What do you feel when you look at yourself? If you wrote down the internal commentary that occurs when you’re trying on bathing suits, getting dressed for a special occasion, or even just looking at a candid picture of yourself, what would it sound like?
Is it full of criticism? Do you zero in on your flaws while ignoring your positive attributes? Do you berate yourself for your perceived shortcomings?
Would you ever talk to someone else the way you speak to yourself in these moments?
Many of us hold an immense amount of shame about our bodies. This body shame is so ingrained that we don’t even question it anymore, it’s just there. Always. That critical voice, telling us we aren’t fat enough; thin enough, muscular enough, tanned enough, light-skinned enough, or just good enough. When we look at ourselves, we often feel shame, disgust, disappointment, or even hatred. All these intense negative emotions are heaped onto our bodies, these beautiful vessels we’ve been gifted. Not for what they’re capable of or what they can do, but for how they look.
If these words resonate with you, you’re not alone. Most of us are familiar with the sharp sting of body shame, and it’s no wonder – we receive unsolicited feedback about our bodies from the day we are born; research shows that fully 62.7% of mothers body shame their children.
Self-conscious emotions (like pride, guilt, and shame) develop when we’re around two years old, and although their neurophysiology isn’t well understood, their effects are. We take this external feedback and internalize it, feeling terrible about ourselves. Internal shaming happens the most when we are thought to be unattractive by people we depend on the most on for ascribing attractiveness to us (like parents, partners, and close friends). The more shame is internalized, the more difficult it is to treat, and the more we believe that others are legitimate to judge us, the more we internalize and accept these negative judgments.
Once we internalize shame about our bodies, it can be incredibly hard to shake. Both the media and social media platforms reinforce these feelings, offering up impossibly perfect, photoshopped images of models, while companies profit from our insecurities by selling us makeup, workout programs, weight-loss scams, and plastic surgeries.
Body shaming can have heartbreaking effects on those who experience it, including:
- Emotional distress
- Unhealthy dieting habits
- Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, muscle dysmorphic disorder, body dysmorphic disorder)
- Increase in drug use (i.e. steroids)
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- Taking risks with sexual health
- Self-harming behaviors
- Ceasing healthy behaviors and activities that require one to expose their body (i.e. going to the doctor, going swimming, exercising, engaging in healthy emotional or intimate relationships) (Troy, 2019)
- Inability to establish good boundaries
- Restricted breathing
- Weakening the desire to be present in one’s own life
While it may feel impossible to break free from the intense emotional impact of body shaming, but it is possible.