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Body Image

Shame about not having a body that matches some external standard is painfully common.  Knowing all the pain that body shame causes, it can be difficult to stay with someone when you see him or her getting caught in it.


Yet, staying with someone when they are getting caught in shame is the most powerful gift you can give.  Sometimes it's easier to stay with someone when you are really clear about what "not staying" looks like.


For example, when you hear your girlfriend say, "I am such a fat slob, why can't I get it together and get in shape!"  you likely feel the pain of her self-criticism and the heaviness of how deep this shame goes through so many people.  You might notice the impulse to get away from that pain and heaviness.  Getting away can take a number of different forms:


  • Distraction

    • "Hey, come on, don't think that way.  Let's go see a movie."

    • "Your shape looks good to me, come on let's dance."

  • Education

    • "Did you know that you are the average weight for your height?  Statistics show that…"

    • "When you say stuff like that you contributing to the thinking that leads to eating disorders.  Did you know that..."

    • "Hey, saying that is just a result of being inundated with unrealistic media images."

  • Convincing

    • "Don't be silly.  We went on a hike yesterday and you had more stamina than anyone else."

    • "You are not seeing yourself clearly.  You are actually just fine the way you are."

  • Consoling

    • "Come here and let me give you a hug.  I love you just the way you are."

    • "Ah, that's just what bellies do.  There's more of you to cuddle."

    • "Your lovability does not depend on the shape of your body."


While these responses aren't necessarily harmful, they are not examples of meeting your girlfriend (sister, friend, etc.) where she is at.  Here are some examples of what it might sound like if you are attempting to meet someone in his or her experience of body shame:


  • Wishing you were different, huh?

  • Sounds like you really care about feeling good in your body, is that right?

  • Painful to not meet the goals you had set, huh?

  • Feeling some grief about how your body has changed?

  • Sounds like that body critic voice has been talking at you today.

  • You wish you were more slim, fit, and muscular, huh?


Responses like these aren't the end of the conversation.  These are ways to meet someone in the moment.  You will likely find that when you truly meet someone, he or she slowly releases him or herself from the grip of shame.  In that release, truth is revealed.  Your compassionate presence makes space for truth.


In the next layer of conversation, with shame dissolved for the moment, you will likely hear your girlfriend (sister, friend, etc.) talk about needs like acceptance, love, reassurance, choice, health, or belonging.  Hearing this clearly, there then might be some request for action.


Practice

Meeting someone in the darkness of their shame is a courageous practice.  It means you trust yourself to stay connected to the light of truth even as you enter the darkness.  Take a moment now to breath into the truth you know that is below the covering of body shame.  As you settle into to that knowing bring to mind someone you have recently heard criticizing his or her body.  Let yourself feel his or her pain, as you breath into your knowing and breath out compassion.

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2 Responses

  1. Nov 15, 2013
    J.S.

    A close relative of mine (who is healthy but obese for her height) said recently that she was in a co-ed spa surrounded by tall slim naked men. She said, "Next to them I looked like a troll." I admit that this shame, which I've heard so often growing up around this person, produced an automatic reaction in me. I said 'You've got to let that go.' But that wasn't the same as meeting my relative in her shame. I still don't know how to do that. If I try to meet her, she will brush off my comment as trying too hard.

  2. Nov 17, 2013

    Hi,

    Thanks for your comment and question. I think it can be more simple than you are imagining. For your example, I might say something like "Yikes, that sounds tough" or "Yea, I can see how that would be triggering." or "Yea, super uncomfortable."

    When someone brushes off comments like these it's often because they are feeling vulnerable. I try to make my connection attempt less vulnerable by not making eye contact or saying it while I continue to do whatever I was doing (cooking whatever it is).

    Of course, a lot depends on the history of your relationship and the trust and rapport that's there. But these are best guesses. Helpful?

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