Body Shame: It's Not Personal

Updated: Oct 26

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.