Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
How to Navigate Body Shame
Conversations around body positivity and body acceptance have grown over the past few years. In a way, this is progress. We are bolder in exposing and undoing fat-phobia, ableism, and other systems of body oppression that overtly and covertly exist in media, institutions, and our behaviors. There are more advertisements, clothing lines, and mainstream and social media platforms that attempt to promote body diversity.
This is long overdue, as systemic discrimination against weight, age, and different kinds of bodies in general have not only severed our own relationships with our bodies, but also have infiltrated our health care systems, pathologizing and excluding bodies that are not thin, abled, young, and White, resulting in poor quality of care. Body oppression disproportionately alienates us, specifically the bodies that do not fit the so-called standard of beauty, wholeness, and health. Capitalism and White supremacy have given us many reasons to hate our bodies, because they teach us to be ashamed of them—and to shame others.
In an article titled “Body Shame and Transformation,” Sonya Renee Taylor describes the spiraling experience of body shame: “We berated and abused ourselves because we were berated and abused by others. We thought the outside voice was our own, and we let it run roughshod over our lives. And then we judged ourselves for judging ourselves, trapped on a hamster wheel of self-flagellation. Oh, honey, that is no way to live.”
Shame is a social emotion and experience. It is always linked to our relationships and people’s perceptions—or, rather, our perceptions of people’s perceptions. Shame makes us question whether or not we truly belong as we are. Shame makes us nervously wonder about the things that make us “bad” or “wrong.” In the case of body image, shame provokes us to want to hide. We hide our curves, our fat, and our softness. We hide the marks and scars that prove we made it out alive. We hide by altering the areas of our skin where our hairs grow and darker pigments reside. Shame makes us want to put a mask on.
Recent trends on social media and society at large have widely suggested that to overcome body image issues, we must be more audacious and loud about our love of our bodies. For many of us, it does help. There was a time when it was beneficial for me to publicly share my growing love for my body. I wrote and performed songs about it. I posted and tweeted selfies and images where I felt good about how I looked. It felt meaningful to resist and undermine the prevalence of Western beauty standards that made me hate my Brown, curvy body. However, the process did not help me address an inner conflict. I know I should love my body as it is, but there are days when it seems more like an abstraction—an idea that my body itself finds hard to take in. So to post about how beautiful I think my body is online sometimes feels artificial, like I’m convincing myself to believe in something that is not authentic. I feel ashamed for not having the consistency to believe the message of body positivity. I feel ashamed for having this shame. And there it goes again: the cycle of shame.
When this happens, we tend to look for ways to get rid of the body shame. Sometimes, this means seeking out what we are all socialized to do in order to solve (or hide) something: to consume. Do I need to find more body positive material and products? Do I need to hire a coach who addresses self-image? Do I need to buy more clothes and accessories that make me feel free and beautiful? The cycle of body shame continues in the allures of consumerism. Bhavika Malik shares similar observations on Polyesterzine: “The absolute and unrealistic pressure on people to love themselves transformed the body positivity movement into a toxic, profit-driven business opportunity.”
In her book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino writes, “Mainstream feminism has also driven the movement toward what’s called ‘body acceptance,’ which is the practice of valuing women’s beauty at every size and in every iteration, as well as to diversify the beauty ideal.” Tolentino explains how the diversification of what it means to be beautiful and acceptable is great, but the complexity lies in the fact that “Beauty is still of paramount importance.” My interpretation of this is that for as long as beauty bears utmost importance, there will always be those who dictate the standard of beauty, and those who strive to meet these standards for the purpose of social approval. But perhaps, more specifically, meeting these standards is to remove the shame that interferes with our sense of belonging. It probably isn’t body positivity that the system capitalizes on per se. It capitalizes on the shame we feel any time we do not feel like we fit in or are worthy of belonging.
In her aforementioned article, Sonya Renee Taylor discusses the interruption of the cycles of shame: the practice of radical self-love and compassion. We disrupt these systemic cycles by identifying the antidote, which is also the antithesis of what the system doles out: “The only way to beat that system is by giving ourselves something the system never will: compassion.”
When was the last time you experienced compassion? Similar to shame, compassion is also a social experience. It also does not aim to produce and earn as a capitalist tool. We give and receive compassion in the context of relationships, including our relationships with ourselves. Whenever we hide, we isolate ourselves, which decreases our chances of easing the shame and disrupting its cyclical nature. It’s hard to seek compassion, especially when we’ve been judged and rejected countless times before in our vulnerability. Even then, I’d like to believe that life is not static. Without dismissing our painful experiences, life is expansive enough to have new ones. More often than not, we take this journey of undoing shame step by step—inch by inch, even.
In taking this inch by inch, we remember the value of our bodies that transcend beyond projected and imposed standards of beauty, health, and wholeness. Taking from my earliest work, I’d like to share with you the timeless truth: “Our bodies are naturally designed to root for us. They self-heal, detect danger, connect us with others and the natural world. Our bodies invite us to rest and play in its kind and creative way. And with that, I realized that my body is not just the home I’ve always wanted, but the home that always wanted me.”
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.