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Shame & Body Image by Brené Brown, PhD

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How body image shame affects our lives

When “our very own bodies” fill us with disgust and feelings of worthlessness, shame can fundamentally change who we are and how we approach the world. Below are some brief examples of how body image shame shapes many facets of our lives.

Speaking Out
The women who stays quiet in public out of the fear that her stained and crooked teeth will make people question the value of her contributions.

The women who told me that the one thing she hates about being fat is the constant pressure to be nice to people. “If you’re bitchy, they might make a cruel remark about your weight.”

The young mother who struggles to maintain a relationship with both her own body and with her mother in the face of her mother’s shaming attacks. She says, “Shame is my mom still being hateful about my weight. Every time I go home to visit with my husband and kids the first thing she says is, ‘My God, you’re still fat!’ and the last thing she says when I walk out the door is, ‘Hopefully you can lose some weight.’ She’s screwed me up so bad already you think she’d be over it by now, but no, she just keeps going.

The women who talked 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 more than being thin. 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— our authentic selves.

We can’t talk about shame and motherhood without talking about the pregnant body. I think there are stages to the pregnant body— each susceptible for shame in its own way:

The women who wants to become pregnant— I heard story after story about the pressure to be thin and in top shape before embarking on the pregnancy journey. One of the quotes in the book is from a woman who took her own health and her prenatal care into her hands to avoid hearing that she was too fat to be pregnant.

The pregnant body— Has any body image been more exploited in the past few years? Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for exploring the wonders of the pregnant body and removing the stigma and shame of the pregnant belly. But let’s not create one more air-brushed, computer-generated, shame-inducing image for women to not be able to live up to. Movie stars who gain 15 pounds and have their stretch marks painted away for their “look I’m human too” portraits do not represent the realities that most of us face while pregnant.

The post-pregnant-mother body— When women spoke to me about their post-baby body image struggles, I heard more than experiences of shame. I heard grief, loss, anger and fear. In addition to the weight gain, hemorrhoids and stretch marks, women struggle with the very real and permanent changes that we often experience after pregnancy and delivery. Again, the media is a very strong force in the expectation-setting done around post-pregnancy body images. Give us a week and we’ll be back in our boot-cut jeans, midriff-baring t-shirts and toting our child around like the year’s hottest accessory. Hot Mama!

Body Image & Parenting
I’m a vulnerable, imperfect parent. As such, I’m not one to jump on the “blame parents for everything— especially the mothers” bandwagon. Having said that, I will tell you what I found in my research. Shame begets shame. Parents have a tremendous amount of influence over children and body image development. When it comes to parenting and body image, parents fall on a continuum. On one side of the continuum, there are parents who are keenly aware that they are the most influential role models in their children’s lives. They work diligently to model positive body image behaviors (self-acceptance, acceptance of others, no emphasis placed on the unattainable or ideal, deconstructing media messages, etc.).

On the other side of the continuum are parents who love their children as much their counterparts, but are so determined to spare their daughters the pain of being overweight or unattractive (and their sons the pain of being weak) that they will do anything to steer their children toward achievement of the ideal – including teasing and shaming them. Many of these parents struggle with their own body images and process their shame by shaming.

Last, there are the folks in the middle, who really do nothing to counter the negative body image issues but also don’t shame their children. Unfortunately, due to societal pressures and the media, most of these kids do not appear to develop strong shame resilience skills around body image.

One final area where body image is tested is aging. What I hear over and over from women is that the power of aging stereotypes is far more painful than the actual aging process. I met a wonderful woman recently who, after reflecting on why she felt shame about aging, said, “It’s not getting older that hurts— it’s the fact that I actually believe all the myths about myself and my abilities and my body. I don’t think my body has betrayed me— my expectations are betraying me.”

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