Body Image And Shame

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We often want to believe that shame is reserved for the unfortunate few who have survived terrible traumas, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience. And, while it feels like shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places. After interviewing over 400 women,  I learned that there are twelve areas that are particularly vulnerable for women: appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health (including addiction), aging, sex, religion, surviving trauma, speaking out and being labelled or stereotyped.

Interestingly, there are no absolutely universal shame triggers. The issues and situations that I find shaming may not even come up on another woman’s radar. This is because the messages and expectations that drive shame come from a unique combination of places including our families of origin, our own beliefs, the media and our culture. One place where women find themselves surrounded by unattainable and conflicting expectations is body image.

While some of us might have quieted the tapes about “not being smart enough” or “not being good enough” -- it seems that almost all women continue to wage battle with looking “beautiful, cool, sexy, stylish, young and thin enough.” With more than 90% of the participants experiencing shame about their bodies, body image is the one issue that comes closest to being a “universal trigger.” In fact, body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyches that it actually affects why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories, including sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging and a woman’s ability to speak out with confidence.

Our body image is how we think and feel about our bodies. It is the mental picture we have of our physical bodies. Unfortunately, our pictures, thoughts and feelings may have little to do with our actual appearance. It is our image of what our bodies are, often held up to our image of what they should be.

While we normally talk about body image as a general reflection of what we look like, we can’t ignore the specifics the body parts that come together to create this image. If we work from the understanding that women most often experience shame when we become trapped in a web of layered, conflicting and competing expectations of who, what and how we should be, we can’t ignore that there are social-community expectations for every single, tiny part of us -- literally from our heads to our toes. I’m going to list our body parts because I think they are important: head, hair, neck, face, ears, skin, nose, eyes, lips, chin, teeth, shoulders, back, breasts, waist, hips, stomach, abdomen, buttocks, vulva, anus, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, body fluids, pimples, scars, freckles, stretch marks and moles.

I bet if you look at each of these areas, you have specific body part images for each one -- not to mention a mental list of what you’d like it to look like and what you’d hate to have a specific part look like.

When our very own bodies fill us with shame and feelings of worthlessness, we jeopardize the connection we have with ourselves (our authenticity) and the connection we have with the important people in our lives. Consider the woman who stays quiet in public out of the fear that her stained and crooked teeth will make people question the value of her contributions. Or the women who told me that “the one thing she hates about being fat” is the constant pressure to be nice to people. She explained, “If you’re bitchy, they might make a cruel remark about your weight.” The research participants also spoke often about how body shame either kept them from enjoying sex or pushed them into having it when they didn’t really want to but were desperate for some type of physical validation of worthiness.

There were also many women who talked about the shame of having their bodies betray them. These were women who spoke about physical illness, mental illness and infertility. We often conceptualize “body image” too narrowly -- it’s about more than wanting to be thin and attractive. When we begin to blame and hate our bodies for failing to live up to our expectations, we start splitting ourselves in parts and move away from our wholeness.