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Shame, Guilt, and Supermodels

The Annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show rolled around again last week. It's an event that has always enthralled me. There’s drama, music, and crazy beautiful girls. To be honest, I used to view their bodies as a plausible goal for my own body. This dream used to get me doing squats and sit-ups during the show, which my college roommates can attest to. I thought that if I just tried hard enough, I too could be a leggy, va-va voom model without a lick of cellulite.

This seductive belief led me to researching all of the Angels’ diets and exercise regimes, along with their heights, weights, and measurements. I know I’m not the only one looking into these facts. There are loads of articles and news segments written about what it takes to become a Victoria’s Secret model geared toward young women.

As a nutrition student, I thought that because young women were looking to these models for health and nutrition advice, that I would need to look like a model to be taken seriously. This was a dangerous way of thinking that unfortunately plagues many in the health and fitness industry.

Compound their conventional beauty with endearing personalities and you’ve got so many women feeling suboptimal (and feeling the need to buy push-up bras while we're at it). The Victoria’s Secret brand requires models to have more than just looks, so they’re usually funny, powerful, and smart too – I’m looking at you Karlie Kloss! All said and done – it makes women feel like we have to do and be even more.

I would end up body bashing myself more and criticizing myself for not living up to these irrationally high standards. The negative self-talk usually perpetuated some pretty unhealthy and unsustainable behaviors that did not get me anywhere good. It was a long time before I totally understood that I couldn’t hate myself thin, healthy, or happy.

Every time I lost a little weight, I’d receive numerous comments and compliments, reinforcing and validating my efforts. But, as I’ve mentioned before (link to post), intentional weight loss through restrictive measures are not sustainable. So when the weight crept back on, I’d feel ashamed and my self-worth would plummet.

When you misplace your identity into your appearance, you set yourself up for disappointment.

We’re all more than the shapes of our bodies, the color of our hair, or the cellulite on our thighs. That’s all superficial. Our bodies are living, breathing beings that are constantly in flux. So don’t get too attached to your outer shell today because it’ll be gone tomorrow.

Body image is extremely complex and recovering from a bad one is tough, but totally doable. In this post, I hope to get you thinking a little bit more about how you deal with negative self talk.

Start keeping a log of each time you have a negative thought about yourself or your body. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised at just how often they come up. If you realize that you’re mean to yourself the majority of the time – that’s okay! You’re human.

The goal isn't to eliminate negative thoughts completely - that'd be impossible, but rather to adjust how we respond.

Each time a negative thought occurs, try and parse a few things out:

1. What happened to make you think this thought? Did you see a Victoria’s Secret model and feel bad about yourself? Were you at the pool and feel too embarrassed to eat because you believed people would judge you?

2. Next, recognize what emotional reactions you have to the negative thoughts. Do you feel uncomfortable (i.e. shame, embarrassment, disgust, anger)?

3. Identify what response you tend to experience. Do you start planning or participating in compensatory behavior, such as working out or planning a diet? Do you start rationalizing why it’s okay that you don’t look like a model?

When you go through these steps, be mindful of what comes up. Observe without further judgment. Identify any patterns that arise. Your response behaviors likely developed over time as a way to help you manage uncomfortable feelings. We believe that by indulging in these thoughts and behaviors we will prevent ourselves from having this uncomfortable feeling again. It’s pretty ingenious! Except – it doesn’t work. We tend to feel this way again and again.

To combat this pattern of thinking, try and start to respond to negative self-talk in more positive or neutral ways.

Negative: “She is so fit and thin. I should exercise more so I’ll look better too.”

Positive: “I could exercise more and see how it makes me feel.”

Negative: “My hair is flat, my eyes slant down too far, my nose is crooked…”

Positive: “I’m focusing on all my dislikes and forgetting about all my attributes. I like my cheery smile and dimples. No one else focuses on my dislikes more than me.”

Negative: “I can’t find a boyfriend because I’m so ugly.”

Positive: “I’m probably blaming my appearance because I don’t like the way I look, but that doesn’t mean that it’s true. I know I avoid situations where I could be rejected and that’s probably more to blame than my appearance.”

When talking about this topic with a friend recently, he said that his perceived flaws motivate him to take actions to work on self-improvement. He believes his honest self-awareness purports change. And this is great! But, there's an important point to make here because he is likely experiencing something more similar to guilt than shame when it comes to his "flaws."

Brené Brown beautifully describes the discrepancy between guilt and shame in this Ted Talk (seriously check it out if you haven't seen it). Guilt arises from the belief that you have done something bad or wrong, focusing on behaviors. And, shame is the belief that you are bad or wrong, focusing on the self.

Here's why it matters:

"Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders.

And, here's what you even need to know more: guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we've done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive."

-Brené Brown

Brown goes on to explain that shame is a natural human behavior and those with zero shame are sociopaths. So again, eliminating all shame is not the goal. But rather, we need to reframe the we way we think about and use shame.

The belief that shaming your body will motivate you to try and improve it undermines your efforts. Only when you begin to respect and honor your body will you be able to begin choosing to take care of it through healthful practices. Begin cultivating that respect by identifying negative thought triggers and patterns and start talking back!

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