, 2017
"That's inappropriate - cover up with this shirt." Referring to my chest size - only girl forced to cover up at group gathering at a lake.— Shasta Zielke (@shastazielke) May 25, 2017
And others were bullied over their stature:
And there were countless other stories, all heart-breakingly relatable, all absolutely infuriating, and all sadly reminding us that the cruellest body-shaming comments all too often come from those we love the most.
Because, while bullies can get to us, a thoughtless remark uttered by a beloved family member or friend will stay with us forever. These are the people we love and trust with our hearts – and, when they get careless, they can do irreparable damage to our self-esteem.
Bergesen followed up her initial tweet by suggesting that those affected by the #TheySaid thread think of ways to respond to body shaming comments.
What replies can we arm our girls with? I'll start: "Actually, all bodies are different and I'm just right for me." #TheySaid— Sally Bergesen (@oiselle_sally) May 25, 2017
“What replies can we arm our girls with?” she asked the internet at large. “I’ll start: ‘Actually, all bodies are different and I’m just right for me.”
Alternatively, for those looking for a less polite response, Bergesen suggested: “‘Thanks for objectifying me, asshole.’”
And her fellow social media users have come up trumps with badass replies of their own, too.
What my body can do for me is more important that how it looks to others. #TheySaid— Ally Feldman (@Pofeldy) May 25, 2017
"What a strange thing to say. I'm happy with my body." Honestly I find sometimes that puzzlement can prompt someone to rethink their words.— jess c! (@librarianjess) May 25, 2017
"I've worked really hard to be exactly who I am right now, body included."— Michaela Copenhaver (@lightweighteats) May 25, 2017
"This body is so much more than the machine you're objectifying. For it has the courage and resilience of the human that drives it."— Lucy Panko (@LucyPanko) May 25, 2017
But, whether we’re armed with an arsenal of salty replies or not, the #TheySaid hashtag is yet another reminder that we need to change the conversation about women and their bodies.
As one social media user points out, “we are each perfectly meant for our own miraculous body”, and we need to stop letting others determine our worth by our appearance.
After all, there’s only one opinion that matters when it comes to what a woman looks like, and that’s the opinion of the woman herself.