The Relationship Between Shame and Body Image

When I visited Green Mountain at Fox Run a few years back, I learned so much. About body image, mindful eating, social pressures, psychology, stress, rebellion, tenderness … it was a very intense education compressed into a single amazing week. During my stay I was also reminded of many things I already knew. I was reminded that women are AMAZING at supporting and caring for other women, especially in times of need and crisis. I was reminded that our urges to care for others often eclipses our urges to care for ourselves. I was reminded that depriving a physical body will only work for so long before biology and nature win out.

And I was reminded about shame.

In my experience, shame is often central to poor body image. The hatred that we feel for our own physical forms is wrapped up in the shame we feel about how others see us, how we “let ourselves get this way” (whatever that may mean on an individual basis), how our own bodies compare to other supposedly better bodies, how “different” and “wrong” we are. And the social, external forces that encourage us to change ourselves – diet programs, exercise DVDs, magazines, cosmetics companies – leverage the shame we’re already feeling, then amplify it. Shame is used as a motivator for physical change. We are shamed for being too fat, too skinny, too old, too androgynous, too sexy, and shamed into actions that will supposedly get our shameful bodies back into line.

I don’t oppose physical change. It’s your body, and it’s the only one you’ll ever have. You get to decide how to care for it, how it looks, what of it you share with others, and how to change it should the desire or need arise. You may draw upon any number of sources for your motivation, and may find some of those sources to be more effective than others. But as the folks at Green Mountain pointed out, and as I hope to now point out with equal tenderness, it is wise to consider carefully how much shame you include in your personal motivational cocktail. Shame often makes for a painful, weak, and unsustainable motivational force. If you allow others to shame you into changing your hair, your weight, or your clothing, or anything about your physical self, you will eventually resent those changes and rebel against them. If you shame yourself into changing your hair, your weight, your clothing, or anything about your physical self, you may be able to enact change for a time. It may last for years, decades even. But shame and self-loathing are erosive, and forcing yourself to change using shame as a driving force will wear you down.

Body shame is easy. Body love is hard. Body shame is fast. Body love is slow. It can be so tempting to just succumb to shame and let it steer our actions and blunt our emotions. But if you want to exert control over the arc of your life, and if you want to undertake positive physical change, I urge you to approach that change from a place of love, or even just neutral acceptance. Think about the concept of stewardship: The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. You are the steward of your own body. You can alter and change that body, and if you do so with care and patience then the process will be easier and more valuable. And if all of that fails to appeal, consider this: Change undertaken with care and patience is FAR more likely to yield results that stick. Just ask anyone who shamed herself into a restrictive diet and overtaxing exercise plan. Did it work for a while? Yes. Did it work forever? No. Did you feel good about yourself during? Probably not.

It’s certainly true that making changes during a period of self-loathing can encourage feelings of stewardship and build the desire to continue on a path of self-care. But I’m inclined to believe that choosing to undertake change because of the love and care you feel for yourself will work out well and often. If you wait until you’re a different shape or configuration before you allow any tenderness toward your physical self to take root, you could wait forever. And since shame is a crappy motivator, consider love instead.

Image courtesy Helga Weber. This is a revived and edited post from the archive.

Originally posted 2014-09-23 06:29:42.

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7 Responses to “The Relationship Between Shame and Body Image”

  1. mendotawaves

    I especially liked the remarks acknowledging that our urges to care for others can eclipse our urges to care for ourselves and that there is need for tenderness for ourselves. Finding that balance and maintaining a commitment to self-love are so important to emotional wellbeing and physical health.

  2. Ivy LaArtista

    This is beautifully written in such a loving way. I like how you share the truth about the difficulty in loving our bodies as well as the rewards. I’ll be sharing this with my network!

  3. Ronna Russell

    Beautifully said. Thank you. Such an important message for us all, and for our daughters, considering the fact that suicide is the leading cause of death in adolescent girls, body shame being one of the many factors.