Talking about womanhood without the topic of shame arising is about as possible as talking about women’s sports without mentioning the whopping wage gap female athletes face. It just can’t be done because so many “messages of shame are organized around gender,” as shame and vulnerability scholar Brené Brown once told The Atlantic.
So it comes as no surprise that the topic became a focus of conversation at the most recent Well+Good TALK on all things body diversity at The Assemblage in New York City. The event was sponsored by Aerie and gathered a panel of badass women—self-love guru Nitika Chopra, Aerie Real model and body activist Iskra Lawrence, and self-described curvy-fashion blogger Chastity Garner Valentine—to discuss ideas of self-love, acceptance, ageism, and inclusivity.
But it was clear early in the conversation that shame played a role in each of these areas and was a subject the panelists felt personally about. “As someone who got told that they didn’t fit into the straight size industry, and…[that] I wasn’t big enough for the plus size industry—no one ever allowed me to fit in,” Lawrence shared. “No one ever said, yeah, we accept you just the way you are. I had to force the industry to try to accept me.”
Part of that process included learning to tame shame, which, by definition, means pain caused by the consciousness of a perceived shortcoming. And according to Erika Groban, PhD, a clinical psychologist at a private practice in Rye, New York, Lawrence’s experience in the modeling industry proves true whether you pose in front of a camera to make a living, or not. “Many women learned at a young age that their bodies don’t belong only to themselves. This message is sent in many different ways. It can be as horrific as having experienced sexual abuse or as simple as a girl’s experience of the male gaze,” she tells me. “Untreated feelings of shame often contribute to the development of psychological distress and disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and more.” As Brown phrased it in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
There’s no quick solution to make you feel at home in your skin instantly. However, there are a handful of strategies you can enlist to one day rewrite the self-shaming narrative that has been spoon-fed to you by various sources since the day you were born. Here are just a few, psychologist-endorsed approaches.
1. Start a hobby that uses your body
Dr. Groban explains that physical activity that contradicts your shame story is pretty much golden when it comes to taking back ownership of your own body. “For example, commit to running a 5K. Focus on the way your body needs to be strong in order to make that happen. During meals and workouts nourish and support your body for this purpose rather than simply for the way it looks to others,” she recommends.
2. Unfriend anyone who subscribes to the body-shaming frame of mind
…and make new friends who advocate for the 21st-century notion of beauty. “These people may define beauty on their own terms or simply don’t focus on appearances. Their outlook will begin to rub off on you,” says Dr. Groban.
3. Learn to name your associations, and identify their roots
“Often, one negative feeling will trigger the experience of others. Especially, those that have been developed early on and ingrained in us over time,” the psychologist says. “Stop the cycle by identifying for yourself what it is you are actually upset about and how you can address it.”
4. Don’t participate in shaming conversations (duh)
It stands to reason that adding to the women shaming conversation will certainly not help you overcome your own personal struggles. So instead, try to find the features of the women that you appreciate, and compliment the heck out of her instead.
5. Notice how society uses shame to suppress your #girlpower
Dr. Groban points out that much of the societal narrative surrounding women’s physiques actually distract them from doing the world-changing magic they’re capable of. (*Nods head furiously.*) When you can, remind yourself that moments of stressing over your appearance, could be spent working on your side-hustle or—yep—gassing up other women so they can learn to accept their bodies just the way they are, too.
Special thanks to Aerie and Caldrea, who sponsored the gift bags, as well as Weleda, Siren Snacks, Susanne Kaufmann, Ban.do, The School of Life, Honest Hazel, Made au Gold, and Phyto-C for providing the amazing treats our guests took home.
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