The Power of Body Shame

I’m struck by the power of body shame when I talk about body/fat acceptance, size dignity, or weight neutrality.

I’ve had conversations recently with loved ones and listened to a reflection on Isaiah 61 by size dignity activist Amanda Martinez Beck that has made me reflect on the power of body shame in our culture.

My loved ones, clients, and the general population are pretty defensive of body shame.

Meaning, they defend that they NEED to feel shame about their body.

It often leaves me feeling frustrated and sad. Because when has shame ever been a good thing?

Most people can verbalize that shame is not productive. They can recognize that shame does not produce positive change or desirable qualities. But when it comes to body shame, most people seem accepting of the shame they feel.

And then it hits me… that’s the essence of shame….

Shame is about the things in our life that we believe make us unworthy. Unworthy of love, of belonging, of connection.

A distinguishing characteristic of shame is that we believe we deserve the shame we feel.

So if we believe we DESERVE the shame, of course we’d feel defensive of the idea that we can put our shame down. If we believe our body is the reason we are unworthy, why in the world would we think we have the right not to experience body shame?

Where does body shame come from?

Once we realize that we feel defensive at the idea of releasing ourselves from body shame and why we feel defensive of that shame, we can begin to explore where that sense of shame is coming from.

And we have to look at the culture around us to understand where body shame originates from, how normalized and even promoted it is.

I talk with people of all different body types and weights and backgrounds and life situations.

And every one of them really struggles to believe that being anything other than thin is a good thing.

From a young age, diet culture has taught us that thin equals healthy and healthy equals acceptable, lovable, worthy.

Diet culture has infiltrated our medical community, mental health community, faith community, schools, homes, and our minds and hearts so that the message of earning worth and value through physical health is everywhere.

If you look at it from this lens, our sense of body shame as a culture makes sense. It feels right. It is justified.

But, there are some pretty big problems with using our physical health, especially our weight, as a marker for our worth and value, but here are a few that stick out to me.

It’s largely out of our control.

Despite what we’ve been taught, our overall physical health is largely out of our control and determined by factors such as genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity.

Yes, we can engage in healthful behaviors, such as getting adequate sleep, moving our bodies, nutrition, self-care, engaging in meaningful relationships, and spirituality, BUT those behaviors do not predict physical health.

As I’m sure we can all think of examples: the thin woman with “superb” health behaviors that develops cancer or the fat man that has no thought of health behaviors that never gets sick and lives into old age.

These examples may seem like the exception rather than rule- and maybe they are- but they are still examples that much of our physical health is out of our control.

It is not linear.

It excludes SO many people.

If a society focuses on physical health as the determining factor for someone’s worthiness, that misses the vast majority of people. Not only people with physical disabilities, but also people with less obvious health issues.

From illnesses like diabetes to irritable bowel syndrome to asthma to miscarriage to infertility to cancer to sleep apnea. If we use physical health based on the thin ideal to judge worth, most of us don’t make the cut.

And that’s a sad world to live in, right?

Where most of the people around us, ourselves included, aren’t worthy of the love and belonging and connection we were designed for.

It demeans us down to one aspect of who we are.

When I talk with people about living anti-diet culture, they often think that I’m saying we shouldn’t care about our bodies or our health doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is that we are more than our physical makeup and health AND our bodies are beautiful part of who we are as a person.

But it’s just one part.

We’ve been taught to demean our whole selves down to one aspect of who we are. And there’s a part of that I can totally understand. If I believe physical health is the utmost important thing in life and I believe I can control my health through nutrition or exercise, it makes my life a little safer.

Life is messy and unpredictable and uncomfortable.

It’s natural that we look for ways to make it a little less so. But when we attempt to make life safer through “securing” our worth by achieving “optimal” physical health, we are missing the beauty in the messiness and we are missing beautiful pieces of who we are as a people.

It negates emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health.

Our bodies were created in the most beautiful, intricately connected ways by God. Our physical health is one beautiful aspect of our body. But when we glorify our physical health over our emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health, we’re missing big and we’re setting ourselves up for heartache.

Our health is not just one aspect, but an intricately connected and designed orchestration of different systems in our lives. We do ourselves, and our neighbors, a large injustice when we accept such a narrow definition of health and wholeness.

In addition, when we put physical health as superior to our other forms of health, those other forms suffer.

In the name of physical health, I have found that emotional, mental, social, and even spiritual health suffer as we pursue blindly towards an arbitrary standard of physical health.

It is not congruent with the Gospel message.

The idea that our worth is based on anything in this physical world isn’t congruent with the Gospel. This is a hard one for me to swallow. Because I know I’m a sinner. I know I’m flawed beyond comprehension.

But what I know to be true and cannot argue with is that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 NIV

The Gospel tells me that even though I am flawed and sinner, Jesus came and died for me. He would not have died for me if I wasn’t worthy of that kind of love.

Because I was made in HIS image, there is a divine piece of me in the midst of my fallen human nature that made me worthy enough in His eyes to die that terrible, cruel death.

The Gospel tells me that this is true for ALL people.

The Gospel tells US all that we are worthy because we are made in the image of God- even when we sin and fall short.

Taking back the power from body shame

As Brene Brown says, you cannot become resistant to shame. We do not “arrive” and no longer feel shame, but we can become resilient and learn how to live through our shame well.

We can learn to name our shame and respond to it in a way in which we don’t grab onto it and allow it to overwhelm us and drive our lives.

We can learn to see it, name it, reach out to loved ones, and engage in self care so we can better love ourselves and better love our neighbors.

We can learn to see our whole health as more than the things we get right or the things we get wrong.

We can learn to see our worth as more than our physical health.

If you are on this journey and you find that others around you defend their own need (or someone’s else need) to feel body shame…

If you find yourself wanting to defend your own sense of body shame for how your body or physical health is….

respond with grace,

respond with compassion,

respond with love.

Because that, my friend, is the message of the Gospel.