Body shaming is degrading, and it often leaves negative consequences on a child’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. Although it can be a tool or fuel for bullying behavior, body shaming is also executed across culture and the media, both online and print. In some instances, body shaming can be done by parents and relatives, and this can be even more devastating when coming from people you love. It is important that we all understand the long-term consequences of body shaming.
Ever go back home or travel to visit relatives and right after exchanging warm greetings and hugs, you hear one of the following dreaded phrases: “You got fat!” or “You are looking too thin and sick. You need to stop losing weight!”
Even worse, has your family made insensitive comments about your child’s weight or appearance? Have they done it in his/her presence while you are cringing inside? “She is so dark! Keep her out of the sun!” “If he doesn’t stop eating like this, he will be obese when he gets older!” “She is gaining too much weight!” and “He looks very pale.” These are just some of the comments I and other mothers I know have heard made about their children. Sadly, the offenders are usually adult relatives who should know better. Some of them may mean well, and others are just plain nosy and rude. Body shaming is a real problem in our community and society at large. While some organizations, companies, and even the fashion industry are taking steps to change that, what are we doing to put an end to it in the mosque and at home?
It's a Shame
There are different types of body shaming. The general meaning is to humiliate a person by criticizing or mocking some aspect or all aspects of their physical appearance. For the sake of this article, we will focus more on body shape shaming. However, know that body shaming is not limited to body shape or size. While fat shaming is one of the most prevalent forms, there is also thin or skinny shaming, height shaming, hair type shaming, hairline shaming, and more.
Body shaming can be perpetrated through certain cultures or isms that value a certain body type or look over another. It can be a byproduct of racist ideologies or colonialism, as well. Social media only helps to intensify the problem by promoting distorted perceptions of beauty through filters, editing, and airbrush tools.
It can also be direct or indirect. For example, a direct form of body shaming would be when a family member refuses to serve your child dessert because they determined the child is overweight. An indirect form would be a billboard with a very thin model to advertise a beauty product – which may send a secondary message to a child or adult that thin equals beautiful.
As a person who was constantly teased about my weight growing up, I cannot stress enough that we should never fat shame our children. It will have profoundly damaging repercussions on their mental and physical health well into adulthood. I dealt with incessant jokes and comments about my weight as a child and adolescent, and these took a toll on my self-esteem. Most of the time my tormentors were my close family. For as long as I can remember, I felt fat, ugly, and inadequate. Consequently, I struggled with self-acceptance, relationships, and social situations. It was not until I was well into adulthood when I looked at old photo albums and realized I was never overweight to begin with. There was never a point in my childhood, from infant to teenager, that anyone could consider me fat or chubby. No pediatrician, counselor, or nutritionist ever mentioned I was too heavy. I was a “normal” sized kid! When I confronted my family about this, they said that the reason for their comments was to motivate me to establish healthy eating and exercise routines. They seriously believed they were helping me when they did just the opposite.
All About Looks
Although our faith encourages us to lead a healthy lifestyle, eat well, and stay active, body shaming has no place in Islam. Allah gives a stern warning in the Quran regarding mocking others. He says,
“O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name [i.e., mention] of disobedience after [one's] faith. And whoever does not repent - then it is those who are the wrongdoers.”
(Surah Al-Hujarat, 49:11)
Our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, also taught us that our Lord does not judge us based on how we look. He said,
“Verily, Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions.”
He also advised Muslims to mind their business! He equated discretion to being the pinnacle of good manners when it comes to faith. In another authentic hadith, he said,
“Verily, among excellence in Islam is for a man to leave what does not concern him.”
Making comments about a person’s physical appearance is included. It does not mean that we cannot advise our brothers and sisters from a place of love and sincerity, but we should do so with hikmah or wisdom. If a family member or friend is concerned about a child’s health, they can address the parent in private. The scholar, Ibn Hazm, may Allah have mercy on him, said,
“If you give advice, then give advice in private, not in public, and by hinting, not by speaking bluntly, unless the person to whom advice is given will not understand hints, in which case there is no option but to speak bluntly.… If you go beyond these guidelines, then you are wronging him and are not being sincere in your advice.”
(Al-Akhlaq wa As-Siyar, p. 45)
Likewise, parents are encouraged to approach the issue with caution and model the behavior they would like to see in their children, whether that be good eating habits or regular exercise.
When Approaching Sensitive Topics
Here are other things to consider when approaching this sensitive topic with your child:
- It is best not to allow family or friends to comment on their appearance or weight in front of them. Not every adult in a child’s life has the right to speak on their appearance. It is preferable that it is a child’s parent or guardian who approaches them with any advice about their health.
- Make dua for your child to protect them from evil eyes and criticism. Ibn Abbaas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: “The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to seek refuge with Allah for Hasan and Hussain, and he said: ‘Your father (Ibrahim) used to seek refuge with (these words) for Ismail and Ishaaq: A‘oodhu bi kalimaat Illaahi’t-taammah min kulli shaytaanin wa haammah wa min kulli ‘aynin laammah (I seek refuge in the perfect words of Allah from every devil and every vermin, and from every evil [envious] eye.” (Bukhari)
- Make your children feel beautiful by dressing them nicely and helping them take care of their hair and body. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty.” (Muslim)
- Sometimes we project our own insecurities on our children. Our own fears of inadequacy fuel the notion that our offspring will go down the wrong path or jeopardize their wellbeing. We must believe that if we offer them a safe space where they feel loved and accepted, they will thrive. More importantly, they will grow feeling confident in their own skin. This also includes not making disparaging remarks about our own struggles with weight or appearance in front of our child.
- Children are constantly growing and changing. They will gain weight, lose weight, be athletic, be lazy, etc. All of these stages are part of their development. Children do not need to be on weight loss diets unless this is something recommended and directed by a healthcare professional for health reasons.
Surprisingly, even some doctors can issue erroneous information to vulnerable parents when speaking out of their realm of expertise. When I had my first son, I learned this lesson the hard way. As new parents, my husband and I eagerly made an appointment with the first Muslim pediatrician we could find. She was a very stern and traditional doctor from Pakistan. When she saw that my son, an exclusively breastfed infant, weighed a lot more than average, she told us to put him on a strict feeding schedule. However, this did not work well for long and she constantly warned us that he was at risk for obesity and diabetes. After much harassment and wrong advice, we opted for another Muslim pediatrician who was Palestinian and had decades of experience with Latino children. When we mentioned all the concerns we had about our baby’s weight, he was baffled. He assured us that our son was, as he said, “A normal breastfed baby!” After doing some research, we found that the second doctor was right – breastfed infants often weigh more than formula-fed babies. Not all doctors are qualified to give nutritional advice. If you are a parent of a child who is carrying a few extra pounds, be sure to find a caring pediatrician who knows how to deal gently with children. Get a second opinion if needed.
It is difficult to control what other people say or do, but we can be proactive as parents. Our young girls deal with a lot more body shaming than boys. Society places a lot of pressure on women and girls to be flawless. Girls are expected to be perfect in everything they do and the way they look. According to Forbes Magazine, the global beauty industry alone is worth $532 billion, and it mostly targets girls. We cannot fight the pressures of the outside world, but if we live according to the teachings of Islam, we will instill pride and confidence in our children. Superficial perceptions of beauty are constantly changing; therefore, we can never fit permanently into the trend. Our natural beauty transcends societal whims, and it is up to us to remind them of this fact.
Work to Instill Confidence
Instead of body shaming, here are some things we can say to instill confidence in our girls and boys:
- Tell them you love them often. Turn to them and show them affection and tell them they are perfect just the way they are.
- Instead of pointing out their weight, say, “You look great!” or “You radiate confidence!”
- Do not forget to say “Masha’Allah, tabarakAllah” when complimenting your child.
- Praise their strength and intelligence, not just their looks. Why focus on appearance when there is so much more?
- Remind them that Allah created them in the most perfect way.
We may not be able to stop the madness of body shaming on a larger scale, but the least we can do is put a stop to it in our own homes. The scope of body shaming is wide, and in its broadest sense even includes physical traits and ailments that are out of our control. The moment we accept some sort of shaming for ourselves or our children, we open the door to Shaytan and to others disrespecting us and destroying our self-worth. Instead, we can think well of Allah and remember that He is our most Perfect Creator who created us perfectly. Allah says in the Quran:
“Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has Taqwa.”
(Surah Al-Hujarat, 49:11)
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.