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Shame & Body Image

What we think, hate, loathe and wonder about the acceptability of our bodies reaches much further and impacts far more than our appearance. The long reach of body shame can impact who and how we love, work, parent, communicate and build relationships.

By Brené Brown, PhD

November 2004


The opening statement on the NOW Foundation’s national Love Your Body Campaign web site indicts the media and consumer culture for making women feel lousy about who they are and what they look like: “Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts— lips, legs, breast — airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem.”

As Brené Brown, PhD discovered in her research on women and shame, nearly all women feel ashamed of their bodies at one time or another. In our society— which prizes personal responsibility and self-discipline over all else— women and girls are pressured to believe that with enough will power the right kind of diet and exercise, they can control everything about the size and shape of their bodies (and for women with ample resources, those really stubborn areas can be modified by a surgeon’s scalpel). For too many women, our relationship with our own bodies becomes adversarial at an early age -- and the lifetime of shame we carry around due to our inability to measure up to culturally-defined standards of perfection undercuts our sense of self-worth, saps our mental and emotional energy and ultimately undermines our personal and collective power, which is why some feminists identify body image as a potent political issue.

For better or worse, our bodies are part of our social identity— and for many us getting our “old” bodies back after pregnancy and childbirth becomes a symbol of regaining control after the seismic upheavals of new motherhood. Yet carrying and giving birth to a child can change a woman’s body in countless ways, many of which do not conform to idealized standards of beauty. Some of the changes are transitory, but many are permanent. (Personally, I struggle daily with the reality that no matter how many stomach crunches I do, the skin on my lower belly will never be as sleek as it was before two mid-life pregnancies stretched it past the point of no return.) This may leave mothers especially prone to body shame and vulnerable to the negative self-concept that flows from it. I invited Brené Brown, author of Women and Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths and Building Connection, to write an article on shame and body image as a follow up to last month’s Love Your Body Day (October 21, 2004). For a more thorough discussion of women’s shame as a psychological and social issue, read the MMO’s August 2004 interview with Brené Brown.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online

I’ve spent the past six months traveling across the US, giving lectures on women and shame to lay people, mental health professionals and educators. One issue that always strikes people is the highly paradoxical nature of shame. This is certainly true when we talk about shame triggers. While shame is absolutely universal and part of the human experience, the issues, events and experiences that leave us feeling shame are highly individualized and contextualized.

After interviewing over 200 diverse women, it became very clear that here are no universal shame triggers. There is no list of events or situations that make all of us feel or experience shame. When I write, “highly individualized” I mean, what’s shaming for me may be mildly guilt-producing for someone else and possibly not even come up on a third person’s emotional radar. By “contextualized,” I mean that it’s not always a specific event or experience, sometimes it’s the context in which an event or experience occurs.

While there are no universal shame triggers, I did discover that there are categories that are meaningful. Without exception, all of the participants’ shame experiences fit in one of these ten categories: identity, appearance, sexuality, family, motherhood, parenting, health (mental and physical), aging, religion and a woman’s ability to stand up and speak out for herself. These are the categories in which women struggle the most with feelings of shame.

Body image happens to be the one issue that is the closest to “universal” with over 90 percent of the participants experiencing shame about their bodies. Body image also serves as an invisible thread that runs through almost all of the ten shame categories. In fact, body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyche that it actually transcends the appearance category and impacts why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories including identity, appearance, sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging and a women’s ability to speak out with confidence. What we think, hate, loathe and wonder about the acceptability of our bodies reaches much further and impacts far more than our appearance. The long reach of body shame can impact who and how we love, work, parent, communicate and build relationships.

Defining Body Image

Our body image is how we think and feel about our bodies. It is the mental picture we have of our physical body. Unfortunately, our picture, thoughts and feelings may have little to do with our actual appearance. It is our image of what are 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, vagina, anus, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, body fluids, pimples, scars, freckles, stretch marks and moles.

Again, 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 yours to look like and what you want to avoid. I personally have a media-driven, perfection-seeking wish list for each of these parts except for my “head.”

There is a profound quote in Women and Shame that comes from a woman who had just turned 18 when I interviewed her. She does a powerful job of capturing the complexity of the “body parts” issue:

I think all of the body stuff is shaming. It’s like you never get to see normal bodies or you never get to read about what normal bodies do. I think you’re always thinking, “Do other peoples’ breasts look like this?” “Do other people get hair here and no hair there?” “Do other people smell like this?” “Does this look like this?” “Do you get pimples there?” I think everything about your body that you don’t see on the perfect people on TV or in the magazines, you wonder if you’re the only person and you gross yourself out and that’s what shame is. Shame is when you’re grossed out by yourself— it’s when your very own body makes you sick. I’d like to see a book that has all the information, like this is twenty ways this can smell, or this is a picture of fifty “normal women’s” breasts and here’s what they can look like. Then you can be like, “Oh, OK, I’m normal.” But you have to ask, “Who would pose for that?” Probably not normal people. Then you’d be comparing yourself to crazy people. It’s just ridiculous that no one is ever going to talk about the weird stuff out of the fear that they’re actually the one person that has that. Then it’s like “Uh-oh.” Then it’s double worse because then you’re ashamed and you think you’re supposed to be ashamed.

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.”

Building Resilience

As I explain in my interview with the MMO, the four elements of shame resilience are: 1) acknowledging personal vulnerability, 2) Practicing critical awareness, 3) reaching out to others; and 4) speaking shame. If we are going to confront the shame we feel about our bodies, it is imperative that we explore our vulnerabilities. What is important to us? We must look at each body part and explore our expectations and the sources of these expectations. While it often painful to acknowledge our secret goals and expectations, it is the first step to building shame resilience. We have to know and explicitly identify what’s important and why. I believe there is even power in writing it down.

Next, we need to develop critical awareness about these expectations and their importance to us. One way to do develop critical awareness is to run our expectations through a reality-check. I use this list of questions in my work:

  • Where do the expectations come from?
  • How realistic are my expectations?
  • Can I be all these things all of the time?
  • Can all of these characteristics exist in one person?
  • Do the expectations conflict with each other?
  • Am I describing who I want to be or who others want me to be?
  • What are my fears?

We must also find the courage to share our stories and experiences. We must reach out to others and speak our shame. If we feed shame the secrecy and silence it craves— if we keep the struggles with our bodies buried inside – the shame will fester and grow. We must learn to reach out to one another with empathy and understanding. If, in a diverse sample of women, over 90 percent of the women struggled with body image, it is clear that we are not alone. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that comes with identifying and naming common experiences and fears— this is the foundation of shame resilience. 

mmo : november 2004

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