Have you ever made a snap judgement on the physical appearance of another?
We all do it – and those are examples of your body-related biases in action. Some people might make a habit or a game out of judging and critiquing the appearance of strangers whilst others might not even know they’re doing it. Although the former is infinitely more malicious, both of these categories of appearance-based judgement are dangerous for our greater cultural landscape – particularly in relation to the body positivity movement which seeks to dismantle socially constructed ideals and instead navigate to a perspective of diversity and compassion.
Now, if you’re reading WYV Magazine, you’re probably a well-rounded, well-educated being who wants to learn more about the cultural landscape that they’re a part of and how they can be a part of bettering that… so it’s unlikely that you’re a part of the first group of appearance-shamers.
It’s the second group that I want to talk about today, because most of us fall into that group occasionally.
I know what you’re thinking: “But I try to be positive about others! I’m all for body positivity, and I know how damaging it can be to constantly be judging others!”
…. but even with those great intentions and a solid foundation behind you of the negative psychological impacts of judging others as a sport, you still likely do it subconsciously. Ultimately, even if you’re only making those appearance-based judgements 1% of the time and 99% of the time you’re accepting, non-judgemental and open, that 1% can still cause damage.
Your bias reflected in the world
When we see our own conscious or unconscious bias reflected in the world, this signals to us that our bias, which is really just a personal belief, is fact. That is where things get dangerous, particularly if an individual sees a bias reflected in the world via media stereotyping that’s dangerous or harmful to certain groups, and that individual then feels justified in getting on their soapbox about said bias; disguising hate-speech as “fact”. Social scientists believe children begin to acquire prejudices and stereotypes as toddlers.
An example of this would be the media’s attitude towards overweight individuals. Let’s look at the stereotypical fat person that we see in magazines, TV and even stock photos – they’re depicted as sweaty, never exercising, sitting on their living room floor surrounded by a bucket of fried chicken; unwilling to change out of pure laziness. That media depiction is damaging in itself, as we then start to form cultural stereotypes of all fat people as greedy, lazy and slovenly.
Now, let’s add an individual into the equation who had an obese mother who fit the image of the “stereotypical” fat person. That individual always resented his/her mother for her poor lifestyle habits. He/she then sees media stereotyping not as a poorly guided social collection but instead as evidence and fact. “Yes, all fat people are lazy and greedy! It’s confirmed!” A sense of entitlement when discussing issues around weight is then instilled in him/her which can impact their behaviour in negative ways that they might not even be aware of – from their sense of humour to their dating choices to the comments they choose to leave on online articles.
Additionally, people tend to gravitate towards anecdotes and tropes that reinforce their bias, but disregard experience and fact that may contradict them, as well as holding onto their bias because they perceive them as an integral component to their personality. As an example, a person who values fitness and takes the “unhealthy fatty” media stereotype as fact might believe that hating fat people fits seamlessly into their personality and is a core part of their makeup.
This means that unless a person chooses to explore, understand and challenge their biases, they’ll likely never change them.
Even within the body positive community, these biases are evident. Fat women seeking to find empowerment may inadvertently disempower thin women in order to elevate themselves, thin women might make unintentionally shaming comments towards lifestyle habits that don’t align with their own, very active women might cast judgement over those who aren’t as active thus deterring those individuals from being active, even if they actively seek to encourage physical activity… you get the point.
As humans, our collective thoughts shape our world and suddenly, when you magnify the example above into all of us, all being impacted by our personal bias. And when we’re all bringing these diverse experiences into the arena of body positivity and attempting to progress body politics, a little self-reflection and awareness becomes very important.
Identifying your bias
We all have bias towards certain subjects, particularly when we’re discussing physical appearance. These examples of bias and prejudice can come from the way we feel about ourselves, experiences that we’ve had and projections of common traits around people that have wronged or hurt us in some way. These forms of stereotyping are a way of us making sense of the world, and they’re known as ‘unconscious bias’.
To help people identify their unconscious bias, psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created “Project Implicit” to uncover hidden bias. If you’d like to take Project Implicit’s Hidden Bias Tests, click here.
(Important: Honesty is important if you’re going to uncover anything about your own bias. Many people can start to “feel” their unconscious bias as they take these tests, and will notice their reaction times slowing or notice themselves hesitating on certain questions).
Once you have identified your bias, it’s then time to do some internal reflection – ask yourself if your behaviour in certain social situations mirrors the notions that your bias provides you. Do you find yourself reacting adversely when interacting with some people based on their bodies? Do you believe that some people are inherently lesser/lazy/unworthy based on their bodies? Do you believe that you are inherently lesser/lazy/unworthy based on your body?
Dig deep and assess just how much your bias and appearance-based judgements on other people impact your world view.
Changing your bias
It is possible to alter your conscious attitudes and beliefs, and it starts with adjusting your perspective. For individuals who consider themselves socially minded and committed to being a good global citizen, the very act of discovering their unconscious biases is often a sufficient catalyst to start making them assess/change their behaviour.
Because we often group together with others who reflect our bias, our social situation may be reinforcing our negative appearance-based judgements. Women who form social groups with high levels of diet-talk often find themselves more easily judging body mass and similarly, groups who identify as plus-size who’ve had negative experiences with thin individuals may reinforce negative and unhealthy ideas such as “Real women have curves” within their groups, causing their behaviour to then also subtly reflect these undertones when interacting with thin individuals. As such, assessing the impact of your social circle on your life and your collective behaviour is often a positive step.
Some tips for changing the way you judge appearances:
- Understand that recognising your bias is often the most difficult step – it can be humbling and confronting, all at the same time. Remember that by identifying your bias, you’re already placing yourself in the headspace to be more mindful of how you act on it.
- Ask yourself why you may find it difficult to remove body-based biases. Do you feel that you’re giving up a part of your identity? Does it force you to assess whether the ideas about a specific body type you held are actually true? Use this as an opportunity to try and understand why your bias may be inaccurate or not able to be applied to every single person of that body type (for instance, this could mean recognising that not all thin women are bitchy and not all fat women are lazy).
- Challenge yourself – one of the most effective ways to confront your bias is to meet it head-on. Let’s say your bias involves judging all fat people as lazy and unmotivated. What would happen if you were to sit down face to face with a fat person and learn about that person’s lifestyle – if their lifestyle didn’t match the stereotype that you had in your mind, how would this then make you feel?
- Take things one step a time, and acknowledge that changing your bias simply involves a commitment to mindfulness and self-awareness, rather than a radical change of who you are as a person.
It can also be incredibly helpful to get into the habit of regularly assessing your world view in relation to body image. Ask yourself, “Is my current perspective helping me, or holding me back?”
From this framework, many people then find it easier to keep their bias in check. Of course, we’re not able to be in entire control of our mind and our thoughts and I’m not here asking you to commit to never judging anyone’s appearance ever again (because that’s just not realistic).
What I am asking you to do, however, is instead be aware of your own body-related bias and privilege so that you can be more mindful of what fuels the way that you interact with and perceive other bodies in the world.
Will you take that challenge?
Photo by Igor Mojzes for Dollarphotoclub.