The Not-So-Sexy Origins of Body Shame

05/04/2015 01:37 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016
Egor Mihailov/500px

Body trust is something we are born with and somewhere along the way it gets hijacked -- by the culture, our parents, and health care providers to name a few. We never consent to this. We are far too young to know what is going on when the narrative about our bodies starts to change. So over time, we internalize peoples' reactions and end up in this really disconnected place, believing that there is something about us that needs to be fixed. No longer are we innocent, for now we are responsible for changing what others find problematic.

Do you know when you began to lose trust with your body?

For many women, the loss of body trust begins at the onset of puberty. You see, girls tend to gain a fair amount of weight in preparation for the onset of menstruation, but most people don't know that this is normal and natural. This is when some parents and medical providers pathologize the weight gain, kids at school start teasing us, and we begin our first diet, sometimes with the help of well-meaning adults. In her book Eating in the Light of the Moon (2000), clinical psychologist Anita Johnston writes,

Just as ancient societies had special rituals for girls at the onset of menarche to celebrate this rite of passage into womanhood, our modern society also has a ritual for adolescent girls to mark their entrance into womanhood. It is called dieting.

Doesn't that make you want to scream?

In addition to the attention we receive about our weight, we grow breasts, develop hips and curves, and our bodies start to transition into sexual beings, open now for the business of objectification. We attract unsolicited attention from strangers on the street, brother's friends, fathers and schoolmates. We are not mature enough to handle these messages (whether we like them or not), nor do we have the assertiveness necessary to protect ourselves and feel safe in the world. We are granted this power long before we are ready for it and consent to it.

With all of the attention, we don't have much time (or the privacy) to connect to our own sexuality because we are now sex objects, and our focus shifts from our own desires, to our desirability. Caroline Knapp, author of Appetites (2003) said, "we begin to coax the eye outward instead of inward and learn to experience the body as a thing outside the self, something a woman has rather than something she is. We break the body down into increasingly scrutinized parts -- each piece fragmented and judged and compared, each flaw known and perceived as grotesquely magnified, each part greater than the sum. "Is my butt too big, my stomach flat enough? Do people think I'm pretty? Do boys want me?" Anita Johnston (2000) says, "She buys into the myth that her sexuality comes from being 'beautiful' rather than understanding that her beauty comes from her sexuality."

It isn't surprising then, to note, that eating disorders often start during this time. Many of us end up extremely pre-occupied with diet and fitness plans that will supposedly allow us to finally have the body type that is desired, and yet few of us want to be sexually objectified, especially carrying the trauma of unwanted attention when we were far too young to understand it. And that leaves us in a tough spot because we are women living during an important transition time, and we want to be taken seriously. Virgie Tovar says

When people say they want to lose weight, they often mean I want to be respected. I want to be loved. I want to be seen. I want liberation from fear and self-loathing. Weight-loss culture will never give us those things because it is founded on fear/hate-based systems like sexism, racism, classism and ableism.

Understandably, we find ourselves at this really confusing intersection that we're all still trying to navigate. One between our bodies, food, our sexuality, pleasure and what we really desire.

So we seek and search for our worthiness in a place we will not find it. We use food and our bodies in all kinds of ways to distract us from the truth of our lives. Some shrink, some expand, some restrict, some binge. Some are promiscuous and others avoid intimacy at all costs.

And at the end of the day, we still feel empty, because worthiness ain't out there; it is something that rises from within. It isn't in a pair of shoes, a size of jeans or a flat stomach. It isn't in the number of people who find you suitably f*ck-able. Worthiness is something we cultivate from a deep place at the center of our being.

And until we start asking the right questions and look for what we actually need in a place where we can find it, we end up in a harmful cycle of dieting and disordered eating, settling for this so-so life instead of standing in our true power, a different kind of power than the one we find when we use our bodies.

Author Cheryl Strayed posed this evocative question to a reader of her Dear Sugar column, "What's on the other side of the tiny gigantic revolution in which you move from loathing to loving your own skin? What fruits would that particular liberation bear?"

Strayed goes on to say,

We don't know -- as a culture, as a gender, as individuals, you and I. The fact that we don't know is feminism's one true failure. We claimed the agency, we granted ourselves the authority, we gathered the accolades, but we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans. There are a lot of reasons for this, a whole bunch of big sexist things we can rightfully blame. But ultimately, like anything, the change is up to us.

That's right. The change is up to us!

Permission to love our bodies at any shape or size isn't coming from the culture any time soon. The patriarchy has far too much to lose if women stop the preoccupation with the thin ideal; so do the diet and fitness industries.

Now is the time for women to put an end to this madness and reclaim body trust, so we can help young girls growing up in today's toxic culture focus on more important questions like:

What brings me pleasure and satisfaction?

What do I want my life to be about?

What am I here to express?

How can I stand in my power and embody my own sexuality?

In her memoir Yes Please (2014), Amy Poehler says

If you are lucky, there is a moment in your life when you have some say as to what your currency is going to be. I decided early on it was not going to be my looks. I have spent a lifetime coming to terms with this idea and I would say I am about 15 to 20 percent there. Which I think is great progress.

Shifting from loathing to loving is a process, sometimes a long and lengthy process, but one worthy of our time and attention.

The good news is the body positive movement is gaining momentum. More and more women are rejecting the diet mentality and pursuing more important things than the thin ideal.

While media attention is helpful, the revolution from loathing to loving is really going to happen in the conversations you choose to have in your home, at your workplace, on the street. It is going to happen when you have dinner with your girlfriends and decide you have much more important things to talk about then how you are going to "get that summer body." (By the way, there is no such thing as a summer body! Your body is a body for all seasons.) It is going to happen when you refuse to engage in body bashing and diet talk; when you protect your boundaries if someone comments on your body (or food choices) by saying something like "You are not allowed to talk about my body. My body, my business."

It is going to happen when you compassionately turn towards your body and listen with kindness and curiosity.

Choosing this path means you are a trailblazer. You are at the front of the pack. You are like a fish swimming upstream when everyone else is going with the flow.

But it will be so much more fulfilling than the status quo.

It is where you will find freedom, and make lasting peace with your body.

So let's move forward, together. Envision your freedom; assume it is for you and everyone else.

Allow the softness to come.

Show it to us.

We all have to step into the skin of the fiercely body compassionate to be free. This will be an alarmingly bold conversation in the current paradigm, but for those of us who hunger for truth and can intuit the path to freedom, it will be an ecstatic unveiling. We must all go first.

The last line in the book Appetites (2003) speaks to the urgency of this revolution:

The road before me was empty at 2 a.m., the sky black but starlit. I pictured that tiny infant, nursing hungrily at the body that created and sheltered her and will now guide her into the wider world, and I said a prayer for her, I prayed for change. I whispered to the universe, Let her be filled.

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