Shame and the Body: Reducing Anxiety about the Body that Sustains You

***TW: Body Image and Body Shaming***

Society’s toxic body politic has transformed the human form into a site for unscrupulous judgement during the 21st century – worsened by the over-saturation of toned ‘influencer’ bodies on our social media feeds. Sadly, it’s becoming all too common for young people to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. As Psychology Today states; “there is a societal body-shaming that is so ingrained that it can feel like the truth”. Indeed, being self-critical has become almost ‘second-nature’ for a lot of people – myself included. Yet, this shouldn’t be something that is normalised.

Realistically, our formative years were very limited when it came to learning about body image. I struggle to recall a time during my primary and secondary education where we were explicitly told that it was okay to look different. Parents often also added to the problem with their outdated ideals and comments. On the playground, spiteful language alienated children who didn’t look like everyone else. Looking forward, too, those cringeworthy Sex Education videos that we were forced to watch in Year 5 may have told us that our bodies would inevitably change during puberty, but they never told us that those changes should be welcomed with open arms. We were, essentially, conditioned to believe that looking like anything other than the ‘norm’ was something to be ashamed of, or even ridiculed.

Raised within an Italian family that placed a huge emphasis on food, I spent my younger years battling with my body image; solely because I was ‘bigger’ than other people. My ‘friends’ and classmates used my size as cannon-fodder for crude remarks and it ate me up inside.  At the age of 8, someone felt the need to say “you’re fatter than me” whilst I ate my lunch in the school canteen. It made me feel so embarrassed to exist in my body. Even after over 10 years, I continue to feel insecure about how I look. Regardless of how different I now look, I still catch myself comparing myself to others and thinking, “God, if only I looked like them”. Countless others have assured me that I’m not alone in feeling like this, but it’s heart-breaking to think that so many people can’t go a day without looking in the mirror and feeling disgusted by the body looking back at them. With this in mind, it should be essential for body positivity to be promoted within the curriculum.

Shame can also manifest itself in the form of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and, in some cases, even disassociation; all of which are topics that have been swept under the carpet by schools, making them a taboo subject. Disgustingly, they’ve been increasingly glorified by social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram – chiefly through ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos where people film themselves eating next-to-nothing. It is therefore vital that children are properly educated on these matters and are encouraged to speak out about their experiences and thoughts. Body image and eating disorders should no longer be ‘unmentionable’. Children must be taught that it’s normal for bodyweight to fluctuate. It’s normal to look different to other people. It’s natural to have scars and stretch marks. A six-pack isn’t a compulsory requirement. Most importantly, children should be taught that it’s never okay to tease others about their looks.

On a more personal level, I’ve found that self-care is crucial for the development of a healthy relationship with your body. Don’t be afraid to distance yourself from social media and take time to prioritise your own mental and physical health. Surround yourself with a loving and supportive group of friends and/or family and talk to them about how you feel. Learn to love and appreciate the body you were born with. Admittedly, the road to self-love is a bumpy and never-ending one. However, by taking some of these baby steps, things will slowly, but surely, get better. For more tips, feel free to check out Psychology Today’s great article; ‘How to Overcome Body Shame’.

If you have been struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, do not hesitate to reach out and contact the University’s Wellbeing Services at wellbeing@exeter.ac.uk to access support.

Isabella Ankerson

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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