Did you know that over ninety percent of women in the United States are dissatisfied with their bodies?
Does that strike you as sad? That so many women are unhappy with this fundamental aspect of themselves? Bodies are miraculous things and intrinsic to who we are, and yet so many women don’t like their own. Can you imagine how much unhappiness this creates?
Did you know that Fred Astaire did not become a classical ballet dancer because he was ashamed of his big hands? That he used many, many tricks to hide them throughout his career?
Think about it. The man Mikhail Baryshnikov, arguably the preeminent male ballet dancer of our era, described as one of the greatest dancers in history was continually embarrassed by his hands.
These are a few of the things I discovered while doing research for a continuing education class I’ll giving for the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work on Shame and Body Image.
I wish I could wave a wand and instantly fix women’s negative views of themselves.
I wish I could make everyone less ashamed of who they are. But these are complex issues, rooted in childhood.
Where does this shame come from?
Shame is a basic emotion that all of us experience. Except psychopaths, I’m told. But then I’ve never met a psychopath, so I can’t really say this from experience.
Shame is the feeling that, deep down inside, you are fundamentally deficient in some way as a human being. Talk about painful!
Guilt is the sense that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is the feeling that who you are is fundamentally wrong. Guilt can be erased by admitting your mistake and doing something to make up for it. Shame you can’t fix, you can only accept that it is part of who you are and remember people will love you anyway.
There are two brands of shame: healthy and toxic. Toxic shame means that you feel like the scourge of the earth. Healthy shame is more like humility. That you are not perfect. That you are not God. That you are part of the human race and put your pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.
People will do almost anything to avoid shame. Common ways to not feel shame include attacking yourself, attacking another (verbally or physically), withdrawing, or denying the shame through “shameless” behavior such as addictions.
Or, as is true for many of my clients, becoming a perfectionist. The idea here is that if you just do everything perfectly, you’ll have nothing to be ashamed of. There’s only one problem with this plan. it’s impossible to do everything perfectly.
Many compulsive overeaters are perfectionists. Many have developed yo-yo dieting patterns through perfectionist eating, following healthy diets to an extreme. At some point their body takes over and they become so hungry or tired of how hard they have to work on their eating that they revert to “shameless” eating: eating everything in sight. They may go back and forth between these two styles of eating many times.
What is the way out of this trap?
Fallen perfectionist eaters need to begin to understand that their unrealistic beliefs about how they should eat got them into this mess and won’t get them out. Once they face this distressing fact, they can accept themselves as who they are and how they eat. They can begin to develop compassion for themselves and how they will never feel like they’re good enough. If they acknowledge they can be loved now, even if they are imperfect, they can begin to leave their shame behind.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. Ending compulsive overeating is a lifelong journey to accept yourself just as you are. But it can begin, today, with a single step: admitting you need help and acknowledging you will not be able to get out of your old patterns alone.