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Body Shaming: an Exploratory Study on its Definition and Classification

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International Journal of Bullying Prevention Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Body shaming (BS) is a popular term for a type of negative social interaction, which frequently occurs in social media. However, there is a lack of a clear scientific definition of BS and data on its relation to other concepts in social aggression research. The present study therefore aimed at providing a definition and classification of BS. In an exploratory online-study, 25 participants (60%) provided personal definitions of BS and rated the fit of a suggested definition. In addition, they reported similarities with and differences to related concepts (appearance teasing, cyberbullying, trolling). We conducted qualitative analyses of the verbal definitions guided by the Grounded Theory approach and quantified the fit to existing concepts in the field of social aggression. The results show that BS is perceived as an unrepeated act in which a person expresses unsolicited, mostly negative opinions/comments about a target’s body, without necessarily intending to harm him/her. Still, the target perceives the comments as negative. BS can range from well-meant advice to malevolent insults and it can occur online and offline. Participants saw similarities between BS and appearance teasing. BS can be a tool for trolling and can evolve to cyberbullying with repetition over time. Altogether, BS is a form of social aggression that has a negative impact on individuals. The definition and classification help to investigate BS and its effects on body image and mental health in future research.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Schmidt.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Appendices

Appendix 1. Open-ended questions to gain insights in people’s understanding of body shaming

Q1

What do you understand by body shaming? (e.g., Which aspects belong to body shaming? What is body shaming different from?)

Q2

Below you can see the definition of cyberbullying. Please read the definition carefully. Do you think body shaming and cyberbullying are the same (if so, why? What are similarities)? Or does body shaming differ from cyberbullying (if so, what are the differences)? Please justify your answer

Definition cyberbullying:

Cyberbullying is defined as an aggressive, deliberate act carried out by an individual or a group, using electronic sources, frequently repeated over time against a victim who is not able to defend him- or herself easily. The electronic forms of contact can be smartphones, e-mails, chat rooms, and online spaces like, e.g., Facebook

Q3

Below you can see the definition of trolling. Please read the definition carefully. Do you think body shaming and trolling are the same (if so, why? What are similarities)? Or does body shaming differ from trolling (if so, what are the differences)? Please justify your answer

Definition trolling:

Trolling is a form of online abuse. It describes acts, in which groups or individuals post offensive messages and behave in a delusive, destructive, or dismissive way in a social setting on the Internet without apparent intention

Q4

Below you can see the definition of appearance teasing. Please read the definition carefully. Do you think body shaming and appearance teasing are the same (if so, why? What are similarities)? Or does body shaming differ from appearance teasing (if so, what are the differences)? Please justify your answer

Definition appearance teasing:

Appearance Teasing manifests in negative social feedback/negative verbal commentary on individual’s physical characteristics, e.g., weight, facial features, or hair. It can range from relatively good-natured comments from a close friend to malevolent expressions from strangers or bullies. Appearance teasing is a repeated act which often intents to harm the target

Q5

Below is our suggested definition of body shaming. Please read this carefully as well. Would you agree with this definition or is something relevant missing?

Definition body shaming:

Body shaming is an unrepeated action in which a person expresses unsolicited, mostly negative opinions or comments about the target’s body, which can take place in both, social media and in the real world. As the term body shaming suggests, a reference to the appearance or to the body of the target is central. Body shaming does not necessarily intend to harm the victim. It may also be a well-meant advice (e.g., from a physician: “You should reduce your weight to prevent high blood pressure”). In contrast to fat shaming (i.e., mockery or criticism about someone judged to be fat or overweight), body shaming does not solely target overweight individuals. E.g., lean individuals or specific body parts can also fall victim to body shaming (e.g., “You need some meat on your bones,” “How is the view down there, shorty?,” “Your legs look nasty,” “Your ears seem small”)

  1. Q2-Q4 (bold print) were presented in randomized order to avoid effects caused by sequence and/or order. To prevent later editing of statements, participants could not return to previous questions

Appendix 2. Overview on exemplary statements regarding similarities and differences of the targeted concepts (body shaming, appearance teasing, cyberbullying, trolling)

Body shaming and appearance teasing

Stated similarities among body shaming and appearance teasing (most participants agreed to the similarities without further feedback):

• “Yes, the two constructs are similar because the victim is harmed due to his appearance” (P17)

• “Appearance Teasing is very similar to Body Shaming, it possibly describes the same construct, because it deals with malicious comments about body characteristics” (P12)

• “Appearance Teasing and Body Shaming are, in my opinion, very comparable, since one's own opinion gets influenced by the opinion of others.” (P25)

Single stated differences between body shaming and appearance teasing:

• “If comments refer to the body of the “victim” and not to their clothes, accessories, etc. it [appearance teasing] would be body shaming to me” (P6)

• “I would say that body shaming doesn't have to be a repeated act” (P21)

• “Moreover, this definition does not explicitly state that appearance teasing also occurs online. Body Shaming does that in any case” (P5)

• “[…] Body Shaming = in the Internet. Appearance Teasing = telling the person directly in the face” (P9)

• “Apparently, appearance teasing only refers to “verbal” comments. Body shaming is often present in social media, that's where people write…” (P5)

• “[…] it [body shaming] can also be executed via personal/subjective comments that are related to oneself.” (P21)

“To me, however, Body Shaming is a stronger form of Appearance Teasing, because in my eyes “good-natured comments of a friend” do not belong to it” (P22)

• “In my opinion Appearance Teasing is even more malicious than Body Shaming, because Body Shaming is rather about situational insults whereas Appearance Teasing is about to really harm the victim” (P20)

• Both constructs “cannot be equated, because body shaming does not aim to harm the victim, it rather comments negatively on the appearance” (P13)

• “Body shaming consciously aims at harming the other with comments regarding the body” (P1)

Body shaming and cyberbullying

Stated similarities among body shaming and cyberbullying:

• “In both cases, people do not say their opinion to their counterpart’s face. By using the electronic media/ “anonymity” of the Internet people feel strong, people get hurt and they don't see each other's emotions” (P14)

• “[…] the victim cannot easily defend him-/herself. According to blog posts it seems difficult for victims to show the right reaction (defense), e.g. ignoring vs. giving in vs. starting a shitstorm, etc.” (P5)

• “In both cases the victims are attacked because of their appearance, origin or any kind of diversity” (P8)

• “I consider them both as subordinates of social aggression which makes them indirectly related” (P2)

• “Body Shaming is a subtype of cyberbullying” (P1)

Stated differences between body shaming and cyberbullying:

• “Cyberbullying can be used more universally (not just the body as a target)” (P10)

• “Assuming that cyberbullying exists, it primarily refers to the virtual space, since electronic means must be used to launch an attack at all. Body shaming does not require any electronic devices” (P6)

• “In my understanding, body shaming is more situational and less repetitive and intentional” (P20)

• “If body shaming occurs several times in a row, it's cyberbullying” (P9)

• “[…] body shaming can be more subliminal. By cyberbullying I understand direct insults and “screwing somebody up” (often also collectively)” (P3)

Body shaming and trolling

Stated similarities among body shaming and trolling:

• “body shaming is a subcategory of trolling” (P2)

• “I think trolling might involve body shaming. Because here, others are also judged in a dismissive way” (P11)

• “Similarities seem to exist, because the aim, namely humiliating the other person, is the same” (P24)

Stated differences between body shaming and trolling:

• “Different, because [trolling is] not necessarily related to the body. It is also very random” (P16)

• “Trolling is different, because it only takes place online. Body shaming can also take place face to face” (P12)

• “Trolling is designed to provoke an answer, hoping to get a more pleasant answer for the troll. The allegedly trolled person doesn't even have to be the actual target, but a means to an end. However, a troll can use body shaming when it suits his tactics.” (P6)

• “In trolling, more “traps” are be set for the victim.” (P4)

• “However, I think that trolling involves rather “harsher” body shaming comments” (P5)

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Schlüter, C., Kraag, G. & Schmidt, J. Body Shaming: an Exploratory Study on its Definition and Classification. Int Journal of Bullying Prevention 5, 26–37 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42380-021-00109-3

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