Feeling Shame About Your Body? Here’s How to Handle it.

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Disclosure: I am a partner of Way and received compensation for this post. My opinions are my own.

If you’ve been feeling shame about your body lately, you’re not alone. According to one survey, 79 percent of adults feel unhappy with how their body looks at least sometimes. 

As you may have experienced, feeling shame about your body can have all kinds of negative consequences. It can impact your mental health by making you feel down, anxious, or depressed. It can undermine your relationships by making you feel like you’re not good enough. It can even have a negative effect on your physical health, by pushing you to try diet after diet that inevitably fails and can lead to big weight fluctuations and not getting enough of the nutrients your body needs.

Diet culture makes you feel shame about your body, and that sucks

Too often, we think that the reason we feel shame about our bodies is because we’re not thin enough, or strong enough, or tall enough, or whatever enough. We think that if we just change how we look, that shame will go away.

But that’s not the case. In reality, the shame you might feel about your body isn’t your fault. Diet culture sets these totally unrealistic and arbitrary standards for how we “should” eat and what we “should” look like, and then it makes us all feel like we’re not good enough when we don’t measure up. 

Then, diet culture capitalizes off of the shame it makes us feel. Every time you turn on the TV or scroll through social media, there’s someone promoting a new diet, a magical weight-loss pill, or a workout routine that promises to transform your body into one that’s “worthy.” The underlying message? Your current body isn’t good enough, and you need to put a lot of time and effort into making it better.

The catch is that almost none of us will ever live up to diet culture’s bullsh** standards, no matter how hard we try and how much money we spend. And even if we did, we’d probably find a new part of our bodies to feel ashamed of.

How body shame shows up in diet culture

Because diet culture is everywhere, we’ve normalized the body shame that it makes us feel. In fact, we pretty much expect that everyone feels at least a little bit of shame about how they look. How many of you remember the scene in Mean Girls where all the plastics go around complaining about parts of their body, then give Cady a really weird look when she can’t immediately think of something she doesn’t like about her appearance? 

But body shame shouldn’t be normal, and it doesn’t have to be normal for you. Thanks to diet culture, we’ve become professional body comparers. We scroll through Instagram, see someone with a so-called “ideal” body, and suddenly our own body feels less-than — even if we felt fine about it just a few minutes before. Social media amplifies this constant comparison game, making us believe we’re not measuring up to some arbitrary standard of perfection.

Diet culture can even show up in conversations with family members and your closest friends. Maybe your aunt just started a new diet and can’t stop talking about 

Setting these boundaries can help protect you against some of the shame that diet culture makes you feel about your body.

But wait, what is shame, exactly?

In order to start breaking free from body shame and diet culture, it’s helpful to understand what shame actually is. 

In her first book, I Thought It Was Just Me, renowned shame researcher Dr. Brene Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. She explains shame as the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed or wrong with us. If not addressed, shame can lead to a sense of isolation — the feeling that we’re the only ones struggling with whatever we’re ashamed of, and that people will never accept us because of them.

Brown also explains that shame is very different from guilt, even though people sometimes use them interchangeably. She explains that while guilt is about feeling bad for something we’ve done, shame is about feeling bad for who we are. Guilt can actually lead to positive change — for example, if we feel guilty for lying to our partner about something, that guilt might lead to better behavior in the future. Shame, on the other hand, is destructive and inhibits growth — for example, if we feel shame about our bodies, we may treat them badly by over-exercising or eating too little.

How do you start overcoming body shame?

One concept that Brown made popular is the idea of shame resilience, which is basically a roadmap for how to overcome shame. It involves recognizing shame, understanding its triggers, and developing strategies to move through it. Building this kind of shame resilience can help you navigate shame without blaming yourself, and ultimately build a stronger sense of self-worth.

Building up resilience to body shame and learning to overcome it isn’t something that will happen overnight. In fact, you may never feel like you’re absolutely, one-hundred-percent free from body shame all of the time. (That’s an unrealistic and perfectionistic goal, which is totally something diet culture would have you strive for.) But over time, it’s possible to learn to deal with negative feelings about your body in a way that doesn’t wreak havoc on your self-esteem, and to start appreciating your body for what it is and what it can do.

Here are a few practices that can help you overcome body shame, one step at a time.

Cultivate self-compassion

At the core of overcoming body shame lies the transformative power of self-compassion. Instead of being your own harshest critic, self-compassion pushes you to become an understanding and supportive ally to yourself and your body. Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend facing similar struggles.

Start by acknowledging the negative thoughts and judgments about your body without judgment. Understand that everyone has imperfections, and that they don’t make you less worthy — in fact, they make you human. When you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, consciously replace those thoughts with affirmations and reminders of your inherent value beyond physical appearance.

Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion, suggests a practice called the “self-compassion break.” This involves acknowledging the pain or inadequacy you’re feeling, recognizing that such feelings are a shared human experience, and offering yourself words of kindness and understanding. Embracing self-compassion lays the foundation for breaking free from the cycle of shame and self-criticism.

Challenge unrealistic body standards

One significant contributor to body shame is the unrealistic beauty standards perpetuated by media, fashion, and diet culture. Over time, you can start challenging these standards when you see them, and cultivating a more inclusive and accepting mindset instead.

Engage in media literacy by critically evaluating the images and messages you see in magazines, on TV, and on social. Recognize that airbrushing and editing are common practices, creating an unattainable ideal. (These days, it’s not just high-powered photo editors who can alter an image, it’s anyone with an iPhone.) Unfollow social media accounts that promote harmful beauty standards and surround yourself with content that celebrates diverse bodies.

Contribute to the change by supporting brands and influencers that embrace body positivity. Seek out content that challenges the narrow definition of beauty and promotes a more realistic and inclusive representation. By actively participating in reshaping beauty standards, you not only empower yourself but also contribute to a cultural shift towards acceptance.

Practice mindful awareness

Mindfulness, the practice of being present in the moment without judgment, can be a powerful tool in overcoming body shame. By cultivating mindful awareness, you can break free from the cycle of negative thoughts and bring attention to the present experience, fostering a more positive connection with your body.

Start by incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine. This can be as simple as practicing deep breathing exercises, engaging in meditation, or taking mindful walks. When negative thoughts about your body arise, observe them without judgment, acknowledging them as passing thoughts rather than absolute truths.

Mindful eating is another effective practice. Pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, savor the flavors of your food, and approach eating as a nourishing experience rather than a means of control. By practicing mindful awareness, you create space for a more balanced and positive relationship with your body.

Surround yourself with supportive people

Healing your relationship with food and body is a personal journey, but it’s much easier to do when there are other like minded people in your life who can offer support. Seek out spaces where folks share similar experiences and are committed to promoting body neutrality and self-love. Whether online or in-person, connecting with like-minded individuals can provide encouragement, understanding, and shared resources for overcoming body shame.

Participate in body-positive events, workshops, or support groups that celebrate diverse bodies and encourage self-acceptance. Engage in conversations that challenge societal norms and share personal stories of growth and resilience. By surrounding yourself with a supportive community, you create an environment that fosters self-love and reinforces the idea that your worth extends beyond physical appearance.

Overcoming body shame is a gradual process that requires patience, commitment, and self-compassion. 

By cultivating self-compassion, challenging unrealistic beauty standards, practicing mindful awareness, and surrounding yourself with supportive communities, you can embark on a transformative journey towards embracing self-love and breaking free from the shackles of body shame. If you want help that’s easy to make progress with, check out Way, an intuitive eating app that helps you listen to your body and unlearn the “perfect” body image perpetuated by diet culture. Remember, the path to self-acceptance is unique for each individual, and small, consistent steps can lead to profound changes in how you perceive and appreciate your body.

You might also like:

What Is Orthorexia — And Do I Have It?

Best Body Image Books: Acceptance and Liberation

Empowering Recovery: Finding the Right Eating Disorder Dietitian in North Carolina

Body Acceptance Is Key to Intuitive Eating. Here’s How to Practice It.

6 Sneaky Examples of Diet Culture That Are Actually Toxic

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