Shame, Bodies, and Women’s History

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Today is the final day of National Eating Disorders Awareness week and tomorrow is the first day of Women’s History Month.  It feels appropriate today than, for some reason, to have woken up with my stomach in knots. At some strange crossroad between healing and historical hurt.

I remember being 11 years old and standing naked in front of the full-length mirror that hung behind the door of my parents’ bedroom. I’d sneak in there often when everyone else was downstairs, shut the door, strip and stare, filled with shame about the way my belly protruded into the round C-shape of a malnourished child. I wanted my stomach to be flat. Concave. I knew I had an eating disorder, but I never admitted it. I lied to doctors, therapists, and my family because I didn’t want to be healed. I didn’t want them to take this control away from me. Not until I could bend my body to its proper form. Besides, I thought, I was different. I didn’t want to be sickly like the models. I wanted to be strong, with a 6 pack. A flat, concave 6 pack. And most of all, I didn’t want to be labelled as vain. I knew that I couldn’t admit that I actually cared how my body looked. That would be shame even worse than the small basketball shape of my belly.

Nearly 30 years later, I woke up today and stood naked in the full-length mirror I have in my home. I will myself to see the softness, the womanliness of my curves as beautiful. I note the V-where my stomach meets my hips is not as pronounced as it was just a few years ago. I see so much of the same body that my 11-year-old self saw. And I want desperately to see its beauty.

To say…

I am whole.

I am healed.

I am good.  

I don’t care anymore. Look at me so free from the desperate need for societal approval.

I do eat now…and while I still have savant-like calorie counting skills, I am able now to note the number and let it go, swallowing in a form of daily meditation.

But here is where I know I am not yet free from the shame I feel about women’s bodies (including my own).

On social media, it has become popular to post images of our “less than perfect” bodies. Flaunting imperfection is the new norm. The new way to show our perfection. See how whole I am?

I want to join in. But I don’t see what others see. I see scars, folds, curves, hair, fully on display and the women who post them are heralded as brave, bold, beautiful. I want to see them that way too. Because if I can see them that way, I can see myself that way. And I’m filled with shame for not sharing in the sentiments of the cheering comments and messages of empowerment.

I want to see and celebrate too.

Why can’t my eyes see what the rest of the world does?

Perhaps we value our eyes too much when it comes to women’s value.

To be clear, I do cheer these women.

Quietly I sit in awe of the nirvana they have reached that I feel shame for still not achieving. But it has nothing to do with seeing beauty in their images.

I wonder secretly if they do still care deeply about the opinions of others. If they post these pictures and pray that they will receive positive feedback. The kind that will allow them too, to accept themselves. For the beauty of their body as it is. For the beauty of their bravery. For the beauty of being bold.

What secret do these women have that I still do not yet possess? How can you love what I cannot, and why am I still stuck here alone on this island where beauty is so rigidly defined? It’s not my island. I didn’t design it. I don’t even want to be on it, but every time I try to swim, I drown and come crawling back to the only shore in sight. I am drowning for your shoreline of confidence and completeness and yet I wonder if we aren’t still gulping the same water?

This is the poison we’ve all been fed. The paradox many of us live with.

We must be perfect.

We must love our imperfections, or we aren’t perfect.

We must love the imperfections of others or we aren’t perfect.

We must always be perfect.

I want to be good.

I want to be the person who is genuine in their praise and their love and their admiration of the bodies of us all.

But maybe I’ll never be.

Maybe I’ll always carry the history with me.

Women’s history is a history of body shame. 

Shame of our own body.

Shame of others’ bodies.


I’m on a desperate quest to unlearn the history. To buck it. To stand naked not just in my own mirror but in the full light of other’s phones and tablets as I see other women able to do and say “here I am – fully. What do you see?” and be okay with any response. Accept the honesty of others.

And I’m glad that when women do this, what is reflected back to them is usually kindness and praise….and yet, I think we need more than just the platitudes.

I crave honesty and so I’ll give it.

I still see rolls. I see scars. I see all the ugly and imperfections I’ve been taught by our collective culture to see. I see someone desperately needing to be told they are beautiful as they are. I see myself. And perhaps that’s okay too. Perhaps that is the unlearning we all need. That history has taught us to share only the beauty, only the good, only the brave, even though reality is flabby and hairy and sometimes full of wrinkles and rolls and insecurity.

Perhaps that is what we need to see for each other too. So I’ll say it: I still see it….but I don’t think less or more of you for it.

I just see you.

More than a body. More than a shell. More than perfection or imperfection.

Unjudged. Uncelebrated. Unashamed.

And that is the most beautiful thing I think we can all offer to one another. A new and honest history that neither shames nor celebrates our bodies, but honors them by blissfully ignoring them.

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