Q: Is body shame the same thing as negative body image?
A: Body shame is an extreme form of negative body image. If you imagine that body image is on a continuum, running from positive to negative, body shame would be at the extreme negative end of the continuum.
Negative body image can involve preoccupation with food, weight and appearance, with degrees of worry about how one is perceived in the eyes of others. Negative body image emanates from insecurity and feelings of inadequacy whereas body shame emanates from a core sense of feeling flawed and defective.
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Q: Where does body shame come from?
A: Body shame comes from holding high levels of emotional shame. The shame can be rooted from many sources; most often it comes from repetitive experiences in childhood relationships where we feel insignificant and humiliated, leaving us feeling bad about ourselves at our core.
When we grow up to have shame-based beliefs about our essential being, we then have more difficulty managing the ups and downs that come with life. We are more likely to develop instincts encouraging us to flee, rather than be present, and preferences to block out emotions because we don’t know how to soothe hurts or manage pain.
Remember that feelings of shame live in the body and get stored there. Shame can evoke strong urges to shrink ourselves and disappear, or it can produce high levels of agitation and irritability, making it incredibly uncomfortable to be in the present moment.
Behaviorally, shame gets reflected in patterns of withdrawal, secrecy, avoidance, deception and self-destruction. It handicaps our ability to get strong in interpersonal relationships and sets us up for dysfunctional ones.
Q: What are some specific self-help strategies readers can try to overcome body shame, especially if the shame is constant and so deeply ingrained that it affects other parts of the person’s life?
A: Become aware of how you talk to yourself and what your Inner Critic says. Noticing and becoming aware is the first step.
Then, replace critical words with words that reflect understanding and compassion; words that you would use for a friend. Individuals who are prone to shameful feelings, are quick to judge themselves and hold unrealistic expectations, assuring that they will feel defeated and proclaim themselves deficient and inadequate.
This habituated way of being self-shaming needs to change in order to get stronger in our self-esteem and body-esteem.
We need to accept that we are human and stop blaming ourselves for the actions of others. We need to learn how to realistically evaluate our expectations of self and others, and we need to learn how to respect our bodies and appreciate all that they do for us.
Q: What else can we do to chip away at body shame?
A: Refrain from saying things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend. Practice by writing to yourself with words that tolerate imperfection and promote self-acceptance.
Learn to focus your attention on thoughts of respect and awe for what your body does for you rather than getting annoyed at it for what it doesn’t do.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add about body shame?
A: We promote positive body image in ourselves and others when we understand that most of the way we look is determined by genetics and that idealizing a body shape that is not ours only increases our feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Our challenge is to learn how to accept the bodies we have, wear clothes that make us feel good and appreciate what our body does for us.
When we train ourselves to focus compliments based on something other than appearance (such as personal strengths like courage, sense of humor, thoughtfulness), we are more likely to avoid stepping into shame traps and are more likely to feel better about ourselves and others.