Insults based on body weight or looks do as much harm as racism, an academic has claimed and we should adopt the same 'zero tolerance' approach.

Research shows 'lookism' - abuse or discriminatory treatment linked to appearance - remains the most common form of bullying. 

This has been exacerbated by society "profoundly moving from a text-based culture to one that is image-based" says Professor Heather Widdows, who has written extensively on the subject of body image and beauty standards.


However despite the fact it directly impacts self-esteem and "profoundly limits" young people’s behaviour, she says it is largely tolerated in society and treated as 'banter'.

According to Prof Widdows it can take the form of gentle chiding by a family member or online abuse by a stranger commonly targeted at those in the public eye.

Nicola Sturgeon has said she considered comments alleged to have been made by Boris Johnson about her as "abuse."

The former prime minister is said to have compared Scotland's First Minister to Janette Tough's Jimmy Krankie during a conversation with Claire O'Neill, the former coordinator of the COP26 conference, ahead of it being held in Glasgow.


According to newspaper reports when Ms O’Neill made the suggestion Scotland's leader should have a special role, Mr Johnson replied: "I’m not being driven out of Scotland by that bloody Wee Jimmy Krankie woman."

The comment was later denied by Mr Johnson’s spokesman but the First Minister said the alleged remark was “meant as a term of abuse”. 

Some have called for appearance to be a protected characteristic under equalities legislation alongside others including age, disability, race, religion or sexual orientation. 

Read more: Glasgow actor James McAvoy 'glad to leave city' after racist taunts 

"We know those negative body shaming comments impact on self-esteem, they hit wellbeing and they have implications for what people say and do," says Prof Widdows. a moral philosopher at Warwick University who is the founder of the #everydaylookism campaign.

"Appearance bullying is by far the most prevalent form of bullying but it's the one we do the least about but because it's not a protected characteristic - it's not racism or sexism it's harder for us to address.

"People are calling for lookism to be protected under the equalities act. I think that's quite difficult actually but it does tell you how seriously people are beginning to take it.

"At the moment it is normal for people to say nasty things about other peoples' bodies.

"It's not normal and once we name it we can push back on it."

She added: "Being good looking didn’t used to be a criteria for being a good politician or professor – but it now has an impact."

Read more: Men whose abuses leads to miscarriage escaping prosecution in Scotland 

She recounts a story about a husband who nicknames his wife 'Froddo', a character in J R R Tolkien's Hobbit, on account of her hairy toes while daughters recounting how mothers "put them on diets" is still a common refrain among women she interviews for her studies.

"It's often said by loved ones and might be your grandma saying 'your bottom is too big'," says the academic who will deliver at talk at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Monday entitled Lookism: The Last Acceptable Discrimination. 

Research shows that, overall, those who are physically attractive benefit from their good looks: physically attractive individuals are perceived more positively and physical attractiveness has a strong influence on judgement of a person's competence.

The academic doesn't think we should be "immediately legislating" for body shaming or abusing someone because they have red hair but says there needs to be greater awareness of the harms it causes to "make it easier [for people] to say 'that's not banter, that's really hurtful'."

There is very little empirical research on appearance-based bullying "because people haven't really taken it seriously".

Former Scotland footballer Leanne Crichton told how she shunned social media after suffering sexist abuse from online trolls.

She said she is subjected to vile comments about her looks following her appearances as a pundit on television and radio.


"I think we are moving profoundly from a text-based culture to an image-based culture and I don't think we really know what that means," says the academic, whose most recent book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University Press), was described by Vogue as "ground-breaking"

Read more: Nicola Sturgeon hit with parody account throwing abuse as Douglas Ross 

"The image always speaks louder than the word. We sort of know that that's true but but we haven't really factored in what that means so often what we do is tell children that they need to be resilient or you need to be confident.

"I think that's deeply problematic. We are saying you already feel bad because you don't measure up but now you don't have the right attitude."

She says labeling digitally enhanced images in magazines, which has been done in countries including France and Australia, is not always helpful.

"What happened was the opposite of what we expected," she says.

"If you put a label on an image saying this model's legs have been lengthened, the thinking is that this knowledge will protect you.

"But what happens is the image speaks louder because you see more of the legs and therefore you compare yourself even more."

She doesn't really provide an answer when asked if she feels pressure herself to look a certain way saying, "I just tell people to try not to judge people for what they do with their bodies."

While women are more likely to be targeted for weight, men are most likely to face lookism related to height or the"buff ideal" that is common in the west.

I mention that I'm writing another story showing that obesity rates amongst pregnant women in Scotland have reached a record high. Is there a risk that efforts to stem lookism could hamper public health messages.

"It's very rare that being told you are putting your body at risk does anything other than make you feel worse about something you already feel bad about," says Prof Widdows, who gave evidence at a government health committee in England on body image. 

"Better to change the narrative to how the body works and how we can help it work more efficiently rather than focussing on looks."