One woman recounts her struggles with body shame, which led her to now guide others through their own healing journeys.
I’ll never forget the day the concept of body shame entered my life. I was 8 years old when I watched my friend topple from her horse, losing consciousness. I rushed to her aid and called for help, but she died in the hospital later that night. I had never understood why my friend was seemingly obsessed with her looks. Now I know she struggled with an eating disorder…yes, even at that tender young age.
From that day forward, the belief that being thin was dangerous became deeply ingrained in me. This paired with family issues, resulted in me turning to food for comfort.
I ate so that I didn’t have to feel as much. Food gave me a feeling of safety and a hit of dopamine I so greatly desired.
I became slightly overweight. I recall friends of the family pinching my cheeks and smiling at the chubby-cheeked little one.
We moved to Texas from Holland when I was 11. I was immediately aware of how consumed with their looks my new peers were.
My breasts had grown over the 6 weeks it took us to receive our belongings. My first bra mistakenly got packed in it, and when we unpacked it, it no longer fit. Everyone wore bras and looked at my growing breasts in disdain, whispering to each other. My English was not good enough to understand what they were saying. But I understood enough to feel increasingly uncomfortable in my skin.
Not wanting to bother my mom— I snuck a new bra into the trolley at the supermarket.
My breasts continued to grow at an exponential rate. By the age of 12, I had an impressive EE cup despite being of average weight. My breasts brought me a lot of unwelcome attention from older men. People looked at my chest instead of my face. I received many “bitchy” remarks from other girls at school, saying I was “easy” although I hadn’t had a boyfriend yet. My body seemed to define me in the eyes of others.
I began to turn inward as the feelings of body shame grew. I confided in my sister, and she reassured me that I was beautiful, but it wasn’t enough to counter all of the shame I was feeling. I developed coping mechanisms, ignored the comments, and grew a thick skin.
I ignored it when my “uncle” touched me inappropriately. I told my mother, but her response was that this had happened to her too. She told me to leave it alone. I was sexually abused for years until I could no longer stand it and confronted my “uncle’s” wife when I was 16.
All this shame had me looking outside myself for love and affection. I was the bubbly, friendly, good-natured, big-breasted blonde who had loving words for everyone but herself. My boyfriends loved me and my body, but I was vicious to myself, going through strict diets, harsh exercise routines, and pushing my body to do more. Losing weight helped the boobs reduce—a bit. The yo-yoing started, and my weight fluctuated greatly.
I experienced body shame and sexual abuse often. I was the victim of a violent date rape which my psyche buried for the next 20 years.
I married my husband, and we had 4 children in under 3 years. My body took on over 50 extra kilos, and the stress of the pregnancies and multiple miscarriages—surprisingly, this was the turning point when my relationship with my body began to change.
My body produced 4 incredible, healthy children. After I breastfed all 4, I had a breast reduction. For the first time in my life, I could stand up straight without rounding my shoulders to hide my breasts.
The journey to loving myself started. I was able to see the stretch marks as loving signs of these beautiful babies I had borne. I began to wear the signs on my body with pride, seeing them as symbols of a battlefield—of a life well-lived.
My journey to radical self-love didn’t happen instantly, there was a lot that went into it, and I’m grateful for that because it has allowed me to help my clients on their journey to stop body shame and begin to love themselves again.
6 Ways to Break Free of Body Shame
1. Get Support from Strangers
As I said before, kind words from my sister weren’t enough. My loved ones could spend all day telling me how beautiful I was, but some part of me felt that they were required to tell me that since they loved me. Receiving the same remark from complete strangers is what really started to help me see myself that way.
Finding a group of like-minded women and men that empower you is a great way to start working toward self-love. These groups can be in person or virtually over zoom.
2. Speak It Out Loud
An exercise that I walk most of my clients through is to stand in front of a mirror with as few clothes as is comfortable for them, set the timer for 5 minutes and let it rip! Criticize yourself! Every little dimple, scar, pouch, wrinkle, hair, whatever it is — speak it out loud and let yourself feel it! This is a massively cathartic exercise. We speak so meanly to ourselves yet do not often do it in a way where we let all of it all out.
The next part is where it gets emotional. I have my clients put on something they feel safe in, a cashmere tracksuit, leggings, a silk shirt, a thick cardigan, a blanket, whatever makes them feel safe. They put on a playlist I have curated for them, and they write a love letter to their body.
They may even have a nickname for her — a term of endearment. They go through their memories and acknowledge how they may have harmed her, abused her, and allowed others to shame her.
A lot of tears and emotions come up as they fully feel everything.
Here is an example of what the letter can look like:
Dear Body (or term of endearment),
For years I have…
I took you for granted. I …
I allowed …
I pushed and prodded you into …
Start with an apology/acknowledgment of how you treated her, moving onto how she has been there for you, and finally onto forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a big piece of overcoming body shame. Forgiving yourself for all the things you may have done to yourself (or said about yourself), forgiving others for how they had you feel, forgiving society for the imprints about how we “should” look.
All of this starts the process of healing, of FEELING FULLY YOU and accepting ALL parts of yourself.
3. Celebrate Your Achievements
Another exercise is to acknowledge your achievements and celebrate them, no matter how large or small! So often, we are so fixated on what is wrong with us that we no longer see what is right. A way to do this is to take a few minutes each day and write down what you are grateful for and what you are celebrating. By training the mind to look at the gratitude and showing it that you celebrate EACH win, new neural pathways are created.
4. Practice More Movement
Feminine movement, dance, and tremor exercises help move trauma through the body. Create a regular practice to move your body and release trauma. Our bodies hold on to trauma, even if we are unaware of it. Moving consciously, and allowing tremors to come up will allow you to move through your pain and release it.
5. Learn to Trust Yourself
Building a trusting relationship with your body is so important. Beginning to explore what types of touch your body wants will help you start to deepen that trust with yourself. You can explore this after your movement practice or anytime you are alone and have time to create space to build that relationship with yourself.
6. Say No
So often, we do not know how to say no. This is another game-changer for my clients. Saying no without any other explanation — but trusting themselves!
This is connecting to your honest desires, allowing yourself to say no to anything that doesn’t align, without providing an explanation. Give this a try the next time you want to say no to something or someone. Challenge yourself to say no without giving a reason. “No” is a complete sentence!
These tips have helped many clients build a trusting relationship with their bodies, full of radical self-love. There is so much beauty in seeing a woman embody her true self and love her body unconditionally.
Once a woman has started loving herself fully, she oozes confidence… and people are drawn to her. They feel good around her and want to be more like her.
You may also enjoy reading No Man Left Behind: Growing from vs. Separating from Our Past by Carter Miles