We are nearing the presidential election and we hear daily stories about these newsworthy candidates. Donald Trump’s many statements about women have recently gotten a lot of press. Everyone from his opponent Hillary Clinton to Saturday Night Live have been discussing the things he has said over his lifetime about women. While I’m not writing to endorse or defame a candidate, I do want to talk about the subject of shame and weight. Why does our skin crawl when Donald Trump is quoted as calling a Miss Universe candidate “Miss Piggy?” Because, as women — and more and more today in all genders — we know that feeling of being shamed for the way our bodies look.
Brene Brown, well-known author and shame researcher, talks about how shame begets shame. When we feel shame, it can lead to fear, grief, and anxiety. Often, without even realizing it, we shame other people as a way to diminish our own shame — or to pass on, inadvertently, the shame that we have experienced in some way ourselves. We do this when we gossip, exclude others, or make critical comments towards others.
Many of the clients that I serve in my nutrition therapy practice who struggle with disordered eating have experienced a lot of body shame in their lifetimes. Some were ridiculed for being fat as children by peers, doctors, even family members. Some watched their parents’ disgust with their own bodies, and learned this self-criticism at a very young, impressionable age. And, we all know that it doesn’t take much looking at modern media to find exclusion, negativity, and even hatred towards larger bodies. Yes, even one of our American presidential candidates has repeatedly denounced women for their size. As human beings, we all want to feel connected, valued, and accepted, but shaming others actually creates more of a culture where we feel diminished, rejected, and unworthy. It’s a vicious cycle.
It’s no wonder that women — and, yes, today certainly people of all genders — are afraid of being fat. Though eating disorders are far more complex than this, they often start because of this fear — or because the pursuit of thinness feels virtuous, safe, and self-esteem-boosting. Eating disorders are the number one killer of all psychiatric disorders and they are responsible for an impaired quality of life for millions of people in the United States and other industrialized countries. (In fact, they don’t seem to exist in third world countries where food is more scarce and survival is more pressing.)
How do we shift from a culture of body shame and disconnection to one of connection? We can start by noticing the times when we are being self-critical or critical towards other people. We can also notice how many times we make critical observations about our own bodies and apologize to ourselves for being unkind. We can apologize when it becomes clear that we’ve shamed another. And don’t be afraid to respond to family members, doctors, and authority figures when they shame us or others about weight.
Let’s think about this weight and body fat shame that circulates in our culture. We know that in a woman’s body, fat is necessary for fertility. Why are we shaming body fat and encouraging women to have as little as possible? In doing so, we diminish women’s unique fundamental bodily creativity.
I’m going to quote an excerpt from a book that I’m reading with one of the Non-Diet Book Clubs that I run. The book is titled It’s Not About Food by Normandi and Roark, and I don’t think I could write about this topic of honoring a woman’s body better than this passage in chapter 4.
“There was a time when women’s bodies were not treated like objects but were honored for their spiritual properties — the miraculous ability to give birth and nurture new life. But over time this connection has been lost and repressed through the rise of the patriarchal culture that defined spirituality in masculine terms. Goddess images with all different body types have been found: for example, the earth mother of Laurel with huge breasts and belly honoring the sacred female; the vegetation goddess with small breasts and large thighs and buttocks representing the fertility of the earth; the goddess of Mesopotamia who offers her breasts as a sacred gesture honoring the milk of life; and the tall, thin, bird-faced goddess with her arms raised high, bringing the life-giving energy of the sun to the earth. Women’s images weren’t created for the purpose of selling beer, new cars, and other products. Nor were they intended to be a commodity to control or manipulate in order to get what we need or define our self-worth. We were goddesses — to be honored and respected as sacred…”
“Sacred means holy, consecrated, and to be revered. It also means to be secure against violence or abuse. We need to take back our original right to have our bodies seen as they are and treated as sacred. But to do that we must first learn to believe it ourselves… Through our own reverence for our bodies we take the first major step toward securing ourselves against violence and infringement. Violence and infringement mean hating, criticizing, forcing starvation (dieting), ignoring our bodily cues of hunger and fullness, forcing our bodies to be something they aren’t naturally, and stripping away our bodies’ spiritual qualities… We can expand our relationships with our bodies to include the incredible spiritual, emotional, and physical wisdom that we hold in the feminine body. When we can do this, we are free to work with our bodies to manifest our dreams, whatever they may be.”
Amen to that.
I must thank Normandi and Roark for articulating so well the part of recovery from eating disorders and body shame that is what I call the “last frontier” of the recovery process. Honoring and revering the body in the way it is meant to be respected can be a challenging process, particularly when the current culture does not support it.
I think this is why the discussions of women as objects and sexual harassment in the political sphere has been so disheartening for me lately. Instead of getting stuck in my discouragement, I find that writing, reading, and ultimately teaching women another way to see their amazing, creative, beautiful bodies — and to feed them as an act of self-care — is one way that I find solace.
Let’s keep the conversation and the work on this alive. We so desperately need it today.