This will be a blog post series that questions the social structures that systematically tell us that we are not good enough and that our bodies should look a particular way in order to be approved and valued. The purpose behind my work is, and will always be, to shift the focus from what healthy looks like – to what it actually should feel like, holistically. My name is Pepita, I’m a mental health coach, nutritionist and NLP-practitioner who works with womxn around negative body image, destructive eating habits, mental health challenges and lack of self-worth. I help my clients get from a rather negative and destructive place, in terms of how they see and value themselves and their bodies, to a place of freedom and self-acceptance. In this post I will focus on vulnerability and shame and their importance when it comes to body image and self-acceptance.
Too many women feel trapped in their bodies and are more or less obsessed with it – how it looks, how much it weighs and how other people perceive it. I say “it”, because most of the time that is how we treat it. As if the body was a thing on its own. A thing that, isolated from everything else that make up who we are, could define us and determine whether or not we are worthy of love and belonging… Although this is not true and although we are not our bodies and should not be defined them – that is exactly what happens, all of the time. Western societies are systematically making us, especially womxn, believe that our bodies have to look a specific way in order for us to be seen as beautiful, worthy and desirable. A problem of many layers, which is why it is important that we look at it from an intersectional perspective. We have been programmed to believe that a woman’s body should look like the eurocentric, white ideals that we’ve been, and continue to be, exposed to in magazines, movies and other media platforms. Ideals that have their roots in white superiority and that consistently deprive specific characteristics of other cultures but claim them as their own. Ideals that are not only built on, but that also thrive on racist and fat phobic structures (to only mention a few). For these ideals to even have a negative impact on me – a privileged, caucasian, cisgendered, heterosexual, abled and “norm sized” woman, who they were more or less set up to serve… (second to white cisgendered and heterosexual men that is) I can only begin to imagine how these norms and structures are impacting womxn who do not have the privileges that I have. And, since these are the structures that make up our reality, all of this is in our system whether we want it to be or not. It is internalised and it is perpetuated by us – and by us I mean all of us to a certain extent, but especially by us who hold a lot of privileges. Therefore, I think that it is our responsibility, but also for our own good, to unlearn these deeply problematic ideals of what a body should look like and actively choose to challenge the status quo. We have to begin with ourselves, as nothing will ever change, if we don’t change. We have to go to the root of our own internalised ideals and stereotypes and work through them so that we can find acceptance of both ourselves and others – just as we are. At the end of the day, we only struggle to accept others because of what they trigger within us. Whatever we think about other people is a reflection of what we think about ourselves. Deep down, it always comes back to ourselves. There is a lot of work to be done and there are always many dimensions to every issue we face, but my focus point today will be on our bodies and how we can find freedom in ourselves and acceptance of who we are. So, how do we do that and where do we begin?
I believe that the first step is vulnerability. To lean into vulnerability and dare to meet ourselves and our shame. Now, you are probably thinking, “Why? Why would I want to be vulnerable? It is scary, painful and it makes me weak and fragile”. – Yes, yes and no. Yes, because vulnerability is most definitely scary, which is why you have to be extremely brave to lean into vulnerability. Yes, because it does mean that you expose yourself to painful emotions, however it is also the birthplace of full hearted joy and every other positive emotion that you can imagine. And no, because it does not make you weak and fragile, it just means that you to truly feel and experience life – both the highs and the lows – and if anything I believe that it makes you stronger, more resilient and better equipped to deal with difficult situations. Simply put – I believe that vulnerability is the only road leading to unconditional self-love, true joy and acceptance. You see, love in every form is always about bravery and there is no way to be brave without being vulnerable, it’s an act of courage. So, if you want to embark on a journey towards freedom in yourself, this is the way to go.
To talk about vulnerability is also important because we live in a world that is teaching us to have a scarcity mindset – never enough. “A scarcity mindset is the belief that there will never be enough, resulting in feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety”. It’s basically the opposite of an abundance mindset, where you believe that there is more than enough for everyone and that you, as a being, are abundant. You see, a scarcity mindset is not only about the fear of not having enough, but also about not being enough. With a scarcity mindset you tend to believe that you are not enough. That is of course a lie, you are enough, we are all enough – but if the world around us consistently feeds us with information saying otherwise, who should we believe? Well, again, it all comes down to vulnerability. If we dare to be vulnerable enough to really feel gratitude and joy for who we are and what we have, that will beat scarcity – every time.
The next step is to meet our shame. And again, you might wonder “Why? Why is it so important that we talk about and meet our shame?” Well, first of all – thank you for asking, it is important to ask why. Secondly, shame is something that we all are running from in one way or another and one way of doing so is by not being vulnerable—i.e., we hide and play small to avoid judgement. Shame can manifest itself in many different ways and research show that there are no universal shame triggers. However, for womxn – body shame seems to be the one type of shame that most of us (90%) experience. Surprising? Not really. As we know, western societies value a thin physical appearance and links thinness to desirable personality characteristics, power and happiness – while also judging those that don’t fit into this narrow lens of looking at a human being. Therefore, body image often becomes a central self-evaluative aspect for womxn and controlling it by dieting, often emerges as a strategy to compete for social advantages and to be accepted and valued by others. According to a study conducted by Goss and Gilbert (2002) dieting serve the functional purpose of regulating threat and feeling safe in the social group, which includes avoid being rejected due to one’s body shape or weight. The study also showed that womxn who present high levels of shame are more inclined to be on diets and engage in problematic eating habits. Interesting? I think so, and it makes a lot of sense however, while it is good to know what the sources of the challenges we are experiencing could be, the question still remains: How do we combat this?
One way is by working on our ability to practice self-compassion, which very much involves vulnerability. It is an alternative way to regulate shame you could say, because it allows for a person to make a non-judgemental observation of their thoughts and emotions and meet them with kindness and understanding. A person who acts from a place of self-compassion also seeks for ways to feel safe without engaging in destructive behaviours. And, having a compassionate attitude towards one’s body enhances feelings of connectedness, allowing womxn to recognise that most of their body-related negative experiences are shared with other womxn and that they do not have to hide or control their body to protect their self-worth and social acceptance. We are not alone. We all get pressured into believing that with enough willpower, the right kind of diet and exercise, we can control everything about our size and the shape of our bodies. We think that it is our own fault if we can’t live up to these culturally defined ideals and standards, when in fact it is not. The problem is not our bodies, but the expectations that we, and the world around us, have of our bodies. For many womxn this has been our belief system from such an early age that our relationship with our own bodies have become deeply problematic. A problem that reaches so much further and impacts far more than we can see. Because, when our very own bodies fill us with feelings of worthlessness and hate – shame can fundamentally change who we are and how we approach the world. To tackle this we have to lean into vulnerability and build shame resilience. We must look at each body part and explore our expectations and the sources of these expectations. We have to find out and explicitly identify what is important to us and why. Then, we have to work on our critical awareness and challenge these expectations and their importance to us.
How realistic are my expectations? Can all of these characteristics exist in one person? What does it mean to be perfect? What does my body say about me as a being? Am I describing who I want to be or who others want me to be? What are my fears?
We must also find the courage to share our shame, thoughts and experiences with people that we trust. We must speak our shame, because it thrives in silence. There is also a tremendous amount of freedom that comes with identifying and sharing common experiences and fears. It proves that we are not alone.
I know that this is a lot, yet it is only the beginning of the change work that needs to happen for us to accept and love ourselves as whole beings. On a positive note, it is worth it. It is worth the hard work. I have been on this journey myself and I have taken other womxn on this journey too. The freedom and joy that comes from breaking loose from expectations and behaviours that are not serving us goes beyond what I can describe with words. All I can say, is that it is possible and my purpose is to show you how.