Negative Body Image and Shame
It's easy to think that negative thoughts about our bodies don't really have any effect on us, outside of our self-esteem. If all we're doing is thinking, there's not actual harm being done to our bodies, right?
But what if there really was something big happening on a biological level?
Lets talk about shame. Many times when I'm having negative thoughts and feelings about my body, I'm experiencing shame and I believe this is true for many others, as well. It's easy to conflate shame and guilt, and the difference is that guilt is feeling like we've done something wrong, whereas shame is feeling like we are something wrong. A definition of shame that I have found really helpful goes like this:
An intense feeling of being faulty, wrong or inferior at the core of our being. A burning feeling in the stomach. A sensation of the body shrinking. Spiraling inward in the stomach or chest or both. Constricted throat. Difficulty in speaking. Heaviness on the chest and difficulty breathing. Feeling glared at by others.
Have you experienced any of that when thinking about your own body?
Shame creates a stress response and stress creates a cortisol release. While cortisol curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation, it also alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. When your adrenal glands release cortisol, major arteries constrict, the heart rate elevates, and major muscles are flooded with glucose. Done over and over, this can have serious and very real effects on both physical and mental health.
So what can be done about it? Here's some tactics that I have found really helpful:
Observe the critical voice. What is it actually saying? Give it a voice, talk it out with someone safe, or write it down, and get it out of the noggin. The noggin is not a rational place when I'm feeling ashamed.
Instead of trying to stop the critical voice (don't think about a pink elephant), I try replacing the messages with an affirmation. What I would say to a loved one who was criticizing themselves in this way? Here are a few affirmations I resonate with:
I deserve to take up space, to be seen and heard, and to be respected regardless of what my body looks like or what my state of health is.
"problem areas" on a body don't exist, and were created by advertising to fund industries that profit off us thinking we have "problem areas" to be fixed.
Folds, flatness, curves, dimples and lines are beautiful in landscapes, starry skies, draped fabric, and so many other places in the world, and are just as beautiful when they occur on me.
I am grateful to my body for how hard it works to keep me alive, all day, every day. My body isn't my enemy.
I am enough.
Take a compassion break. This culture is intent on generating self-hatred because it is profitable, and there are hooks back into it at every turn. Every step taken to unlearn that is a huge win. Instead of beating myself up for feeling ashamed, I try to take a moment to appreciate all the times I stood up to that voice. When needed, I take some time to feel the sadness over how much it sucks the world is like it is. I forgive myself for following along, because all that really means is I wanted to be accepted. When possible, I turn that anger and sadness outwards and do what I can to be the change I want to see in the world around body acceptance and respect for all, regardless of health, body size, ability, skin color, gender identity, or age.
These are just a few of the tools in my toolbox for dealing with body shame and negative self-image. I'd love to hear from you, what helps you combat the shame wizard?