The Cost of Body Shame

Often when we talk about body shame we talk about it in the context of food, eating, body image, and eating disorders. And these are, of course, exceptionally important things to talk about (well, body image and eating disorders are–a lot of the cultural talk around food and eating is toxic and/or boring), but they’re not the only things to talk about. So today, thought I would touch on the impact of body shame on body image and disordered eating. I want to look at some of the things that we don’t talk about.

First, let’s talk about what body image is. Cash, Thériault, and Annis (2004) describe body image as “a complex construct concerning individuals’ perceptions of and attitudes about their own bodies, especially their physical appearance” and name three core components of body image: evaluation (e.g., body satisfaction), investment (e.g., the importance of internalized appearance ideals) and affect (e.g., body image emotions in specific situations).

So here’s what body image isn’t: objective; simple; concerned only with your physical looks; unimportant.

Negative body image has been found to be related to greater social anxiety and poorer self-esteem (Cash and Fleming, 2002). Negative body image is also correlated with insecure and preoccupied attachment. (Basically, securely attached individuals are comfortable with intimacy and autonomy and have an internal sense that they are worthy and loveable, whereas insecurely attached individuals lack that comfort and sense of worthiness. I think we all aspire to secure attachment.) Regardless of BMI, Cash, et al (2004) found that negative body image correlated with higher discomfort and increased concerns about approval and acceptance for both men and women. For women, negative body image also related highly to a fear of romantic intimacy, and avoidance of sexual activity. Cash, Maikkula, and Yamimiya (2004) found that both women and men with poor body image reported less sexual desire, less sex, and fewer orgasms of lower quality.

Yamamiya, et al. (2005) found that just five minutes exposure to images of celebrities with idealized body types can impact body image negatively. Just five minutes! So if you’re flipping through People at the hairdresser (one of my great guilty pleasures), you’re inadvertently bombarding yourself with negative body image influencers. According to this same study, woman who have a “high drive for thinness” experience negative emotions and dissatisfaction with their bodies for at least two hours following those five little minutes of flipping through US at the checkout counter (well, they weren’t tested at a checkout counter but you get my drift).

Kirk and Wright (1995) link poor body image to a compromised sense of self, and argue that internalized ideals cause young women to participate in their own surveillance and to “embody a constrained sense of themselves”. Basically what they’re saying is that when we (because I think we can generalize this to women (and perhaps some men) as well) feel inferior, like we’re not enough, we begin to watch, weigh, measure everything we do, everything we eat. Become the wardens of our bodies, enforcing and punishing external rules on them. And as a result, we become smaller and smaller versions of ourselves. We don’t go out, we don’t dance, we don’t date, we don’t protest, we don’t do all of the amazing things our bodies are capable of because we feel like we aren’t good enough as we are.

So here’s what this little tour through the literature has told us about poor body image: it impacts our relationships and how happy and secure we feel in them; it impacts our sense of worth and lovability; it impacts not just how often we have sex but how good that sex is; it causes us to watch and measure everything we do; and it constrains us from living the full, adventurous, scary, wonderful lives we are capable of.

So what can we do about it? Here’s a few of my ideas, feel free to add yours in the comments:

  • Put down the crappy magazines!
  • Turn off any kind of celebrity-focused entertainment shows (Extra, Entertainment Tonight, etc)
  • Limit your TV time
  • Increase your media literacy–one study found that increased media literacy mitigated the impacts of seeing idealized images on body image but that the effect was short-lived so your best strategy is to limit your exposure. Here’s a primer that looks pretty good (though I’ve only just skimmed it so no guarantees)
  • Engage your friends and community in conversations about bodies, media, and mental health
  • Find a form of exercise you like and go do it! Physical exercise has been found to increase sense of empowerment which, in turn, can improve body image (of course, if you struggle with obsessive or unhealthy amounts of exercising this may not be a great tip for you at this point in your life)
  • Find a body-positive therapist who has experience with disordered eating


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