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How Being Bullied Over Appearance Can Strain Mental Health

In a world so focused on beauty and weight, it’s not surprising that many women are victims of appearance-related bullying.

Although October is National Bullying Prevention Month, that didn’t stop a recent incident of appearance-related bullying.

Jennifer Livingston, a morning news reporter, has been all over the news after she was bullied by a viewer via email about her weight.

Many people and even organizations are supporting Livingston’s decision to speak out about such a weighty issue, including the National Eating Disorders Association.

The association stated in a press release that appearance-related bullying, also called “bodysnarking,” is quite common in our society.

Although Livingston was able to publicly defend herself against an attack on her weight, not all bullying victims are so lucky.

Appearance-related bullying is not an isolated incident, and it can even go so far as to affect mental health of victims in a plethora of ways. Mental health professionals address the close link between bodysnarking and mental health.

Karen Koenig, a licensed clinical social worker, said in an email that bodysnarking can greatly affect the mental health of people who already don’t have good self-esteem, and sometimes even those who think highly of themselves.

People who do have decent self-esteem generally learn to ignore negative comments about their body though.

For victims of appearance-related bullying, mental health symptoms can vary from depression to cutting oneself. She also said victims can experience anxiety and suicidal thoughts. They might start dieting, over-exercising, purging, using laxatives, having cosmetic and bariatric surgery.

Koenig added that even if victims might experience mental health issues, they are not to blame. The bully is the one with the biggest problem.

She has some suggestions as to how victims can turn their situation around and improve their mental health as a result.

  1. “The first thing to do is not internalize negative comments and to know that whatever comes out of a person’s mouth belongs to them, even if it has your name attached to it.”
  2. “Sometimes it’s appropriate to say nothing and ignore bullies, and sometimes it’s important to stand up to them. We have to be careful not to give out one-size-fits-all advice.”
  3. “It is essential that the victim of bullying tell people — friends, parents, school staff, community members, etc. about what happened and get help with deciding how to handle it. The goal is for women to feel empowered, and empowerment comes in many forms.”

Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based therapist, said in an email that she thinks appearance-related bullying is actually more of people just being critical of one another, and it’s not actually classified as bullying.

She said some people are more sensitive to appearance-related comments, and the people who make comments to other people about their appearance are trying to feel better about themselves.

She said that people who are victims of bodysnarking might experience anger, insomnia, low grades and frigidity. They might be more likely to hang with a bad crowd and become promiscuous.

One way to overcome negative comments about appearance is to focus on building self-esteem by becoming involved in different activities and hobbies, she said.

“Of course, confronting the ‘bully’ is the best; assertively telling them (ideally in front of others) that powerful people have no need to put others down, and that people who are critical of others obviously have a great deal of internal criticism,” Irwin said.

Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, said in an email that bodysnarking can be a cutting form of bullying, since appearances are what people see first.

Yet most people cannot change their appearance as well as other aspects of life, leading to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Victims might also experience social withdrawal.

She suggested that victims work with human resources or a student affairs office depending on the environment, and to be true to themselves despite the bully’s comments.

“Consider the small mindedness of someone who would brutally issue such judgments,” Durvasula said. “Put the immaturity and responsibility in the other place.”

Lauren Urban-Colacicco, a psychotherapist, added in an email that victims of bodysnarking might also turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their negative situation.

She suggested reframing the situation in order to view oneself as in control instead of as a victim. Practicing a healthy lifestyle and not giving into excessive dieting and exercising or emotional eating and other extreme behaviors is also a must.

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