Going Up to Bring You Down: Body Shaming in a NYC elevator

On one of the last truly hot and humid days in NYC, I decided to wear one of my favorite outfits – a black crepe halter dress with plunging neck and back lines. I love this dress not just for its fit, but also because it shows off the muscle tone of my upper back and chest. I feel strong, ethereal and sexy whenever I wear this dress. It’s one of those wardrobe staples every girl should possess. By the time I arrived at my destination, I was glazed in a dewy sweat sheen.

Going up to bring me down....body shaming in a NYC elevator.
Going up to bring ME down….body shaming in a NYC elevator.

I stepped into the elevator with a middle aged woman and three men, one of which held the door for me and offered to press my floor. I thanked him for his good manners. One by one, the men got off at their respective floors. When the elevator reached mine, it was just myself and the woman in the back. I noticed she had a cane and was leaning into the wall staring at the floors lighting up overhead. As the doors opened, I picked up the hem of my dress and started to step out. What I heard next shocked me. “Wear a bra!!” she angrily blurted out. It took me a second to process what she said. As I turned back around to confront this unprovoked insult, she pressed the button to close the elevator door in my face.

I was shaken and for the rest of my day, I tried to comprehend what had triggered this woman’s body shaming of a complete stranger.  The universe’s attempts to make good on the event by showering me with random compliments about the dress or my body did nothing to take the edge off her insult. Its sting stayed with me long into my commute home in the evening. I looked at the sea of faces sitting across from me and wondered were these people also thinking shameful things about myself or each other? What is it that provokes us to shame each other?

I have written about the topic of bullying before in previous posts. Females choose a more social form of aggression as their preferred method of taking others down a few notches. Body shaming falls under this method. This form of relational bullying is usually rooted in deep issues of self esteem. It is used to maintain status, weed out competition and provide a means of addressing fear and jealousy. Was this the reason for the middle aged woman’s verbal bomb? Targeting me because I presented a mirror to her of what she wasn’t and subsequently taking me down in order to alleviate her own insecurities? Then another thought hit me – if women like her are doing this to each other well into middle age, what hope do our little girls have of building a healthy self image and learning to be “girls’ girls”?

After a lot of thinking, I came to the conclusion that the best action I could take to counter the shame was to be that example. After all, I do consider myself a “girls’ girl”. I appreciate the beauty of other women and celebrate in their successes. I am able to be this way because I have worked through the self esteem issues of my youth and accept who I am at this time in my life. I complimented the dress of a woman standing next to me on the train, which made her smile for a good long minute after I told her. I held the elevator for another woman rushing to catch it, who breathlessly thanked me and then told me to have a wonderful day upon exiting. I helped a middle aged woman on the train remove a bracelet that was squeezing into her wrist and causing her major discomfort. She called me an angel and showered me with kisses and hugs. All these acts of random kindness left me feeling a more loving vibe that reverberated to those around me. Ironically, I saw the woman that had shamed me waiting for the elevators a couple of weeks later. I held the door for her as she entered. She said nothing to me. I couldn’t help but look at her, wondering if she recognized me. It was clear she didn’t. With her eyes fixated on the numbers lighting up above, I exited the elevator and this time, no comments followed me out.

Additional reading:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201109/bullying-in-the-female-world

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-hurt/201109/relational-aggression-and-the-job

 

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Instabullies – The Social Evolution of Bullying

I recently saw a news program from the UK about “Dancing Man” that drew attention to cyber-bullying. This man was an overweight, average guy dancing in a club who was photographed and heckled by a group of people (mixed gender) via social media. There is a before picture of him happily dancing and an after photo, where he realized what the group has done and looks ashamed. A group of women in the States caught site of this post and banded together to undo the damage, by hosting a dance party for “Dancing Man.” At the end of the day, the cyber-bullies gave him the opportunity to meet a ton of famous and beautiful women in parties all over the trendiest clubs of Los Angeles; something I doubt they do on a regular basis. The “Dancing Man” is a rare exception to the norm. Most people who are victims of this type of bullying do not have the world come to their rescue. Some may not even be aware that they have been bullied. I’m coining the term “instabullies” as the popular social media site Instagram has become a playground for both insidious and overt bullying. And don’t think for a second that your bullies are just preteens and young adults. The age range creeps well into middle adulthood.

The bullies’ post that body shamed “Dancing Man”

Most of us have an image of what a bully is in mind, either from the media or our own elementary through high school experiences. Outside of getting one’s ass kicked, there are other forms of bullying. Relational aggression is the worst kind of bullying. It’s below the belt, hits you where you are weakest and can have far reaching psychological repercussions. Its hallmark is social manipulation achieved with a number of tactics that include group exclusion, spreading rumors, public embarrassment, breaking confidences, backstabbing and getting others to dislike another person. Popularity (i.e. sociometric status) is a huge determining factor in bullying. Research indicates that relational aggression is more effective for maintaining the popularity status of a group among other groups, as well specific relationship and status dynamics inside a group. Now this seems to apply to the younger, school age population, but bare in mind that group membership and status present themselves at all stages in life. Take, for example, the workplace. Its social organization can mirror high school quite a bit – cliques form of so called popular people who go to happy hours, events and other activities together and only together. The rest of the population either wants to join them, despises them and could care less about their exclusiveness or both despises and wants to join them. It relates back to self esteem – the higher it is, the less sociometric status factors into feelings of one’s worth. Relational aggression is sometimes referred to as the Mean Girls Phenomenon borrowing from the film title that put this form of bullying on the map for millennials. While the mention of Girls may make it seem that it is gender specific, both men and women engage in this form of aggression as we saw with “Dancing Man.” However, it is true that women have a tendency toward the use of relational over physical aggression.

There are many reasons for the above; some obvious and some not. The obvious ones are jealousy, feelings of insecurity and need for control/power. The not so obvious – boredom and social modeling. The former just blows my mind considering how many other activities one could “busy” themselves with over ridiculing others. The latter I have been witness to and fully agree. Just the other day I watched a grown adult take a photo of a morbidly obese woman sitting across from her on the subway and then tell her daughter how she was going to do something funny. Her furious typing indicated to me she was either posting the image with commentary somewhere or sending it via text/chat to her contact(s). That little girl observing this behavior is absolutely likely to copy it if major interventions in school or in her community do not intercede to prevent the cycle from continuing. Recall what I noted earlier about the age range for cyber bullying starting at preteen all the way into middle age – that’s at least two if not three generations all engaging in the same social offense. What does that say about the future of our society?

I often think about how bullying evolved in our human history. When did it become necessary to intimidate and abuse others through physical and psychological means? According to an article on the origins of bullying in Scientific America, it seems to be a universal feature in human society; “…a species-typical human behavior that has little to do with the cultures people live in. Bullying, it seems is part of our normal behavioral repertoire, it is part of the human condition.” (Sherrow) Preliminary research indicates that universal behaviors often have deep evolutionary origins, even stemming from our previous human ancestors – primates. Behavioral studies of animals, including primates, indicate that they engage in bullying. This behavioral pattern was assessed by determining if the behavior was meant to intimidate another. Frequent use of intimidation and aggression to manipulate the behaviors of others and to acquire resources was seen in the female baboon population. In chimps, the author noted that his studies of adolescent males strongly indicated a pattern of bullying as the smaller adolescent chimp attempted to enter the adult male hierarchy. So, essentially we’ve been tearing each other down before we evolved into upright Homo Sapiens, but for a good reason – survival.

Female baboon flipping her lip as a display of aggression…with a little one looking on

The primordial behavior we inherited from our primate cousins has changed dramatically thanks to natural selection. It was modified by our ability to mentalize i.e. our awareness of ourselves and others’ mental states that guide our actions. If you better understand the desires and feelings of others, you have a more effective gateway into manipulating them. Think about any country with a history of coercion and conformity. Bullying is a daily occurrence to maintain social order and control. It’s not the culture that created the bullying. Instead it supports and promotes the use of this behavior pattern. Indeed, bullying can be employed in many different ways and for a variety of outcomes across societies, ages and genders. And with technology making it so much easier to engage in this behavior, bullying could evolve even further into a pastime no different than Candy Crush. Yes, it’s in our DNA; however, it doesn’t have to become our default. A little empathy goes a long way. I’m cautiously optimistic…cautiously.

 

MORE INFORMATION:

US Department of Health & Human Services:

http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/

Sources:

Bullying and social identity: The effects of group norms and distinctiveness threat on attitudes towards bullying. British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2004)

Sherrow, Hogan “The Origins of Bullying” Scientific America December 15, 2011