No Body is Perfect: Body Image and Shame
We often want to believe that shame is reserved for the unfortunate few who have survived terrible traumas, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience. And, while it feels like shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places. After interviewing over 400 women across the US, I learned that there are twelve areas that are particularly vulnerable for women: appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health (including addiction), aging, sex, religion, surviving trauma, speaking out and being labeled or stereotyped.
Interestingly, there are no absolutely universal shame triggers.
The issues and situations that I find shaming may not even come up on another woman’s radar. This is because the messages and expectations that drive shame come from a unique combination of places including our families of origin, our own beliefs, the media and our culture. One place where women find themselves surrounded by unattainable and conflicting expectations is body image.
While some of us might have quieted the tapes about “not being smart enough” or “not being good enough” — it seems that almost all women continue to wage battle with looking “beautiful, cool, sexy, stylish, young and thin enough.” With more than 90% of the participants experiencing shame about their bodies, body image is the one issue that comes closest to being a “universal trigger.” In fact, body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyches that it actually affects why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories, including sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging and a woman’s ability to speak out with confidence.
Our body image is how we think and feel about our bodies. It is the mental picture we have of our physical bodies.
Unfortunately, our pictures, thoughts and feelings may have little to do with our actual appearance. It is our image of what our 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, vulva, anus, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, body fluids, pimples, scars, freckles, stretch marks and moles.
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 it to look like and what you’d hate to have a specific part look like.
When our very own bodies fill us with shame and feelings of worthlessness, we jeopardize the connection we have with ourselves (our authenticity) and the connection we have with the important people in our lives. Consider the woman who stays quiet in public out of the fear that her stained and crooked teeth will make people question the value of her contributions.
Or the women who told me that “the one thing she hates about being fat” is the constant pressure to be nice to people. She explained, “If you’re bitchy, they might make a cruel remark about your weight.” The research participants also spoke often 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 about more than wanting to be thin and attractive. 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.
We can’t talk about shame and body image without talking about 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 replace that with one more airbrushed, computer-generated, shame-inducing image for women to not be able to live up to. Movie stars who gain fifteen pounds and have their stretch marks airbrushed for their “Look!
I’m human too!” portraits do not represent the realities that most of us face while pregnant.
Parenting is also a shame category affected by body image. As an admittedly vulnerable, imperfect parent, 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 creates shame. Parents have a tremendous amount of influence on their children’s body image development, and girls are still being shamed by their parents — primarily their mothers — about their weight.
When it comes to parenting and body image, I find that parents fall along 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, focusing on health rather than weight, deconstructing media messages, etc.).
On the other side of the continuum are parents who love their children just as much as 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 belittling 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. There just doesn’t appear to be any room for neutrality on this issue — you are either actively working to help your children develop a positive self-concept or, by default, you are sacrificing them to the
media- and society-driven expectations.
Power, Courage and Resilience
As you can see, what we think, hate, loathe and question about our bodies reaches much further and affects far more than our appearance alone. The long reach of body shame can impact how we live and love. If we are willing to examine the messages and practice empathy around body image and appearance, we can start to develop shame resilience. We can never become completely resistant to shame; however, we can develop the resilience we need to recognize shame, move through it constructively and grow from our experiences.
Across the interviews, women with high levels of shame resilience shared four things in common. I refer to these factors as the four elements of shame resilience. The four elements of shame resilience are the heart of my work. If we are going to confront the shame we feel about our bodies, it is imperative that we start by exploring 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 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 about my body 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 ages
18 – 80, over 90% of the women struggled with body image, it is clear not one of us is 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.
About the author:
BrenÃ© Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., is an educator, writer, and nationally renowned lecturer, as well as a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where she recently completed a six-year study of shame and its impact on women. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children.
She is the author of I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame