Friday, January 29, 2016

Shame and Body Image

I had a dream recently in which someone I know (yes, it was a man, whose name shall be withheld to protect the innocent) appeared to me and gave it to me straight:

"You're a big girl, Alex. You should wear better clothes and some make-up. Make yourself look as good as you can."


It was my dream, so no matter whose mouth I happened to put the words into, this is something that I am trying to communicate to myself.

So, part of me thinks I'm a "big girl" who needs to make more of an effort to appear attractive – to compensate for how I look and how society judges my appearance.

Another – much larger – part of me could care less.

Yet another part of me is in direct revolt against the entire concept of fulfilling an external beauty ideal.

And yet another part of me hates my body and lives oppressed under a lifetime of feeling too big.

And through all of those conflicting emotions and thoughts, that one powerful, suppressed opinion struggled through my mind to show up in one of my dreams and try to shame me for all of it – for being the size I am, for caring, for not caring, for being lazy, for not playing The Game.

Shame Culture, Gender and Body Image

In Dr. Brené Brown's book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), she writes about how shame in western culture organizes itself along gender lines. Shame for women is (mostly) about not being feminine enough (thin, modest and nice) and shame for men is (mostly) about not being masculine enough (tough, powerful, competent, tough, tough, tough – and did I mention tough?).

So, if I were a man, being the weight that I am would not be a source of shame. Because it wouldn't interfere with my ability to be (or be perceived as being) tough. In fact, I would just have a little more weight to throw around. But, as a woman, I am in violation of the demand that I be (or be perceived to be) thin. And therefore, my weight is supposed to be a source of shame.

I think this is really interesting. It seems obvious to me that shame is used as a cultural enforcer, an attempt to solidly define everyone so they stay put – in the place where everyone else thinks they should be. This shame then gets internalized and is self-actuated within individuals, even against their conscious will – as it did in my dream.

My Body Image Story So Far

I've had an uncomfortable relationship with my body image for a long time. In a culture than bases value on competition and comparison, I've always felt like I'm at a physical disadvantage. My body type as a kid was short and muscly – a combination of genetics and gymnastics. Because I was shorter and stockier than a lot of people around me, I felt inappropriately large. But there is a difference between being larger and being large. When I was a kid, I was not a big kid, but because I felt bigger, I felt big. And then I had a whole bunch of value judgments around that. And felt a whole bunch of shame.

My shame intensified when I hit adolescence. I put on weight. Part hormones, part comfort eating, trying to stuff down all of my unacceptable feelings. This is where the cultural expectations on women in North American culture form a real double bind – Thin, Modest and Nice can become an impossible set of expectations for those of us who use eating food to help suppress the feelings that are not Modest or Nice – which means we can never meet all three expectations at the same time!

Anyway, as an adolescent, I felt much bigger than I actually was. I look back now and realize that I wasted being young (and skinny) feeling fat and unacceptable.

Somewhere in there, I realized that my body image was not only negative, but also disturbed. What do I mean by that? My perception of my own body was completely variable. When I was most aware of this phenomenon, during my thirties, I could look in a mirror twice, just a couple of minutes apart, and have radically different perceptions of my body accompanied by radically different value judgments about what I saw.

I never met anyone else who expressed having that sort of experience and so I made up a name for it – dissociative body image. But a little internet research shows that the phenomenon is generally called having an unstable body image and it is not an uncommon experience for people with disordered eating.

When I lived in the city, I often had the experience of passing a reflective surface – like a building with a mirrored exterior – and not recognizing my own reflection. I didn't know what I looked like. Probably because I rarely saw the same thing twice.

And, my experiences with other peoples' perceptions of my body were often jarring to me. I would hear others' opinions with a mixture of disbelief, shame and humiliation – feeling that I were somehow ludicrous – my body was ludicrous and my mind was ludicrous for not being aware of how ludicrous my body was.

I am developing a different relationship with my body now. Living in a more natural enviroment, with few events or people in my life for whom I need to look in a mirror, I experience fewer jarring conflicts between what I think I see and what others see, or what I think I see at various times. But it still happens.

And I'm not sure if the instability of my body image has improved, or if I have just moved myself into an environment where I'm less frequently confronted with the discrepancies. I think my body image is getting more stable, but to be honest, I only dare to hope that it is getting less negative.

Body Image vs. Body Experience

There is a major difference between my body image issues and the way I feel living in my body. Living in my body is an experience I truly enjoy. Apart from times when I am seriously ill (like that time I had a gastric ulcer in my late twenties – UGH!), I love being in my body. My body is strong and capable. I can do the things I want to do with ease – stretch, dance, get myself around, work, lift heavy things, sleep, wake, work, play, laze, read, write, sing, create and appreciate music, etc. etc.

Each of my five senses is a source of great pleasure to me.

I am endlessly moved, entertained and pleasured by the beauty my eyes perceive, the delicious things I smell and taste, the sounds I hear and the luxury of touching and being touched. Even the soft tip-tap of my fingers touch-typing on my computer keyboard is delightful to me.

The question is, if my body is so perfectly able to do all of these things that I love to be able to do in it and through it, what is my damn problem?

Back around to shame

The way I see it, there is shaming and there is shame. Shaming is imposed from the outside: advertisers, media, peers, family, and selves shame other people and ourselves if we are perceived to lie outside of the accepted norms. Shame is what individuals feel in response to shaming.

Disrupting shaming in such a shame-based culture is a big project. It involves changing the way many people think, feel and communicate – often against their own self-interests. Advertisers use shaming tactics to manipulate people into spending money. Often people use shaming to manipulate themselves or others into doing things that they desire them to do.

Shaming is also used to silence people and to shut down uncomfortable ideas. When Dr. Brené Brown posts ideas and research on-line that stir up people's shame, the vicious comments rarely focus on her ideas – they focus on her body. Those comments attempt to shame her for not being thin enough, in the hopes that she will stop writing about shame.

While the cultural shaming is overwhelmingly difficult to change, we can change our approach to it and our willingness to feel shame in response to shaming. We can work with our own shame. We can transform it. We can become shame resilient.

For example, Dr. Brown says that one of her main shame-resilience tools for on-line comments is a tiny piece of paper she carries around in her wallet with the names of the handful of people whose opinions actually matter to her. When she receives a shaming comment on the internet she can check, "Is this person on my list? No. Then it doesn't matter what they think."

Each of us has the ability to choose to buck the system and refuse to accept the dictates of societal shaming. I don't have to accept that it's shameful not to be Thin, Modest and Nice. I have choice.

Transforming shame

This past summer, my friend Jonathan Rotsztain gave me a copy of one of the books he has written and illustrated. The book is entitled Everything that's wrong with my body. I recommend you read it now on Jonathan's web site (Note: adult content). The book is an inventory of everything that Jonathan feels is wrong with his body – too much hair in some places, not enough hair in others, every perceived bump and flaw and wrinkle. Every time I read Jonathan's book, I feel deeply moved. I am moved by Jonathan's honesty and his courage.

And I am moved by the way his book makes me understand that the negative feelings we have about our bodies are not the whole story. Not by a long shot.

This morning, I did an exercise. I created an inventory of everything that I feel is wrong with my body. I listed 28 things. Then I made a list of everything that I feel is right with my body – 35 things on that list. And as I've continued writing this blog post, I've thought of more things to add to both lists.

I am not as brave as Jonathan. I don't feel ready to post those lists publicly or transform them into art. But I will tell you this: the feeling of making those lists was deeply instructive. I made the shame list first – and I felt shame and self-judgment. I felt disgusting and discouraged. I made the list of things that please me about my body second and I felt pleasure, smiles and contentment. And those feelings washed backward toward the shame list.

I believe that if I can focus on the places where I love myself and my body, I might be able to build resilience around the shame about some aspects of my body. And become – gasp – a more integrated person. And hopefully, a more integrated person who will no longer have dreams about people telling me I should wear make-up and make more of an effort.


  1. Thank you for being brave and sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thank you, Deborah. I appreciate your support and encouragement.

  2. What a brave,honest post Alex. Thank you for being so candid and sharing.
    I have always had a love - hate relationship with my body and the way I look. It comforted me to read this post and I admire your strength and grace.

    1. Thank you, Cheryl, for sharing that this resonates with you. I am deeply moved to be connected with you in this area. You inspire me with your strength, confidence and clarity! I felt so lucky that we were able to see each other recently! Big hugs!