The Relationship Between Shame and Body Image

When I visited Green Mountain at Fox Run a few years back, I learned so much. About body image, mindful eating, social pressures, psychology, stress, rebellion, tenderness … it was a very intense education compressed into a single amazing week. During my stay I was also reminded of many things I already knew. I was reminded that women are AMAZING at supporting and caring for other women, especially in times of need and crisis. I was reminded that our urges to care for others often eclipses our urges to care for ourselves. I was reminded that depriving a physical body will only work for so long before biology and nature win out.

And I was reminded about shame.

In my experience, shame is often central to poor body image. The hatred that we feel for our own physical forms is wrapped up in the shame we feel about how others see us, how we “let ourselves get this way” (whatever that may mean on an individual basis), how our own bodies compare to other supposedly better bodies, how “different” and “wrong” we are. And the social, external forces that encourage us to change ourselves – diet programs, exercise DVDs, magazines, cosmetics companies – leverage the shame we’re already feeling, then amplify it. Shame is used as a motivator for physical change. We are shamed for being too fat, too skinny, too old, too androgynous, too sexy, and shamed into actions that will supposedly get our shameful bodies back into line.

I don’t oppose physical change. It’s your body, and it’s the only one you’ll ever have. You get to decide how to care for it, how it looks, what of it you share with others, and how to change it should the desire or need arise. You may draw upon any number of sources for your motivation, and may find some of those sources to be more effective than others. But as the folks at Green Mountain pointed out, and as I hope to now point out with equal tenderness, it is wise to consider carefully how much shame you include in your personal motivational cocktail. Shame often makes for a painful, weak, and unsustainable motivational force. If you allow others to shame you into changing your hair, your weight, or your clothing, or anything about your physical self, you will eventually resent those changes and rebel against them. If you shame yourself into changing your hair, your weight, your clothing, or anything about your physical self, you may be able to enact change for a time. It may last for years, decades even. But shame and self-loathing are erosive, and forcing yourself to change using shame as a driving force will wear you down.

Body shame is easy. Body love is hard. Body shame is fast. Body love is slow. It can be so tempting to just succumb to shame and let it steer our actions and blunt our emotions. But if you want to exert control over the arc of your life, and if you want to undertake positive physical change, I urge you to approach that change from a place of love, or even just neutral acceptance. Think about the concept of stewardship: The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. You are the steward of your own body. You can alter and change that body, and if you do so with care and patience then the process will be easier and more valuable. And if all of that fails to appeal, consider this: Change undertaken with care and patience is FAR more likely to yield results that stick. Just ask anyone who shamed herself into a restrictive diet and overtaxing exercise plan. Did it work for a while? Yes. Did it work forever? No. Did you feel good about yourself during? Probably not.

It’s certainly true that making changes during a period of self-loathing can encourage feelings of stewardship and build the desire to continue on a path of self-care. But I’m inclined to believe that choosing to undertake change because of the love and care you feel for yourself will work out well and often. If you wait until you’re a different shape or configuration before you allow any tenderness toward your physical self to take root, you could wait forever. And since shame is a crappy motivator, consider love instead.

Image courtesy Helga Weber. This is a revived and edited post from the archive.

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Reader Request: Modernizing the Denim Skirt

modernizing the denim skirt

Reader Courtney had this request:

For years, jeans skirts have been a wardrobe staple for me, always just above the knee, dark and pencil shaped. I have a pretty casual work environment, so they have been a 4 season staple. I wear them with t-shirts and flip-flops, with nice sweaters and heeled boots, and everything in between. My most recent one was due to be replaced a few months ago, and as I began looking for one I realized not only could I not find what I was looking for, no one is wearing them anymore! Most of my favorite fashion bloggers don’t wear them, nor do any of the stylish ladies I see on the street, and the only stores that carry them are frumpy looking to my eye. So I’m guessing that my wardrobe staple has fallen out of style. What do you recommend I replace it with, and how can I be more aware in the future of when a staple-for-me is becoming dowdy?

Several years ago I listed a denim jacket as one of my wardrobe staples and many readers raised eyebrows. But I stuck to my guns. Denim jackets have risen, fallen, and risen in popularity since back then and I’m sure they’ll continue to ride that roller coaster more or less forever. But I love them and will wear them throughout.

Denim skirts may not be trendy right now, but the kind that Courtney is describing – an unembellished, dark wash, pencil-style denim skirt – is something I think of as a “fluctuating staple.” The magazines aren’t touting it as the next big thing and that means it may not be readily available in mall stores everywhere, but it has classic design and versatility going for it. And that means it’s also got staying power. It will fall back into favor, and out of favor, and back in. I hope you’ll feel free to wear it throughout, if you love it and it suits your style.

I own the a-line denim skirt shown above – a Nic + Zoe skirt that is now sold out – and it took me an age to find it. Many full and a-line denim skirts are stiff, overly embellished, or costume-y so they are much harder to find in a classic dark wash and a cut that works with a variety of outfits instead of just casual/Western ones. Other denim skirts that don’t have classic design and versatility going for them? Denim maxis, distressed or heavily sanded, micro minis, and super light washes. If, like Courtney, you want a denim skirt that will look modern and classy for years to come, a dark wash pencil is the perfect choice. Dark wash a-line runs a close second.

Where can I buy a great denim skirt?

A few denim-focused mall brands like Gap will stock them in spring and summer, but they’ll be a little trickier to find in fall and winter. Here’s where I’d look right now:

  • Not Your Daughter’s Jeans (NYDJ) – Definitely my top pick, as their skirts are high quality, classic in design, and available in a few petite and plus sizes. Also check for this brand at Macy’s, Zappos, and 6pm.
  • Boden – Nearly always in stock in a few styles, and virtually always classic, dark-wash.
  • Nordstrom – There will be an awful lot of very short, distressed, juniors-focused options, but some great classics, too. Nordstrom stocks denim skirts almost year-round.
  • Zappos and 6pm – A great resource as you’ll have a shot at past-season skirts from various brands.

What should I wear with it?

Naturally, the answer this question will vary depending on your personal style, figure flattery priorities, lifestyle, work and workplace, and place of residence. So consider these merely loose guidelines to be used as they best apply to you as an individual.

To dress up a dark wash denim skirt, try cardigans and pullover sweaters, printed blouses and button-front shirts, and knit tops. Super structured and traditionally conservative tops like blazers and solid button-fronts may clash somewhat with the laid-back vibe of a denim skirt. You can also go for edgy accents like leather jackets, chunky jewelry, or graphic tees. Anything that leans in a super Western direction – a chambray shirt or jacket, snap-front shirts, and even some ditsy florals – may edge you over into the costume-y direction if you don’t actually live out West. Which definitely can be fun, but won’t feel classic in most cases.

If your top is long, try tucking and belting. Shorter tops will look great untucked and may feel more natural with a denim skirt. If you’re doing a cardigan, try tucking and belting your inner layer. In terms of top shape, base your decisions on your skirt’s shape: A denim pencil skirt is just like any other pencil skirt – slim-fitting – which means you can do a looser top and still create balance within your outfit. A-lines have more natural volume, so a more fitted top will help show your figure’s true shape.

How about shoes?

Again, this will vary quite a bit depending on YOU, but aside from monster snowboots and gym shoes nearly anything can work. Heels can make a denim skirt feel sexy, low-top fashion sneaks (think Chuck Taylors) will look cool and funky, ballet flats will be classic, sandals will be wonderfully summery. Tall boots can be a bit tricky – especially cowgirl-style boots if you want to keep your look neutral – but they can work, too, especially in rich browns. Pick a shoe that works with your style and activity level.

Anyone else out there a fan of denim skirts? Do you favor pencil style, a-line, mini, something else altogether? How do you style yours? Any other tips you’d share with Courtney and the rest of us?

Images courtesy Zappos

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Hats Off To Dad


My dad has had a major influence on my personal style. As far back as I can remember, he was a man who enjoyed his clothes. He was irresistibly drawn to vivid colours and bold patterns – no doubt because they reminded him of the vibrant surroundings of his West Indian childhood. He had a true fondness for oddball sneakers. I remember one specific pair of yellow, red and blue high tops that he found on a discount rack and wore proudly for years and years until they literally fell apart.

And he absolutely loved hats.

During the week, my father always donned a fedora. He had an extensive collection in all manner of colours and fabrics. I can still see that gleam in his eye as he flipped one onto his head and walked out the door for work. On weekends he favoured tweed newsboy caps, and in the summer months a big straw-brimmed sun hat trimmed with a citrus-coloured band. None of the other dads wore those kinds of hats. I pointed that out to him once, but he was undeterred.

“This is a sharp hat!” he would insist. If my dad felt good in what he had on, there was no bursting that bubble.

Dad often asked me what I thought of his outfits. Sometimes I approved, which pleased him.  Sometimes I had criticisms. “Da-a-ad! What are you doing? Everyone knows purple and orange don’t go together!”  I was young and self-righteous and I’m sure my tone was more than a little obnoxious. He’d consider my opinion and occasionally he would take my advice, but as often as not, he’d give himself a second glance,  decide he was happy with his choices and continue with his day.

I know  my father’s attitude was – at least in part – the result of his early life. His childhood wasn’t easy. He grew up on a small island with very limited access to anything beyond its shores. Racial oppression was blatant and brutal. His family had very little money. Even as a kid, he had to juggle school with any work he could find in order to could contribute to the family finances. Sadly, there wasn’t always enough money  to pay for services like medical care if someone was sick. He lost more than one sibling and eventually his mother to preventable illness. My dad grew up watching fine gentlemen in dapper hats and envied the comfortable, carefree lives they seemed to enjoy. These were the men who were privileged enough to spend time reading great books and enjoying fine art. They were respected in the community. They could protect their families.

The reality is that few of us live truly carefree lives and my dad was no exception. But through a combination of very hard work and some very good fortune, my father did find some comfort in his adulthood. He understood that his hats wouldn’t make him more respected, more learned or bring greater to security to our family. But they were a tangible reminder of how fortunate he was to have realized some of those youthful aspirations. After everything he’d been through, getting dressed as a daily exercise in self-expression and joy was something he deserved.

A few weeks ago my dad died, unexpectedly from undiagnosed cancer. It happened so quickly, I’m only just now starting to feel how profound his absence in my life is. It hurts so much right now, but I keep reminding myself that I was lucky to have had a father that I loved and who loved me back. And I’m lucky that he taught me to find happiness in something as simple as putting on clothes. People always have said that I’m my father’s girl. They’re right. When I find an item of clothing I love, I look in the mirror and smile that same goofy smile that he had. On more than one occasion, my son has given me some serious side-eye and told me, “Mom, that outfit is not…the best.” I must admit the kid has valid criticisms at times. But if I what I’m wearing is making me happy, it’s very hard to talk me out of it.

I miss my dad. Terribly. His favourite fedora now sits on a shelf in my office. I’m glad no other dad wore that kind of hat because now when I look at it, I only think of him.

Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and writer. She has recently returned to her hometown of Toronto, Ontario to complete her doctoral studies in Human Sexuality. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date.

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