I was having a conversation with a close friend the other day about body image. We both realized that nothing about my outlook fits the cultural narrative about body composition, shame, and empowerment. It’s really like I’m speaking a different language. I used to be fat and chronically ill, so losing weight was part of a major victory in reclaiming my body for myself. I always thought that would be important and valuable to share, to let others in my situation know that there are ways out. It hasn’t proved motivating for most people, though. Telling my story tends to make people who aren’t in optimal physical condition feel defensive and irritated. I’d like to explore why that is.
First off, the health angle absolutely does not inspire most people. It’s exactly like talking about saving for retirement, getting enough sleep, or not texting and driving. Everyone knows this stuff already. It comes across as one more lecture. Coming from the defensive position, the feeling is that I CAN’T EVEN LISTEN TO THIS RIGHT NOW. You don’t know my life. Don’t judge J. Even talking about how much better and easier everything is after making these changes is not something that overwhelmed, resentful people want to hear. Yeah, just rub it in my face why don’t you.
Second, everyone doubts the data. Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, and I always applaud that. I do wonder, however, whether we’re skeptical about the right stuff. What results are we getting? How’s that working out for you? Say someone has sleep apnea and also falls into the category of severe obesity. Maybe weight has nothing to do with it whatsoever. *shrug* Maybe it does. Basing your behavior around one belief or the other is a gamble. Better hope you’re right.
To me, it’s like Pascal’s Wager, in which he states that the cost of believing in a non-existent deity is less than the cost of disbelieving in a real deity and then spending eternity in Hell. I would say that a secular version of this concept is useful for every major decision in life. For instance, I remarried, although we have both been divorced and the statistical risk of our marriage failing is discouragingly high. I decided that the cost of missing out on a happy life with the man I love is higher than the cost of possibly having our relationship not last forever. I save for retirement, even though I might die this very afternoon, because the cost of putting aside a little for old age is less than the cost of being elderly and poor (and possibly ill and frail) for decades. If I’m wrong, I’d rather be wrong the smart way. I’d rather keep believing in love and communication than live alone as a cynic. I’d rather die with money I never spent than live in desperation when I’m too old to work. I’d rather exercise more than I “need” and “deprive myself” of hundreds of pounds of added sugar in my food than revert to being sedentary, overweight, and ill. Again, it’s a gamble, and I’m always going to place my bet on the side of the happiest, smartest, and/or most successful people. These are things that make sense to me.
What does this have to do with shame, though? We’ve already established that people don’t care about the health argument, and even people who do have serious health issues will resist nothing harder than the idea that lifestyle is related to their problems in any possible way. I know I did. I was a resister, too. I just didn’t have a shame problem.
Well, I did, but it wasn’t about body composition.
I was bullied pretty severely throughout my school years, almost all about my appearance. My hair. My clothes. My body hair. My shoes. Whether I did or did not smell bad. I don’t like talking about it because this big black ball of solid tears starts to form in my chest. I still don’t trust anyone to give me an honest compliment. If someone so much as glances at something I’m wearing, I assume they’re inwardly laughing at me. Once you’ve seen people physically pointing at you and encouraging their friends to laugh out loud in joyous group ridicule, you start suspecting it everywhere. It’s true that people adore mocking, shaming, and humiliating others. That’s why there’s a People of Walmart website, and it’s where internet flame wars come from. We’ll ridicule people for mispronouncing words, misspelling something, using improper punctuation or grammar, and all sorts of other things. A perceived misstep in behavior can result in tens of thousands of comments, tweets, and memes aimed at public shaming. Never go viral for the wrong reasons. We think shame is a useful, important social tool, as long as it’s directed at others. We believe in it. For some dumb reason, we seem to think that shame will correct other people’s behavior, even as we know firsthand how incredibly painful and debilitating it is when we feel it ourselves. This is one reason why I say shame makes no sense. We know it doesn’t work. We know how negative, even crippling, it is. It’s a form of fairytale justice, though, and we think that as long as we’ve suffered our share, we’re sure as heck going to make sure people who Deserve It More are going to be meted their appropriate volume, with maybe an extra scoop just to be sure.
Body shame is just one aspect of this. What I’m hearing is that many people feel devastating shame about how their bodies look. They don’t match what we see in film, on television, in advertisements, or on the runway. They feel frustrated by their available fashion choices. They won’t wear swimsuits on the beach. They may or may not have been taunted, hassled, insulted, mocked, or lectured about their appearance. (It’s a moot point, because as long as it happens to one person, we all know it’s possible and may be coming our way any minute). Shame in one area tends to spatter all over anything. Someone who feels ashamed of her body may also be ashamed of everything else: the way her house looks, the state of her finances, her education or career, her lack of Pinterest perfection, her parenting if she has children. Taking in new information or perspectives, or even thinking or talking about these topics, tends to rip off the scab and cause more shame to leak out like pus. I know I don’t want to tell you all in public that my childhood nickname was Medusa.
I did it, though. Shame is just a cloud of smelly vapor that burns off and dissipates in direct sunlight.
Part of why I never felt ashamed when I was obese is that I let go of any attachment to the idea of Being Pretty when I was a little kid. I figured that if everyone I met was so hateful and cruel about every part of my appearance, then I just wasn’t objectively good looking. I decided to let it not matter. I wanted what was important to be my intelligence, hard work, and academic results. I wanted to be nice, friendly, and compassionate… “unlike all you nasty people,” she shamed inwardly. I built my identity around other positive things. I realized that hotness or whatever would not last a lifetime. Many of the vicious little 12-year-olds who tried to ruin my young life probably quit being cute or popular shortly after high school graduation. That’s the thing. Adults are certainly capable of far greater bullying and much more creative psychic torture, but these were children. Why should I let the opinions of children, formed in the 1980s, have any effect on my life today?
What’s funny is that at 41, I’m probably on the top end for looks. I have the taut body of a marathon runner. My thighs are noteworthy. I never dreamed of such a thing as body pride when I was a sensitive, weepy, socially ostracized teenager. Now, I know that my body is capable of very impressive feats of strength, endurance, agility, and balance. I’m traveling the world and earning race medals. Objectively, I look AMAZING. It’s much more important that I FEEL amazing, but hey, I’ll take it. I’m intensely proud of my body because of everything it can do, because of its healing powers, and because I’m walking proof that it’s possible to beat chronic pain and illness. Also, my husband thinks I’m sexy, and that’s not a bad thing.
If someone who bullied me around, say, 1986 happened to show up in my café today, and we recognized each other, that would be interesting. If she happened to have gained a bunch of weight, and she envied my newly athletic build, I would laugh my gorgeously tiny little butt off. If someone who had shamed me felt shamed next to me, I admit, I’d take some gratification from that for a day or two. Then I would just feel sad that she was ruining her own life by not enjoying it. Fat, thin, doesn’t matter. Pretty, plain, doesn’t matter. These are not moral values. They’re superficial. We get that, right?
When we think about it, we know that integrity, loving kindness, and accountability are things that really matter. Whether we’re honest with ourselves, whether we live up to our own values, whether we’re emotionally present and available to the people we care about the most – that’s why we’re here. If we let a bit of cellulite take over more space in our thoughts, we’re taking our attention away from our loved ones and our purpose in this world.
Shame makes no sense. It doesn’t do anyone any good under any circumstances. All the wrong people feel it. (If you carry more shame than a serial killer or human trafficker, think on that). We dish it out even when we know how hard it is to take it. Shame can stop us from going to the doctor, saying Yes to love, moving forward in our careers, or even enjoying a day at the beach. Look around. Notice how many other people there are who are the same size as you. So freaking what? Smile at them, high-five, and make friends. We get more of whatever we focus on. That means more shame leads to more shame. We have to drop a manhole cover on that. We have to let it go. The only way to feel empowered and develop true body pride is to develop a vivid, intense image of what you want, and put your focus and effort on that. Whether that’s bold fashion, perfect hair, the ability to shellac people at every dance battle, being able to put your foot behind your head, doing a cartwheel or a handstand, or having visible abdominal muscles, pick something and go for it. Just please, for the love of all that is holy, call out your shame for what it is, drag it into the light, and watch it disappear.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.