Shame is a deep, debilitating emotion, with complex roots. Its cousins are guilt, humiliation, demoralization, degradation and remorse. “Healing from Shame Associated with Traumatic Events” by Dr. Angie Panos
I know what you’re thinking (or at least, what I would be thinking) – no blog post that begins with that quote can be anything but heavy and depressing. You may be right, but hear me out before you decide.
I was flipping through the television channels on Memorial Day, and happened upon an Oprah rerun. It turned out to be an episode where she interviewed celebrities who have lost weight in the public eye: Valerie Bertinelli, Marie Osmond, and Star Jones. As you know if you’ve been following my progress (and I use that term with irony), I’ve been so stuck between 216 and 220 pounds that I will seek inspiration and encouragement from any source purporting to have insight into weightloss. I missed most of the interview with Valerie, but Marie Osmond shared a story about overhearing a producer say, when she was around 9 years old, “This family (the Osmonds) is great. Now if they would just lose the fat sister.” Really? Later, when starring in her brother-sister variety show, she weighed 110 pounds. One day, she was taken into the parking lot and told that the show would be cancelled if she didn’t lose weight – so she dropped to 98 pounds. Pretty sure Donny didn’t weigh the teen male equivalent of 98 pounds, but that’s beside the point.
The second half of the show focused on Star Jones. Specifically, quite a bit of the interview was about her famous refusal to talk about or cop to the fact that she had weight-loss surgery. Thinking of the controversy that erupted at the time, I remember feeling disdainful of her unwillingness to “come clean”. Her explanation: she was ashamed that she couldn’t deal with her food addiction and/or lose the weight on her own. She had the surgery, she successfully changed her lifestyle accordingly, but she was still too full of shame to share her story.
As these women shared the deep emotional scars that come from internalizing the hurtful judgements of others, I couldn’t help but think about the shame so many of my friends have carried. On one occasion, a beautiful friend was sharing photos from her childhood with me, and said something along the lines of, “Look at me! I was a dirty, grubby, unkempt fat kid!” But when I looked at the photos, that isn’t what I saw at all. First, she was dirty in the way kids playing outside on a summer day are dirty. Second, she wasn’t even chubby in the photos, much less fat. She was smiling, and her cheeks were big and round from smiling. But fat? No way. I asked her about it, and she said, “Everybody” told her she was fat as a kid. I put my finger over her face in the photo and said, “Look at that kid. Does she look fat to you?” The answer, of course, was no. But she had thought of herself as a naturally fat person her entire life.
What a shame.
Its a shame that children are so psychologically undefended, that the messages we receive at a young age get internalized and create negative cycles of self-defeating behavior. What a shame that external approval is so important to us that, even as adults, the trash-talkers can hurt us. And what a shame that our cultural standards are basically impossible for the majority of us to meet. What a shame. We can say that, and we can leave it there, allowing the same cycles to repeat themselves in a thousand other lives. Or we can do things differently.
I, for one, am ready to do something different. Here are some things I believe I can do, beginning right now:
There’s a little voice in my head that says people who have weight-loss surgery “took the easy way out”. I can stop judging people’s difficult choices, and I can find it in my heart to offer support and encouragement to anyone who struggles to be their best self.
I’ve always thought that it was fine for me to bad-mouth celebrities. To say things about them that I would never say about people I actually know – its a way to let off steam, to be catty sometimes without actually hurting anyone (and celebrities ask for it, anyway, right?). And the truth is, they’ll never know what I’ve said about them. But the people around me will – and they may hear my criticism as being generalizable…even to them.
- In my professional life, I have an opportunity to work with young men and women in an educational role. I can use both intentional programming and teachable moments to help them think critically about the messages we unconsciously send every day, both individually and collectively, which have the effect of harming others.
- And I can stop being ashamed of myself. When I step on the scale. When I go into the fitting room at stores. When someone really looks at my body and not just my face, I can be proud of who I am this moment (as opposed to crossing my arms to hide my midsection pouf).
What a shame it would be to keep hurting ourselves and others in unthinking ways. What would it feel like to live in a world of acceptance? There’s only one way to find out – we have to create that world in our own lives, in our own hearts.