Body Shame: It's Not Personal
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Over and over again, in conversations with clients and in my own experience, I witness all manner of shame about bodies. It may be how the body looks. It may be how the body functions. It may be an aging body, a tired body, a “disabled” body. It may be that the body has an illness that limits what a person can do. This shame works like a toxic black hole. It sucks people in and drains their life energy, their confidence, their capacity to connect, to feel, and to live their purpose. It’s sneaky and shape-shifting. It can be subconscious. It can show up as depression or lack of confidence. It can manifest in repeating patterns in your life or as a barrier to something you want to do. As an emotion and a set of beliefs, it is really hard to shift.
To shift it we need to go beyond the personal. Body shame is not personal, which is why personal work so often fails to loosen its grip. Body shame is structural.
Body shame – in the form of beliefs and stigmas - comes into our mind-bodies from the outside, like a virus. The virus is produced by systems that benefit from hierarchy, power, and oppression. These systems result from and reproduce unequal distribution of resources and power. Shame is transmitted and spread through what Sonya Renee Taylor calls all the “isms” and “obias.” Capitalism. Colonialism. Racism. Sexism. Ableism. Homophobia. Transphobia. We are its hosts, its victims, its perpetrators.
Those systems have generated an ideology of body hierarchy. At the top of the “ladder” (to borrow Sonya Renee Taylor's metaphor) are straight, cis-gendered, white, male bodies that are also fit, young, and tall.
The rest of us fall somewhere lower down on the ladder, depending on the combination of traits we hold that are not those. This fact is continually reinforced in media, popular culture, the workplace, and elsewhere.
Our place on the ladder correlates pretty closely to our access to resources and to social, cultural, and political power.
The utter brilliance of this multifaceted system is that it renders itself invisible to most of us. Instead of seeing injustice from our spot on the ladder, we look inward and feel shame about our bodies’ “flaws.” Then we spend our time, energy, and money striving to fix, hide, cover those flaws. We compare, police, and persecute each other’s bodies. Who benefits from that? You got it – the people at the top of the ladder.
Where does your body shame live? Do you believe you are too “fat,” too “thin,” too “weak,” to “short, too “old?” Do you have a less-than-perfectly-able body? A psychiatric diagnosis? A learning difference? Does your skin color, your gender identity or who you love place you lower on the ladder? Does shame live there? Does fear live there?
The fear is valid because the danger is real. Any divergence from the traits at the top rungs makes people vulnerable to violence, oppression, discrimination, ostracism. This is not an aesthetic thing – it’s life and death.
Once we make the system visible, and reframe our thoughts about ourselves through its lens, everything changes. The first step is to name what’s going on – shining the light on shame almost always helps to loosen its grip. Then as we share, we see the patterns, the structures at work. We realize it’s not about us as individuals.
I offer an example from my own body story. I’m a 56-year-old, post-menopausal, twice pregnant, size 14-16, partially disabled woman with irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, and hypothyroidism. I’m white, hetero, cis-gendered. Those are my intersecting traits, experiences, and identifiers. They determine where I fall on the ladder. And to the extent that I wish I were higher on the ladder, I feel aversion to some of all of those parts of myself. For me, the stickiest one – the one I have the hardest time being ok with – is my body size.
I know I’m not alone. We’ve been taught that our size is under our control and if it’s not optimal, we have failed. That’s not true (if you don’t believe me, look up “Health at Every Size or “why most diets fail.” The science is there).
I spent most of my life fiercely disciplining my body and especially my belly. I learned by example that when passing a mirror, one first looks front on, and then turns sideways. I never gave this a thought. It’s just what you do. Check the front view and the check the belly. If it was flat, I felt good. If it wasn’t, I kinda freaked out. Immediately my thoughts went to what I was going to do to make it flatter.
I developed the habit of sucking it in, contracting all of the muscles in and around my abdomen. Contracting the muscles around the abdomen signals to the brain that there is a threat – it’s what we do when we are about to get hit. Living in a perpetual threat response means that I have a hypersensitive nervous system. I don’t breathe deeply. I have digestive problems. I have chronic back and neck pain. I have an underactive thyroid and sluggish adrenal function. Yes, those are multifactorial conditions. But they are all also connected to the life-long bracing and contraction of my entire torso.
About 15 years ago I started developing severe abdominal bloating. Suddenly, it felt, my belly was out of control. It felt huge. I tried EVERYTHING – every GI test available to medical science. Medications, herbs, supplements. I tried eliminating just about every food. I studied GI function; I became an expert on Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth, the microbiome, intestinal permeability, and food sensitivities. Nothing changed. It just kept getting bigger as I aged and put on weight. My body has become round and soft – something I have lived, quite literally, in terror of my entire life.
Healing began for me when I decided to stop trying to change or control my body. It was scary at first but it was part of a larger intention to divest from the systems of hierarchy that cause so much harm.
Though it had affected me personally, I saw that body shame is not just personal. Second-wave feminists had it right when they insisted that the personal is political. If I hate my body, hide it, or apologize for it, I am complicit in the system of bodily hierarchy that endangers fat people, poor people, people of color, disabled people, chronically ill people, queer people, neurodivergent people, and anyone else who doesn’t have access to the top rungs of the ladder.
In every person there are places where stigma – ideas that come from the ladder of bodily hierarchy – lives inside them as shame. I hear about shame from everyone I work with. Shame about body size, shame about illness and disability, shame about not working enough, not making enough money, not, not, not. Not enough. We believe the lie that we are not enough. That’s a tragedy.
How has socially constructed stigma been converted to shame in your own mind and body? Name and reframe it – it’s not yours. Waking up to this fact is powerful. It’s revolutionary. It’s the only thing that can take these systems down.
My one-on-one coaching programs can help you live with more peace in your body, exactly as it is right now. To learn more, set up a time for a conversation with me via Zoom. There's no charge and no obligation.
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Learn more about the work of Sonya Renee Taylor at The Body is Not an Apology
and on her website.