Body Shame on You
“Shame on you!”
Just the sound of that phrase feels awful, right? When someone says that phrase to you, it’s hard to ignore. But too many girls and women live in a constant state of shame that feels completely normal today — what scholars call “normative discontent.” Body shame and appearance anxiety are affecting us at epidemic rates. Shame, by definition, results in feelings of wanting to either hide or change the thing that doesn’t meet external or internal standards. For us, self-objectification takes place when we feel shame and hide ourselves or parts of ourselves from the world because we don’t meet the ideals we think we should, or we work to change the parts of us that just don’t cut it. These days, beginning with puberty, females are TWICE as likely to experience depression as males. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads us to evaluate and control our bodies in terms of our sexual desirability above all else.
Body shame, which manifests itself in the form of self-objectification, has been linked to disordered eating, unhealthy sexual practices (not saying “no” when you want to and not using condoms), plans for cosmetic surgery, diminished mental performance at school, diminished athletic performance, anxiety and depression, and sedentary lifestyles — and these impairments occur among all ethnicities and ages. Some of our favorite scholars, Fredrickson & Roberts (1997), state that “the habitual body monitoring encouraged by a sexually objectifying culture may reduce women’s quality of life.” We know this to be true.
At BR, we talk a lot about body shame – how prevalent it is today and how companies promote shame and anxiety in women as a marketing strategy. Shame is counterproductive to healthy choices. It is a debilitating and discouraging force that affects all of us negatively, especially in terms of body image. A 2010 National Physical Activity and Weight Loss Survey found that body size satisfaction had a significant effect on whether a person performed regular physical activity, regardless of the individual’s actual weight. So, those who were satisfied with the way their body looked – regardless of the ideals they did or did not meet – were more likely to engage in physical activity than those less satisfied. This is representative of a very real phenomenon among women who avoid physical activity because they feel “too fat to exercise” — THAT is shame in action, er, in inaction. In addition, too many women remain inactive because they believe they look too unattractive during/after workouts – too sweaty, too red, too jiggly, too frizzy of hair, too hard to get ready again after.
Women consistently describe their feelings of body shame in terms of not being attractive enough for their husbands or partners, or to even get the attention of a romantic interest. Entire industries perpetuate and capitalize on those anxieties by representing women in terms of their appearances only, developing and diagnosing flaws, and then selling billions of $$$ in products and services to “fix” those flaws and thus, make us attractive, happy and valued. What they don’t advertise is that those products and services to improve your appearance almost never minimize body anxiety — they often increase it. Have you ever known someone (or been someone) who decided to get a breast augmentation in order to make her feel better about herself, or to help her feel less self-conscious about her body? Did it work? Or was she still not quite satisfied with the size/shape/look of her breasts? Or did that woman then find a new “flaw” to fixate on and do whatever it took to fix it? Chances are, that’s exactly what happened. The cosmetic surgery industry reports that as many as two-thirds of patients are repeat customers. Cosmetic procedures are rarely a one-time fix because they don’t get to the heart of the problem that has everything to do with your feelings about your body and very little to do with your body.
What we want to focus on in this post is the importance of recognizing how shame manifests itself in your life with regard to your body image.
For some, it that little voice that says, “You suck. You already ruined your whole healthy eating plan for the day by eating that brownie. Now eat the whole pan.”
For some, it will be the multitude of excuses you have ready for anyone who invites you to a pool party, beach vacation or hot tub outing, all prompted by the fear of wearing a swimsuit, because people will surely be looking at your stomach or thighs and wondering how you dared show up looking that way.
For some, it is the choice to stay home with Netflix rather than be embarrassed about how sweaty, red-faced, jiggly, smelly or wet-haired you’ll be if you did that workout or played that sport with your friends.
For some, shame is what keeps you on the treadmill for 3 hours a day and restricting yourself to 1,000 calories/day in a desperate attempt to shed _ pounds or trim _ inches.
Shame is a cruel and powerful demotivator, especially with regard to health and happiness. It fuels overeating, poor nutrition choices, sedentary lifestyles, cosmetic surgery, isolation and pain. Shame is also a cruel and powerful motivator with regard to self-harm. It fuels disordered eating like bingeing, purging and starvation, as well as exercise bulimia, cutting, isolation and pain.
In Lexie’s dissertation study, 96 percent of her participants reported staying home from activities because they weren’t comfortable with the look of their bodies or faces. All but one reported they have refused to go swimming for fear of not meeting the standards of beauty they think they should in a swimsuit, even with (especially with) their loved ones. Many had plans for future cosmetic surgery. Do you see how hiding or changing parts of yourself might be your way of coping with shame for not meeting these unattainable ideals?
Once we identify and learn to recognize what shame looks like and sounds like in our own lives, we can work to reject its harmful motivating/demotivating influence. There’s no fighting back if we stay in this unquestioned, normalized state of body anxiety.
The making of bad health choices – or, alternatively, the avoiding of good choices — is very often motivated by shame. Whether it’s ditching out on fun, new, active experiences or engaging in unhealthy behaviors, we can’t let shame motivate us to self-harm or prevent us from living our lives – REALLY living our lives, not just living to be looked at. At the same time, we need to recognize that good choices can be triggered by feelings that might initially feel like guilt. Cognitive dissonance is different from shame. That uncomfortable feeling — such as a twinge of guilt — is your brain’s way of telling you that a new idea is conflicting with one of your pre-existing beliefs. If you recognize and respond to a feeling of cognitive dissonance, it might prompt you to make a healthier, more progressive change in your life. You might decide not to take non-FDA-approved diet pills you know are a bad idea — the ones that give you the jitters, dehydrate you and mess with your health. You might pick up a different magazine or take a show off your Hulu queue that promotes body anxiety and objectifies women.
You might believe that your reflection does not define your worth, but manipulative advertising and profit-driven media messages are engineered to convince you that idea is wrong — and instead convince you that improving your appearance is key to improving your desirability and happiness. We promote messages that stand in stark contrast to anything you will hear about women in any media outlet in order to create that cognitive dissonance that can remind women they are more than bodies to be looked at. It just so happens the truth is on our side, so it tends to resonate and stick with women who hear it. Believing that you are capable of much more than looking hot is a powerful foundation for us to build from — to make positive choices for our health, careers, relationships and every aspect of life.
Let’s stop letting body shame be a motivator for self-harm, a demotivator for self-improvement, or an unchallenged way of life. Let’s work to consciously recognize HOW shame manifests itself in our lives so we can reject the ways it negatively influences our choices. For many more ways to recognize and reject harmful messages and replace unhealthy thoughts and behaviors with happy, healthy alternatives, please check out this set of strategies!