Down with Shame

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I have spent so long being ashamed of my cellulite, so long feeling like a mutant for getting five-o-clock shadow on my legs, so long convinced that my decidedly non-flat abs were an embarrassment. I have spent so much time and energy trying to measure up to the unattainable standard, tearing myself down for being different, consumed with the shame of being … well, a human woman.

And it dawned on me recently that a lot of the messages that cause women to internalize body hatred are shame-based. Shame is a slow-growing, timed-release kind of emotion that can linger in your system for ages. It’s a fantastic tool for lording undeserved power over people, or manipulating them into uncomfortable or unnatural action. Shame works on us like a virus, and can be just as hard to eradicate. Especially when it comes to messages about how bodies “should” be shaped, sized, and configured. Shame is what we feel about our bodies when someone else decides that they’re not good enough. And damn it, they’re ALWAYS good enough.

Bodies are natural, living, changing creatures and no two are alike. The differences in our bodies enable us to procreate and thrive as a species. The differences in our bodies define our life paths, our abilities, our choices and tastes. The differences in our bodies shape and mold us in infinite and untold ways. The differences in our bodies should never cause shame. They should be celebrated daily.

I can’t say I’m quite prepared to jiggle my cellulite in public or wear head-to-toe spandex, but I AM prepared to begin fighting my own feelings of shame. I’m a work in progress, and I’m working hard. When that sick feeling starts rising up, I remind myself that nothing my body does is shameful, nothing about how my body is formed is shameful, and nothing that my body will become will ever be shameful. And the more I pound out that message, the more I feel it, right down to my shame-free bones. So maybe someday, I will be prepared for a nice public cellulite jiggle …

Next time you feel that sick feeling rising up, fight it.
Never let anyone make you feel ashamed of your body for any reason.
Never.

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  • Casey

    I agree: we seem to be surrounded by shame-reinforcement towards our bodies. I just realized, reading your post, that shame is how I feel about my body in the "bad moments"; I've never really been able to pinpoint the emotion exactly (or maybe I was just wasn't admitting it was shame? After all, it seems a little weird to be ashamed of my own bodily form–but it makes sense!). Thanks for the reminder to fight the feelings. I've been getting a lot better about this lately–and it seems mind over emotions is starting to work (a teeny bit! ;)!

    Thanks, Sal for another great post!

    β™₯ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

  • The Raisin Girl

    I have to agree that shame–and its ugly little sister, guilt–is an extremely damaging emotion to have about one's body. Even if a person had made themselves unhealthy through their lifestyle choices, shame would not help them, but only add psychological problems to the physical ones and possibly deter them from getting better. I think a lot of people think body shame can be a motivator, but I can't think of anything more DEmotivating.

    However, I can't agree with you on one thing: I don't think the differences in our bodies define our life paths, abilities, choices and tastes. At least, I don't think they should. I think that leaves way too much about life up to biology. I'd like to think it's the other way around: I define my life path, develop my abilities, choices and tastes…and these will directly affect my body, often much more than my initial biology. According to my doctor, I'm currently overweight, and she'd like to see me lose a few pounds for my health. I'm not ashamed of this fact; I wear my little sundresses with pride anyway and to hell with what people think. But I can't just excuse that recent weight gain with the fact that half the women in my family are heavyset. Because the truth is, I gained weight this year because I worked at a desk 20 hours a week and was a full-time student; I was writing my honors thesis and not getting enough sleep, and just eating whatever was easily accessible without much thought to its nutritional content.

    So I have to agree with you wholeheartedly: DOWN with shame. But there's a fine line between eschewing shame and eschewing personal responsibility for taking care of our bodies. I mean, they're the only bodies we've got.

  • Sidewalk Chalk

    Sal,
    I love posts like this. You are so right — everything that makes us different helps us thrive as a species. Eff societal standards of perfection.

  • Sal

    The Raisin Girl: Good point. We shouldn't feel like our genetic lots hold us back. Bodies are incredibly adaptable, and most of them can do most tasks, with training and determination.

    What I hoped to convey was that biology influences what we excel at doing, physically. I can't play softball to save me, but I can bike for 20 miles without even feeling it. I don't have the coordination to knit or play guitar, but I can make beaded jewelry and sing. So I do those things that come naturally, and enjoy them because I excel at them. And in that way, they shape my life.

  • HollyElise

    Shame and guilt are definately the two big things I feel on "bad days".
    It helps me, on those days, to remember a few things:
    1. my husband *loves* my butt. he loves it. and with that butt he loves come hips and thighs, that's the way it is.
    2. my hips are called "child-bearin' hips" for a reason – I hope they'll stand me in good stead when we're ready to have babies.
    It may seem silly to think of these things on those days, but it sure helps me. I know that I eat healthily, and that my body is strong. I don't have high blood pressure or high cholestorol, I don't have heart problems or diabetes, my immune system is amazing… My body does so much.
    Why feel ashamed?
    πŸ™‚
    These are the things I remember when those feelings rise up. So I can't fit size 0 jeans or wear a small-size top – my body is perfect the way it is.

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    I have a "normal" BMI, exercise regularly, have run several long-distance races, and am overall healthy as a horse, but one glance at my upper thighs can at times send me into a shame spiral. Maybe I should work harder at getting over this… wear shorts in public, hell even photograph them and put them on my blog. I'm just not quite there yet, either.

  • Courtney

    I needed to hear that this morning. Here's another aspect of it all that bothers me: the guilt trip of life expectancy. As in, if you would just eat better and exercise harder and get in better shape, you won't have a heart attack/stroke/etc and deprive your loved ones of your presence at some unspecified point in the future. Not saying that dying that way wouldn't suck, but I might also get hit by a bus tomorrow. I refuse to let the potential guilt of what might one day happen interfere with enjoying my body and my time NOW. Because we forget that it's equally sad to neglect enjoying things now for some imagined future gain, and then to lose both because of the unpredictability of life and death.

  • CarolAnn

    I use these affirmations:

    I am beautiful
    I am perfect
    My body is perfect
    I am proud of my body
    I know I look beautiful
    I feel amazing

    I am perfect and beautiful in every way, and I have the power to do and be anything I want.

    Love,
    CarolAnn
    http://CharismaU.com

  • Ekatherina

    SALLY. I love you. forever and ever. You OWN at eradicating a woman's own negative body image, AND at getting rid of the problem of women judging others' bodies.

    Yeah, we should work to take care of our bodies, since they're what we have for tooting around in life, but that doesn't mean we should push those bodies into somethat that they are not meant to be, and we shouldn't be ashamed of what they are meant to be. We should think of exercising and eating nutritiously as saying thanks to our bodies for doing all that they do to us, and to keep them doing what they do, not to conform them into something that someone else says they should look like.

    I'm on the tiny end of the spectrum, but with that comes a nonexistent rack and rear. Thanks largely in part to your posts praising the small of boob, and a pro-small-of-boob boyfriend, I've accepted that part of me. I exercise regularly to increase the size of my tush, but I've been trying to think of it as "it's a supportive muscle for my back and legs and that's helpful to me" rather than worrying about how it looks. This post is helping that. πŸ™‚

    Thanks again, Sally, you're great. And so is everyone else here.

  • Sydney

    Great post. Body acceptance certainly is a long journey, with many twists and turns, but a journey most definitely worth taking.

    I wish you well on yours.

  • Peter

    This is a GREAT message and believe me, men feel body shame too, though perhaps not related to cellulite. Thanks for expressing this message so eloquently, Sal.

  • tinyjunco

    when i was 15, i became suddenly desperately, deathly ill. and stayed that way for a while – i wasn't out of the woods for almost a year.

    that experience, along with 'repeat performances' since (incl. multiple hospitalizations) just knocked the shame right out of me. i knew that if i bought into the stereotypical US female guilt/shame view of my body it would eat up too much of my energy and consciousness, both of which i needed at full strength in order to survive.

    so i don't have the experience of living that shame as an adult woman (i'd only had breasts less than a year when my body became completely distorted by the illness, then the treatments). but i got a crash course in looking at what it would cost me, and choosing to turn away.

    it's funny, a lot of mothers i talk to have a similar experience, a total loss of body shame, from going through pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding. it can completely change your relationship to your body on a primal level. birth and survival will touch a person much more deeply than the cultural layers added on top of those raw truths.

    and, for me, i've found that sometimes my body isn't good enough. there's been times i couldn't breathe without toxic drugs, couldn't walk more than half a block, couldn't get out of bed without strong pain medicine, couldn't move because i was throwing a clot……but none of it was anything i caused or wanted. even if i had, so what? my body was doing the best it could given the circumstances, and bodies have limitations.

    our bodies are physical conglomerations that are born, live as best they can, then stop at some point. they're amazing and make it possible for us to experience everything from despair to ecstasy. they don't even have to be 'good enough' to be the most precious part of the earth for us right now.

    some of the times when my body was the most shattered were those when i had the most respect for it, that it could hold on through such crazy circumstances and allow me to be here with my family in this place.

    shame so ain't worth it!!!! steph

  • Anonymous

    Yet another excellent post – you are doing a good service!

  • Karly Arens

    The shame that many women feel because of their bodies is astounding, and, quite frankly, gut-wrenching. The amount of shame, embarrassment, or insecurity that invades my mind and life can be oppressive. We tell ourselves lies and solely focus on the negative. But the truth is much more powerful. What are some ways that we can replace these lies in our minds with truth? How can we retrain our brains to think in a healthy fashion? I have my own methodologies, but I'm curious to know others'.

  • The Budget Babe

    i struggle with shame too but like to think one step forward two steps back! you too, sal, you're moving onwards always towards a future that's almost 100% shame free and you inspire others to do the same πŸ™‚

  • Beck

    Yeah!

  • Chelsea

    fabulous and inspirational! it's an ongoing war, this fight against shame, but each day that I convince myself that my body, that my mind, that my choices are not shameful, I have won an important battle, and in the end all of those will add up and shame will be no more!

  • DawnRose

    Wow. I just recently had an epiphany along these lines. After I had an emergency c-section and subsequent infections involving tons of emergency surgeries….I realized I no longer felt like my old hot sexy self. And it was affecting my love life and diet. I put on 30 pounds and kept everyone at bay. The scars are well-earned, but huge, ugly, and yes…shaming for me. I've recently linked the thoughts and actions of my feelings. Good stuff:)

  • Aury

    THANK YOU!

    just…thank you πŸ™‚

  • Charlotte

    This was pretty much my point in the posting about spider veins, Sal–suddenly realizing that I was "ashamed" of my veins, as if I'd done something terrible to deserve them. It's a bizarre reaction to imperfection, but it's definitely a common one. Feeling shame about something you have zero control over is only the beginning…then there are the "shameful" things you can control, but don't, which must be a defect in character, right? We seem to have an infinite capacity for shame and the guilt that comes with it.
    You said it well.

  • Laura Elaine

    This is excellent timing for myself, as I am struggling with shame and self-hatred for my body more and more.

    A few years ago I lost 50 pounds, and of course told myself I would never get back up to that weight again. Now, 3 years later and I have gained 40 pounds back. I could not be more ashamed. I doubt these feelings will go away until I lose the weight, but these are good sentiments to hear just the same.

    It's not so much a shame because I don't look like person A or person B, but shame because I don't look like the healthy young woman I used to be. It's like, I know I'm capable of looking and feeling hot, so being so far outside that realm now is quite defeating. For me personally, shame seems to be a big motivator.

  • Anonymous

    What a great topic of guilt! I feel the same way.

    XOXO,

    http://outfitidentifier.com

  • Sal

    Laura Elaine: Oh, lady, I hate to think of you using shame as a motivator. Does it really matter that you looked different once? If you feel like you want to change your body to feel healthier and more in touch with it, by all means, do so. But maybe do so with a "from today forward" mentality. Don't make your goal a body you once had, or shame yourself for changing from that past shape. Make your goal an entirely new you, that you can and will love no matter what.

    I know it's awful white-light-touchy-feely. But really. Shame may galvanize you into action, but it'll make the journey to your new self fraught with self-loathing.

  • CarolAnn

    Laura Elaine –

    I think there may be better ways to help motivate yourself than shame.

    I find that when I love and accept myself for the way I am, for what I look like, and forgive myself for goofing off, eating poorly, or whatever in the past, I'm more apt to treat myself well.

    That means, being healthy.

    Here's what I do: I use affirmations that say that I am a healthy, fit, trim, sexy woman.

    Then, I act as if I am a healthy, fit, trim, sexy woman.

    I eat like that, exercise like that, and my body metabolizes like that.

    It's hypnosis. It works.

    Love,
    CarolAnn
    http://CharismaU.com

  • Eve

    The Biggest Loser (as well as the entire "results not typical" weightloss industry) tries to convince viewers that their weight is entirely subject to their willpower — if they just focus on diet and exercise, following doctor's and trainer's orders, they will lose weight and keep it off. Now we find out what was behind the mirage: http://www.bodylovewellness.com/2010/06/16/kai-hibbard-biggest-loser-finalist-part-2-of-3/

    Physical activity is a wonderful thing. Balanced meals of reasonable portions of whole foods are wonderful. Choosing to do these things is important self-care. Unfortunately, it seems that shame of being fat or fear of getting fatter is what motivates so many of us to choose self-care, and I applaud Laura Elaine for being self-aware enough to see that in herself. I've worried so much about small weight fluctuations in my life, to the point that I finally started to wonder if maybe my anxiety about weight was as bad or worse for me than the weight itself. What if we each chose the most balanced diet and the most fun exercise available to us — out of self-love? Without caring whether it affects our weight or appearance one way or the other?

    One thing that has helped me was giving up women's magazines. I do not need to be presented with the unattainable "ideal" over and over again. But I still need to know what's trendy, hence my need for style blogs. πŸ™‚

    Another big help is regularly going out of my way to look for pictures of beautiful, stylish, active, talented women of size. Even without women's mags in my life, too much of my media diet still reinforces the FAT=SHAMEFUL lie over and over by presenting large women as lazy, unintelligent, unattractive, desperate, out-of-control donut eaters, the butt of jokes. The internet is a godsend for those of us who want to retrain our subconscious minds to see large women as gorgeous, luscious, sexy, smart, in-control, hilarious, creative, energetic…

  • Laura Elaine

    Sal,
    Thanks for the kind and wise words. Sorry to be the Debbie Downer today, but I felt this was something I could share with you guys, and you'd be objective, whereas I would never post something like this on my own blog.

    It's not so much that I have to get back down to size X to be happy, I just want to in shape again, whatever that size is. I just know it's not this one!

    The overwhelming feeling I have lately is that of failure. How could I let this happen again? I already threw out my large clothes long ago – I cringe at the thought of buying them again. To me, that's another sign of failure. Failure to take care of my body, failure to like myself enough to not gain the weight again, and failure to be strong enough to prevent this from happening.

    CarolAnn,
    Those are great affirmations and I will try those. I'm just already telling myself "Fit? Trim? No you're not!"

    I guess I miss the strong, in shape gal I used to be, and am not ready to accept that she's gone forever.

  • a cat of impossible colour

    I have terrible skin that's prone to teenage breakouts whenever I'm stressed, hormonal or … I don't know, Mercury is in retrograde or something? I'm very ashamed of it, because it feels like I have to hide my real face all the time, and it's hugely embarrassing when it's in the full throes of pizza-ness. Not sure where I'm going with this, but … sigh.

  • Anne

    Sal, great post as always πŸ™‚

    I wanted to respond to Laura Elaine though, because I find myself in the exact same boat! I lost 60 pounds almost 7 years ago and have gained it back and lost it a few times since. I'm definitely on the higher end of that weight range right now, and Sal's absolutely right that you can't make your old body a goal. I don't know how old you are, but in my case it's just not realistic. I lost the weight at 22, and now even if I lose it all again, my body looks different.

    I felt the same way that you did – completely ashamed that I let myself get "that bad" again. But I've realized that I'm just always going to have a hard time with keeping weight off, so I'm not as hard on myself and, most days at least, not ashamed. And just as CarolAnn suggested, I tell myself I'm still hot (reading pages like Sal's definitely helps with that!) and I actually believe it. And now instead of being focused on losing weight, I'm focused on being healthy.

    I hope that if you're working toward the body you want, you're able to start hating the body that you have a little less.

  • Zee

    I agree but I think SHAME comes as a result of LOW SELF ESTEEM. A woman, who has HIGH SELF ESTEEM would not be A-SHAMED of her body or let anyone else make the A-SHAMED. We are all alway going to be work-in-progress. My mental pendulum is always swinging, which is normal. I remind myself to stay CENTERED and don't let someone else dictate how you feel about yourself.

  • Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    This post is so true. I was talking to a friend of mine recently about the fact that most advertising is about being ashamed of being hairy, fat or less than perfect. It drives me mad. Unfortunately it also seems to work very well.

    Hopefully, through posts like yours, we can help to resist this and choose products from a positive perspective.

  • BarelyVogue

    I totally agree you inspire me a lot. Visit my blog to win a fun contest I am having right now
    xx
    Sahi
    http://www.barelyvogue.com

  • RoseAG

    I count myself among the lucky that shame was not something I associated with my body.

    Behavior can be shameful – being rude, being bad, hurting other people's feelings, but somehow in all my WASP-ishness I missed shame associated with my body.

    So toss those Lucy workout pants with the spandex liner. Cover up enough so I don't know if your Brazilian wax is overdue, but skip the agony over jiggle.

    If you have to hide jiggle at the gym you belong to the wrong gym!

  • Kate

    Hoorah! Bravo! Down with shame! Up with being a human being, in all the messy imperfection that that entails.

    You're right – as women we get told that we are not enough, not good enough, not hot enough, not pure enough, not clean enough, not ANYTHING enough. Well, I've had enough!

  • Anuja

    Beautifully written as always, Sally.

    For me, self-shame is rarely about my appearance (I'm pretty happy with that) but is usually (and sometimes crippling-ly) about my intelligence, my accomplishments, my ability to one day find my calling and be GOOD at it.

    My body is healthy, strong, and I take good care of it. My resume, GPA, exam scores…those things make me want to cry sometimes.

    Beauty is subjective – that's the whole point. But when I become a number (GPA, test score wise), I can ACTUALLY SEE where I fall on the inferiority ruler.

  • Laura Elaine

    And thanks Eve and Anne πŸ™‚ You are all lovely ladies! Thank you for letting me be myself here. Tear! Ok enough sap. I just got back from a bike ride so that's a start, right? Right!

  • CarolAnn

    Anuja,

    You are perfect in every way. Nothing is broken so nothing needs to be fixed.

    I think one of the biggest challenges we face as a society is that most of us (read: just about everyone) is taught to work to improve their shortcomings – often to the detriment of their strengths.

    What comes out of this? Mediocrity. We end up with a lot of strong weaknesses.

    Instead, focus on what you love and what you're great at. Build on that, keep learning, and you'll find success naturally.

    You are loved!

    Love,
    CarolAnn
    http://CharismaU.com

  • General Jinjur

    I can't tell you how uplifting your posts on these kinds of things are. You never fail to remind me to appreciate myself, my differences, and all the little things that make up who I am. I've battled this kind of shame since I was in grade school, and it really gets exhausting after a while. Reading this helped me remember that spending my whole life being ashamed of myself is a tired and lonely existence.
    So thank you for reminding me that I'm "Already Pretty". πŸ™‚

  • Anonymous

    When I start thinking negative thoughts about my body, my intelligence, my accomplishments…I force myself to concentrate on my interior – my character. I'm a good person and put conscious effort into being a kind, patient and thoughtful person each day and in the end, that is really all that matters.
    We are here for such a short time and we make a difference through our relationships, not where we went to school or what size our breasts are or how much we weigh.

  • Terri

    Hi, Sal! I just found your blog recently and wanted to tell you how much I love it! You are awesome!!!!

    Thank you especially for this post and for all of your thoughtful and compassionate replies to everyone – I see myself a lot in your readers' comments and really appreciate your advice – it is always so helpful and so kind.

    You are a huge inspiration to me. : )

  • onlyme

    I can be feeling relatively fine about my appearance (at least, I'm not actively thinking about it), but then the shame is hammered home just by turning on the TV and seeing all the ads with bikini-clad women promoting low-fat cereal, shavers, moisturisers etc. Or I'll be in the queue at the supermarket, forced to stand next to all the gossip magazines whose headlines berate celebrities, picking fault with every aspect of their bodies.

    Why is this war of shame waged solely against women?

  • Jalexa2

    Well said! One thing I remind myself when I start comparing my body with others and head down the shame spiral is that it is the advertisers jobs to make us hate parts of our body so we buy their products thinking the product with improve it. But what exactly needs improving? I am listening to someone selling "snake oil" to make me feel better about something I hadn't thought about until they brought it up.

  • Anuja

    Thank you, CarolAnn. Your kind words and good advice made my day!

  • CarolAnn

    And you've just made mine!

    Thanks Anuja. I'm so glad that my experiences and fervent learning have allowed me to lift your spirits!! It's everything I want!

    And thank you, Sally, for bringing up such an obviously exciting, emotional topic, and addressing it with such grace! I love that you're bringing people like us together!

    Love,
    CarolAnn
    http://CharismaU.com

  • Results Not Typical Girl

    Thank you for sharing your words and your spirit. This was my first tip-tap over to your neck of the woods and it was so worth it. Very affirming stuff. I wrote a related post called "embracing my inner portn star". Stop by for a read and see if you agree! Hugs, Kirsten

  • sui

    I say, jiggle your cellulite.

    It's a part of you, & it's beautiful. :]

  • Amy

    Perfectly said. Posted a follow-up over at http://www.notesbyamy.blogspot.com