I’m yet to meet someone my age who hasn’t experienced an incident of shaming (put down, told they were wrong or not enough) by an authority figure. When this relates to your own body, how you look or how your body functions, the effects can be incredibly long lasting and may even be affecting your self-esteem and world view today.
Let me share a personal example from my early high school days. At the vulnerable age of 12-13 as our bodies were transforming rapidly and sometimes unpredictably, our P.E. (physical education) teacher took it upon himself to ‘shame teach’ our entire class into being a little more like him (naturally gifted, sporty jock).
It was okay for a small percentage of other naturally gifted sporty types but it was not okay for 85% of the class. Navigating lacrosse, Australian Rules footy and tightrope walking with awkward limbs, period pains and buckets of uncertainty and mistrust about our bodies was nothing short of a nightmare.
This teacher took great delight in getting anyone who made a llama of themselves to demonstrate in front of the entire class. He laughed and heckled and used struggling individuals as demonstrations that we could all (laugh at and) learn from as a lesson in what not to do and sadly, who not to be.
I can safely assure you his tactics in shame teaching didn’t work. All I can hope is that at best some of my classmates decided later in life ‘Fuck it I am going to run a marathon (insert other amazing physical feat) and prove him wrong’.
At worst there are probably still folks from that class harbouring wounds and beliefs that ‘they are not enough’. Some of them may be hiding under extra kilos, others beneath an armour of hard bulked up muscle. Some could be wearing a uniform that reassures them they do fit in, they are part of something, capable and worthy.
I don’t presume that every one of my classmates was negatively affected because some were not. But what I do know to be true, are the similar stories told by my clients.
Body shaming that comes with ‘best intentions’
I’m also sure many of our parents used shame to teach us a lesson that they believed was necessary in order to make our lives better. This often came from a shame wound that they themselves were carrying.
One example I see played out over and over again is mothers (and it could be father’s) body shaming their daughters. Making negative or slightly judgemental comments about their daughter’s growing body, womanly curves or what is on their plate at a particularly vulnerable stage of development.
This one breaks my heart as I know what follows for the daughter is often a destructive path of dieting, self-loathing, not feeling good enough, embedding some deep beliefs that they are not worthy just as they are. A need to be thinner, more toned, less curved, less soft, less womanly, eat less…….. Just LESS.
The ultimate sadness is that the mother is feeling all those things herself and hasn’t been able to deal with her pain. She hasn’t known how to come to terms with her own shame wounds. She hasn’t been able to identify that the healing needs to come from within and when her own shame is replaced by self compassion she will no longer need to project.
How do we work with these shame wounds
The first step is to become curious about the way you see yourself and the way you talk to yourself. Are there certain phrases you find yourself saying over and over about your body, who you are and how you move in the world. Examples might be ‘I’m so fat/ ugly/ slow/ lazy’ or ‘I’m not a runner, I’m not coordinated, I couldn’t do that’. These are all clues that you have certain beliefs about who you are and how you body is.
Trace the origin
Where do these beliefs come from? Is it something I made up after hearing or reading something. Was this said to me by someone I looked up to and trusted? You really need to take an uncomfortable trip down memory lane at this point but think of it as hunting for gold. It may take some sifting through sediment to uncover the real deal.
Identifying and calling out that a particular incident or conversation was instrumental in you forming a belief about yourself. Say it out loud or write it down in a journal but the important part with acknowledgment is to also feel the feelings that arise. Again, I’m sorry but this may be uncomfortable. Be brave here and stick with yourself while you allow grief, anger, resentment and whatever else to wash over you as you connect the dots.
This is the really important part if you want to move forward with confidence and a lighter step. Understand that despite the clarity you have now linking incidents in your past with how you feel within yourself now, holding onto blame will only make things worse. Holding on, will ultimately result in bitterness and depression. Know that whatever was said to you, that hurt and wounded you was said by someone with their own wounds and own unresolved ‘stuff’.
Understand that at that vulnerable time in your life, you didn’t have the tools and defence system in place to ward off shame so you took it in and formed a belief in order to make sense of it. You did the best you could at that time. This step may require shedding some tears so let them come. See if you can sit with yourself in this vulnerable space and begin rewiring your brain from self-berating to self-loving. One thing that could get the ball rolling here is a simple act of self-kindness.
Write a new script
Now for the exciting part. This is where you get to assess the evidence for the past belief held about your body and then totally discount it and write a new one. Take the belief and analyse as a scientific researcher would, where is the evidence for this idea? Then see if you can find evidence also to support the opposite? Begin to notice how much freedom there is in what you believe about yourself. Letting go of old beliefs opens up space to create new ones. So how do you want to see yourself going forward?
I know this all sounds super easy so I want to reassure you it’s not. This process takes time. Often you need to sit with a particular step for a while, let it really soak in, allow other memories, feelings, insights to drop in once you’ve opened that door.
Sometimes you need a mentor or guide to walk you through this and support you in going deep. It’s painful and for some that may feel unbearable without the proper support of a therapist or coach. Please reach out if this rings bells for you and you’d like some support.