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Body Shame

Body shame is an interesting phenomenon. Some people have way too much of it, so much that if they’re three pounds up and can’t fit into their jeans, they’re miserable and abhor their own flesh. Other people who are overweight, don’t view themselves that way. When they look in the mirror, they don’t see extra-large, but instead see the thin or average-size body they used to have. In both cases, shame has gone awry and is not being used effectively to foster physical and mental health.

Let’s take the first scenario when you really aren’t fat, but have put on a few pounds due to vacation, holidays, or simple bloating. You (hopefully) know that your life won’t go down the tubes because of a couple of extra pounds, yet you feel intense hatred for your body and enormous shame about its appearance. Remember, shame is meant to signal that you’ve done something wrong. In this case, you believe wrong is being in excess of a specific, arbitrary number. Rather than merely disliking this fact, you instead transfer shame to your entire being. Your overeating isn’t all that is bad—you are bad! Does this really make any sense? You are more than what or how much you eat, than your body, big or small, than your shape or how you look in clothes. Shame does not belong in this scenario. You may be unhappy, frustrated, or disappointed about your eating, but it is only one behavior among many that make up who you are.

In the second instance, shame is appropriate if you’re not taking care of your body because you’re regularly overeating. Again, shame is meant to tell us that we are doing something we perceive as wrong. In this case, shame should be an indicator your behavior is not in your self-interest. But many people who abuse their bodies through food feel no shame. This subject is a sticky wicket. You don’t want to be so full of toxic shame that it overwhelms all the good about you. However, you also don’t want to deny reality to avoid feeling shame, which is what happens when overweight people continue to view themselves as thin and refuse to see the truth. The goal is to feel appropriate shame about what you’re doing wrong to motivate you to change.

Shame needs to do its work. We need shame to make us feel uncomfortable so that we will do things differently and move toward health. The idea is to put it to good use by feeling it, learning from it, and letting it go. There’s no reason why a person can’t love and accept her overweight body while at the same time feel shame at how she mistreats it. Explore your body shame. If it’s not warranted, push the feeling away. If it is, allow yourself to feel it appropriately and use it to change unwanted behaviors.