Imagine this: it’s August of 2012 and you have a professor in your life that grades you in everything that you do.
If you were born any time in the 80s, you most likely remember the show Boy Meets World. This professor is a lot like Mr. Feeny—he’s your principal in middle school, then moves up to high school the same year you do. Conveniently enough, he gets a job at your college right when you graduate from high school, and you go there together, too.
Why would he stop there? He’s moved on into your life in “the real world,” and is now grading you on how successful you are in your subjects of study: rest, exercise, eating, connecting with others, productivity, love and morale.
Here’s your report card:
Rest: B. You sleep five and a half to six hours a night.
Exercise: A+. You practice yoga two to three times a week, and run an average of 12 miles a week. You bike to work most days.
Eating: A-. Three well balanced meals a day, lots of vegetables, a little snacking here and there and very little processed food.
Connection with Others: A. You have a couple of friends that you hang out with on the weekends, one best friend you see two to three times a week and a dog you love. You also have a family that you spend as much time with as you can (this scores more in the love category).
Productivity: A+. You spend most hours at work talking with clients, working with your boss to create new ideas for sales, and you spend only 15 minutes on Facebook each day. You are also up for a raise soon.
Love: A. Your partner has been in your life for six years, and you now have two children.
Morale: A. You are not big on lying. You hold doors for elderly women. You cut no one off driving on the highway, and most often greet people with a smile on the street.
Hey, not so bad my friend. Mr. Feeny is giving you a GPA in the 3.5+ range. The only blip in your life is that you are 18 pounds overweight. So now that A just went down to a whopping F.
You aren’t doing so well at life anymore. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Nothing else matters, you don’t deserve the A until you lose that weight.
As you read this, you are likely saying to yourself, “is this girl insane? Being 18 pounds overweight does not take my average A to an F!” My answer to your rhetorical question is yes, it does seem crazy from the outside. Unfortunately, this is how a lot of us think.
Let me take a step back for a moment and explain how guilt and shame differ from one another, because this is key in understanding why you may be the person who believes your weight makes you a failure, regardless of your other successes in life. Guilt is the emotion that you feel when you have done something wrong, and feel badly about the incident. Shame is when you have done something wrong, and now you feel like a bad person.
For example, let’s say you spill a glass of milk. Feeling guilty means that you feel bad about spilling the milk, but you clean it up and move on. Feeling shameful means you spill the milk, feel like you are stupid and a klutz for spilling it and that you are never going to succeed in life because you can’t even hold a glass of milk.
When it comes to body shame and body guilt, your appearance and/or health of your body shapes how you feel about yourself and your abilities as a person. If you are a few pounds overweight and you feel body guilt, there is a disappointment surrounding the few pounds, but you give yourself an A based on how successful you are in other areas. You exercise a little more, eat a little less, work it off and move on.
If you feel body shame, you see the few pounds as the obstacle to being a good human being. Until those pounds are lost, you aren’t just overweight; you think you are bad at your job, a poor mother, an unreliable friend. Notice in the milk example that not only is our subject feeling negatively about herself as a whole, she is also unable to clean up the milk and move on. Body shame can be debilitating in the same way, and cause you to lose control in those areas that you were once successful.
What leads to body shame? It’s possible that the following three factors may correlate:
1. Your parents said you were a good girl or a bad boy. If your parents regularly commented on you being a “good boy” or “bad girl” rather than commenting that you have done well, saying “great job on your test” or “coloring on the walls is bad,” you may be more likely to associate an activity with whether or not you are good person or bad person.
2. Society gives you every reason to hate your body. We live in a society that puts pressure on young girls to be unhealthily skinny and males to be “ripped.” Growing up, did you watch a lot of television and movies and read magazines that included this kind of unrealistic sub culture? You are more prone to body shame. If you didn’t get positive feedback as to how well you excelled in other areas, you may have developed shame for not looking the way you are “supposed to,” and not believing you are doing other things well to make up for it.
3. Trauma. You have been through some kind of trauma in which you feel as if your body has deceived you, or not protected you. This is often the case with sexual trauma, such as molestation or rape.
Your thoughts jump so quickly from “I’m five pounds overweight,” to “I don’t deserve to have fun, be in public or enjoy a delicious meal,” that you don’t recognize these thoughts to be unnatural.
First, you identify that this loop exists in your brain. The next step is to identify what it stems from. It may be one of the three reasons above and it may be something else. The trigger is most likely external, and is also likely that it developed during childhood. Knowing where it comes from helps you to know that it is not your fault that you think this way.
The last step is to recognize that it’s not your fault, and give yourself a second chance at a new grade. Take time to list everything you do in a 24 hour period, and give yourself a grade for each “subject.” Your weight does not trump everything else that you do, just as being successful in your job doesn’t mean more than being a successful friend or parent.
Then make a list of five things that you love about yourself, your body and your life every morning for the next week. Let this practice reinforce the positive characteristics that you have. If you have access to yoga studios or yoga videos, movement is a great way to heal from body shame. I encourage you to take a class and start to view your body in a positive light.
It’s difficult to erase body shame. You can understand it, accept it and overcome it, though. You can put more “weight” (no pun intended) on the other subjects of study in your life, so that your happiness is not dependent on what the scale says.
I’ll close out with this great quote from Barney on “How I Met Your Mother.”
“In my body, where the shame gland should be, there is a second awesome gland. True story.”
Let’s learn to be a little more like Barney.
Skylor Powell owns Sprout Health, where she makes personalized meal plans and designs online cleanses. Her goal is to make you awe-inspired by how great your body and mind feel. Let’s replace foods that rob you of energy with those that excite you. Let’s prioritize your health and happiness so that together, we can make our world a happier place for us all.
Editor: Anne Clendening
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