“I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame: I dreaded it more than death, more than the crime, more than all the world.”
- Jean Jacques Rousseau
And when shame is about one’s body, it is inescapable - you always take your body with you. Everywhere.
In the image-obsessed world, the self is indistinguishable from the body. We aren’t just being seen neutrally in this world. Here, there’s a value-laden looking that happens. In parties, weddings, on social media, and sometimes amongst our closest friends, we’re being evaluated- yay or nay? They find cues based on our appearances to label us. Good enough. Hot enough. “Goals” enough.
And labels are derivative. Fat doesn’t stop at ‘fat’. Someone who is called fat may be labelled lazy, stupid, or desperate. A client I was seeing recalled feeling unloved, unwanted and being an embarrassment for her warm complexion. In those sessions, we weren’t just addressing body shame. We were addressing self-respect and identity.
Words like elephant, fatty, crow, flatscreen, etc. can etch a deep scar on our identities. And these wounds may secretly carry way into our success stories. When we hold secrets of shame and insecurity along the curves and ridges of our bodies, it shows. Many of us may not look the part but signs can be quiet, and hence easier to hide. This can manifest as hiding behind the group in pictures, using particular clothing to cover insecurities, heightened sensitivity about comments related to one’s appearance, cracking hurtful jokes about oneself flippantly, resistance to working on one’s body, working excessively on a body ideal, at the cost of one’s health or avoiding physical activities for fear of embarrassment
Body image is a construct that is influenced by culture, relationship difficulties, abuse, trauma.
So, there isn’t a one size fits all. But here are 4 ways we can begin the process of body acceptance:
1. Meet your inner critic
A persistent voice that reminds you of your perceived shortcomings is what we call the inner critic. “You’re ugly”, “good for nothing”, “full of flaws” could be some of its chosen favourites.
What does your inner critic repeat to you?
Where/from whom did you first hear these statements?
Contrary to what you think, the inner critic is actually a friend. It is a resounding of what we have heard from others. Having it internalised means that it can constantly warn us without us having to painfully hear it from someone else. Again. See your inner critic as an anxious, hurt voice that is constantly watching out for you. When does your inner critic become active? What is it trying to save you from? What would help it feel soothed? If its messages were to come from a kind, loving inner coach, how would it be phrased?
The inner critic likely took form at a time when we were more helpless than we are now. When you hear it the next time, rephrase its message in the way you did here. That’s a start with shame.
2. Diversify your role model list
Society feeds us the same ideals for beauty. In South Asian cultures, we’re all too familiar with fair-skinned, petite, straight-haired beauty. We could start with diversifying the kind of people we idealise. Pick someone who has an unusual complexion, and is attractive, is considered underweight/overweight and attractive, whose ways of speaking make them attractive or whose talents make them attractive
Give yourself proof of people who refuse to fit the beauty norm and are still attractive. There isn’t and shouldn’t be one standard to follow - more options, more possibilities! Make your list of folx and choose to be around them, follow their journey to body acceptance… or even just on Instagram!
3. Start from right here
Even around shame, there is evidence that playing a part can help you embody it. Here’s how:
How would your life be if you took pride in your body- what would you be doing in your spare time? What would you wear? How would you behave in parties? Who would be around you? How differently would you be at work/ college?
What amongst your previous answers can you start right now? It is likely that most of this can be done right now. So, choose a couple that are easiest to start with, and you’re on your way to minimising the control that shame has on you.
Like any other relationship, the one you have with your body will take time to have trust, affection, intimacy, and room for quirks.
If it seems overwhelming to start with these points, here are questions to develop a sense of compassion-
How did your body keep you alive today?
Name one cool thing your body can do
What did you like most about your body at the age of 10?
What are the emotions you want to feel for your body?
As explained earlier, body shame can have several traumatic roots maintaining it. And while these 4 points are good to try on your own, bringing your story into therapy is essential in this context. For specific help about body image, identity or self-esteem, do reach out to me.