Pope Francis denounces ‘body-shaming,’ admits to bullying overweight friend as a child

Pope Francis papal plane Pope Francis speaks during a press conference aboard the papal plane from Marseille, France, to Rome on Sept. 23, 2023, at the conclusion of a two-day visit to the southern French port city to take part in the Mediterranean Encounter, a meeting of young people and bishops. | Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

In a Tuesday video call with university students from South Asia, Pope Francis highlighted the dignity and value of all human persons, denouncing “body-shaming,” and admitting to bullying an overweight boy as a child.

The pope’s comments were given during a livestreamed dialogue with students titled “Building Bridges Across South Asia,” which was hosted by Chicago’s Loyola University and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

The full recorded conversation can be accessed here

Responding to a question raised by Merlin Rosemary, a student at St. Joseph’s University in Bengaluru, India, Francis said that body-shaming is “something artificial” that disrupts the ability to live “in harmony with your hearts.”

“It’s not only a question of measurements or sizes, it’s a harmonic beauty that every woman, every man, has, and we have to cherish that,” Francis said.

“I recall a friend of mine, who was a bit fat, and we would actually mock him, I daresay, bullying him,” the pope confessed to the students.

One day, Francis said that he and his friends “once hit him and he fell down.”

Upon learning of the incident, Francis said his father made him go to the bullied child’s home to apologize.

Years later, the pope said, he reconnected with the friend who had since become an evangelical pastor.

“It was beautiful,” Francis said, “he had overcome all his trauma, all his bullying, all his shame, all his body shame.”

Still responding to the student’s question, the pope also said that plastic surgery “serves no purpose,” because, he said, “this beauty is going to fade eventually.”

“There was a famous actress, Anna Magnani, and when talking about her wrinkles she said: ‘No, I won’t get rid of them. It costs me to get these wrinkles, they are my beauty,’” the pope said. “So, we all have our beauty, and we have to accept it and we have to live in harmony with it.”

“There’s the beauty of the harmony of the individual, regardless of you being fat, thin, short, tall, the important thing is to live in harmony, in harmony in your hearts,” Francis said. “So, beauty makes us grow, in terms of our mental health, every man, every woman have their own beauty. We only have to learn how to see it, how to recognize it.”

Social media and suicide

During the call with students, Francis also addressed high suicide rates among young people, anxiety, and what he called “digital manipulation” on social media.

“While this is a tragic reality, young people commit suicide because they are faced with closed doors, they were looking for something and they couldn’t find it,” the pope said. “There are countries where the suicide rate is incredibly high among young people because they can’t manage failure, especially when they can’t find a job, so they lose all hope.”

Francis said that failure “is actually a call, it’s an appeal.”

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“We’re not angels because angels have fallen only once whereas we fell many times due to our limits. But God always gives us the reliance to stand up again, so he takes us by our hands and helps us stand up,” he went on. “The important thing is not to not fall, but not to stay, or lay, on the ground. That’s wisdom, I fall down but then I stand up again.” 

According to Francis, “digital manipulation” on social media is “altering our understanding of social and political reality.”

By this phrase, the pope explained that messaging young people are exposed to through social media, the media, and entertainment distracts from true beauty and harmony.

“So, what’s really pressing is being educated to a new form of communication to avoid this anxiety of digital manipulation,” Francis said. “So as professionals, as students, I’m asking you to take a critical stance towards the positions expressed by the media, by TV programs, you are university students, you must have some critical thinking.

The pope concluded this portion of his talk with young people by imploring them to “look for the true beauty and the true harmony of an individual.”

“A person that lives in harmony regardless of being fat, thin, skinny, is the most important thing,” Francis said, adding: “Don’t be afraid, don’t lose your sense of humor, because humor means mental health.”

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