Recently I read an excellent article which argued that body shaming, which is often thought to be mostly focused on women, also has a significant impact on men. Recently, the actor Jason Momoa, of Game of Thrones and Aquaman fame, was a victim of a torrent of online abuse after his trademark washboard abs and defined muscles slightly diminished.
The fact that this is absurd and is likely to be about the joy of belittling others and ‘trolling’ to cover up personal insecurities is irrelevant for the focus of this article. But, it is worth recognising that celebrities often occupy our idealised fantasy lives which fanatics then live vicariously. Replicating aspects of the individual’s lifestyle such as clothing, leisure activities, dietary habits, or vacation spots can allow for the fantasy of having the rest, the money, the adoration, the power, and the aesthetics. An excellent article in the Odessey argued in 2017 that imitation and criticism of celebrities can make ‘regular people’ feel better.
…They might even make us feel good about how we look since celebrities always get extra attention when they get facial or physical work done to look better for performances or photo shoots. You don’t have any plans to get a nose job, so that means you look better than someone with millions of followers on social media. It’s addicting to feel that boost in confidence or pat on the back that comes from watching the lifestyles of celebrities, which can make us check in on them even more often.
Celebrity culture is not an activity unique to the twenty-first century, nor is body shaming. In the nineteenth century, an increased focus on male and female physicality was encouraged by a period of significant medicalisation, and an expansion of scientific and nutritional discovery. By the turn of the century obesity, which had been for men a sign of wealth and prosperity, was increasingly being regarded as comical and abnormal within twentieth-century society, particularly for women.
Professor Amy Farrell of Dickinson College explains that while what is now regarded as obesity was indeed a symbol of power for men in the 19th century, the rise of the middle class and the notion of self-control helped to perpetuate the popularity of a thinner body in the twentieth century. One of the first diet books aimed at changing women’s body for the purpose of societal gained popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth radical fad diets were very much in vogue as books promoted the use of current day pharmaceuticals and adverts offered tapeworms as a solution to being overweight. Meanwhile, Horace Fletcher travelled America with a small jar of his own faeces, which reportedly smelled like biscuits, promoting his ‘Flectherising’ method of mastication which meant chewing food over 100 times to obtain the nourishment and disregarding the rest.
Dr Elsa Richardson from the University of Strathclyde is currently a BBC Three New Thinker, a brilliant academic, and an expert in health fads in history. Her work draws comparisons between modern and historical obsessions with body image and health and is excellently explained in the short video below.
Moving back to my own specialism, body shaming in the military has been present in history for as long as military authorities have been deliberately repurposing soldier’s bodies for combat. During his training in the First World War, Private Milner recalled of his diet and training regime:
The cumulative effect of these conditions and training was to tighten, coarsen and harden us. We were being transferred from Civilians into Fighting Men, and in the infantry this new toughness was, we were to learn, necessary for survival.
IWM, 20761, Private Papers of H. Milner, p.3.
This has been a message that militaries have reiterated for centuries. Only the fittest bodies make the most capable soldiers and how recruits are encouraged to achieve this have historically been particularly unpleasant. In 2015 an American Drill Sergeant and Fitness Motivator called John Burk posted a video online within which he calls overweight individuals “utterly repulsive and disgusting”. While vilified to some degree online, his ‘rant’ earned enough media attention and respect to establish a television career within which his stern drill sergeant manner is utilised to ‘encourage’ contestants to compete in a show called ‘American Grit’. Below is a video of Burk, proudly posted by broadcaster FOX as an advertisement for the show, berating someone to the point of tears.
There are numerous reports of body shaming being utilised as a way to motivate trainees in the history of the armed forces. Physical exercises tend to be gruelling, and indoctrination to the point of submission is often required to ensure that soldiers react and comply immediately and subconsciously to orders. Insulting the physicality of a recruit can be as effective as insulting their sexuality, masculinity, gender, or intelligence. It is a mark of singling out weakness to show dominance and ensure compliance, and it is markedly effective. However, times are perhaps changing.
In 2018, the above video became viral as calls for the dismissal of the trainer clashed with a backlash against what was disparagingly called ‘affirmative action’. Viewpoints ranged from using the video as ‘proof’ that women were unsuited to military service to concerns over the harsh treatments recruits received in basic training. In 2019, continued investigations into the behaviour of training NCOs uncovered that over 100 training non-commissioned officers had been court-martialled over the previous four years for offences including drug taking, theft, violence, and abuse of recruits. This investigation was encouraged by the arguments over the suicide of Private Geoff Gray in 2001 at Deepcut barracks whose death was reportedly the result of bullying during training,
In 2018, the MOD came under fire after 28 young recruits aged 17 and 18 claimed that they had been abused during a training camp. One recruit told the ensuing investigation that an instructor had physically force fed him animal manure. Another said he saw colleagues thrown to the ground by instructors in the hangar where they were sleeping and recalled ‘We got told it was all part of the training and that’s what’s supposed to happen and it was just to get us psyched up and ready for it.’ Yet, the extent of physical abuse was extensive. On the witness stand, another former recruit gave a harrowing recollection of his treatment by his trainer:
“He would scream in your face, saying abusive stuff. He said to me, ‘I am going to rape your baby’, and he waited a few seconds, and he spat in my face,” he said. “At the time we thought what they were doing was part of the training. I was expecting it to be tough but nothing like it was.”
Still, the MOD has not been complacent. Over the last ten years, much has been done by the British Military to tackle the issue of bullying.
Focus, particularly on LGBT rights and discrimination, has been at the forefront of the campaigns against bullying and offering support. In line with extreme responses such as mental health issues and suicide, again while the reforms are not entirely sufficient, actions have been taken to improve the experience of trainee and currently serving men and women.
The physical body in society is a theoretical minefield. Perceptions of self and others clash with normalised ideals of desirable aesthetics and medically influenced recommendations for health and nutrition. Fat Shaming is a popular past time and even played a role in the new Avengers movie, see my article on Fat Shaming Thor for more information. In the military Fat Shaming has not only been a regular part of the training, but an essential one, as recruits by default need to transform their civilian body for military service, and negative reinforcement is a particularly useful way of enabling this transformative process. Yet, in the modern world, this level of ‘encouragement’ is more appropriately recognised for the psychological and physically damaging ramifications it can have, causing militaries to re-evaluate how they treat the men and women who are not merely in their service, but under their care.
Some may argue that modern armies are becoming populated by ‘snowflakes’ unsuited to the rigours and traumas of soldiering. However, the counter-argument lies in that all of these negative terms, such as ‘Snowflake’, ‘Feminine’, ‘Gay’ ‘Fat’ employed to shame recruits into becoming better, are only negative because they have been normalised to recognised as such. Therefore, the answer to these issues lies not in stopping people from saying these things; but potentially changing mindsets to remove the stigma and negative association. Taking the ‘bad bod’ out of the ‘dad bod’, one might say.