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Spirit of Life

The unintended consequences of body positivity

Updated April 17, 2023

Have you ever criticized your body and then immediately shamed yourself for judging your body in the first place?

This meta-level of shame, I believe, is a relatively new and unintended consequence of the body positivity movement that’s come about in the past 10 years. Before 2012 or so, you were fulfilling your gendered expectations as a woman if you were simply judging the crap out of yourself. (“Can’t fit into that mini skirt and handkerchief top?” went your cruellest thoughts. “You’re disgusting!!!”)

These days, though, with body positivity being hijacked by companies trying to use it to sell jeans, there’s a new layer of expectation placed on women: LOVE YOURSELF, BITCH!!! RIGHT NOW!!!

(It’s kind of remarkable that the one good thing about the era of crop tops, low-rise jeans and heroin chic is that there was no expectation that you were supposed to rip your self-image to shreds and then follow it up with “Ugh, what kind of feminist are you if you can’t even EMBRACE YOUR CURVES?!?!?!?!”)

So all this is the reason why I routinely hear women say, “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but…” as a preface to their mean remarks about their bodies.

In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown writes about her lifelong struggle with feeling resentment, and then judgement she felt towards that struggle. “Unwanted identity,” she writes, “is the most powerful elicitor of shame.” In her case, her “unwanted identity” was being someone who feels resentment. Feeling this, in turn, produced shame in her.

So many of us who have been taught to hate our bodies also carry this hate towards our bodies as an unwanted identity.

The identity we want is to be a person who is at peace with her body. But if we aren’t that person, we shame ourselves for it.

It is so critically important to remember, though, that we humans really are products of the messed-up diet culture we’re living in. Both of the feelings at play here—the original criticism of your body, plus the layer of judgement that gets heaped upon it—are a direct result of the messages you’ve absorbed from the world around you.

Those messages get coded into the part of your brain whose job is to literally scan the world for threats! If you haven’t done the work to unpack that part of your brain, OF COURSE it’s going to scream shit at you like, “how dare you even consider wearing those pants out in public?!?!?!” You will NATURALLY respond to that by condemning your body, shaming yourself, and throwing those pants in the back of your closet.

That’s kinda the good news AND the bad news: no one sheds their unwanted identity and become a person at peace in their body without taking some intentional steps to get there. It may feel like bad news because, ugh, exhausting! But it’s also good news because, wheee! You DON’T have to stay stuck in shame forever.

I teach my students and clients lots of different strategies for managing shame and dealing with the inner critic, but my top 3 favourite are:

  1. Intentionally talk to your body every day, from the POV of someone who loves her. Shifting your self-talk can open up a whole new way of relating to yourself, and gives your brain something else to do than shout at yourself.
  2. Slow your thoughts down. When you hear yourself saying something mean to yourself, PAUSE. Take a look around. Consider the feeling you were having right before you said that. Were you feeling anxious about something? Anxiety and body image issues very often go hand in hand.
  3. Play the “so what?” game with yourself. It’s just what it sounds like: each time you say something mean to yourself about yourself, you ask, “so what?” It’s a way of getting down into the things you’re actually afraid of, but that you laminate on top of your body. As such, it gives you an opportunity to focus on fixing or deciding not to worry about the thing that is ACTUALLY going on behind your worry.

Learn more about moving out of shame and into a sense of peace with your body through my coaching programs and courses.