Learn all about how food shaming, body shaming, and fitness shaming can be so damaging, and how to move beyond shame to feel you are enough in your life.
There’s just sooo much shame to go around out there! In particular, when it comes to how we feel about the appearance of our bodies, how we exercise, and how we eat. Almost every day we ask ourselves questions. How do I look in that new pair of wide leg jeans (a real question I’ve asked myself recently)? Do I look ok when I’m working out at the gym? Am I exercising enough? Am I doing enough to achieve my healthy eating goals? Should I be eating my favorite foods? The questions go on and on—each wrought with anxiety and often guilt for many of us. Ultimately, these issues lead to body shame, food shame, and even fitness shame. We try so hard to attain these goals, but often feel we run short; ever on the hamster wheel trying to achieve often unachievable health and appearance goals.
Body Shaming Definition
What is body shaming? It is the action or practice of mocking or stigmatizing someone by making critical comments about the shape, size, or appearance of their body. Body shaming can come in many forms. It can be direct, when people say hurtful statements about your body, such as “You’d look so good if you lost a few pounds.” Or it can be indirect, when people make comments like, “You look like you lost weight,” which indicates they thought someone needed to lose weight. What is food shaming? Similarly, food shaming is the action of making critical comments about the foods people eat, often related to physical appearance. Such as, “She really doesn’t need to be eating cake.” Food shaming can also be related to one’s cultural traditions, such as making negative assessments of one’s food choices, such as enjoying beans and tortillas. What is fitness shaming? This occurs when people make negative comments about someone’s physical activity. For example, they might say, “They really need to go to the gym more,” without even knowing or understanding what physical activity that person does, or other surrounding issues that might impact their ability to exercise.
Shame, a Complex Issue
It’s hard, because we can’t just say “no” to food and exercise, because they are essential to everyday life. We need both to survive and thrive. So, we’re constantly seeking to do better and better—way past the line of feeling “enoughness.” Our unbalanced relationship with food, fitness, health, and our bodies can lead to the overwhelming feeling of never being quite good enough. There’s always something we can do better with our diet (more kale, less sugar, fewer calories!), and we can always exercise more and harder. There’s the pressure to always be thinner and more fit. When is it ever enough? Once you meet one small goal, the next one comes as you’re not there yet. Pile on top the ever presence of social media, where people share all manner of body photos, often while donning skinny yoga leggings and sports bras (and guys with shirtless attire), while waxing on about how their diets and fitness regimes have resulted in their appearance. It’s no wonder we’re experiencing high levels of shame when it comes to what we eat, how we exercise, and how we look.
The Reality of Caring for Our Bodies
Let’s get real for just a minute though. Society is positioning these lofty goals for health and appearance as easy, yet for most people these goals really are unachievable. The average household income in the US is $70,784, and one in five people work 60 hours per week or more to survive. The average commute in America is one hour both to and from work each day. These numbers can look even worse for lower income households. So, consider that the average person is spending at least 10 hours a day focused on making a living, not to mention the time it takes to care for their families (homework, after school sports, laundry, and the list goes on), and they somehow have to fit in healthy eating and fitness into the mix. And then there’s the cost of healthy food and fitness regimes. Even after the amazing job they’ve done caring for their families, they still may feel shame about whether they are doing everything they can to eat well and exercise enough, as well as how they look in the mirror.
But just because influencers may have socially desirable bodies on Instagram and TikTok, who knows if the images have been edited, or even if they are really living a healthy lifestyle. And there is the huge issue of our unique, variable body types and metabolisms. We each were born with different body types, the result of our unique genetics, which impacts the way we respond to food and exercise. Hear this: If you gave 1000 people the exact same diet and exercise plan, they would each respond completely differently to it, and look completely different! As a dietitian with considerable experience in this area, I can absolutely confirm that genetics and body differences can dramatically impact the way your body responds to diet and exercise. And Mother Nature plays a cruel trick on us; as we lose weight and age our metabolic rates shut down, conserving the amount of calories we need to maintain our weights. So, we really can be doing everything “right,” and still not look like those images we see on the screen.
The Omnipresence of Body Shaming
Just how bad is our experience with shame? It’s absolutely crushing for many of us. I was fortunate enough to attend a recent FoodFluence conference, in which issues of food, fitness, and body shaming were presented by Amy Cohn, RD, Nutrition and External Affairs Senior Manager at General Mills, Jessica Broome, PhD, founder of Southpaw Insights, and JC Lippold, MAL, RYT, leadership consultant. According to a recent study conducted by General Mills and Southpaw Insights, consumers, including dietitians (that’s my group!), put exercise at the top of their list for long-term and short-term goals, yet they report so much guilt when they can’t manage to exercise enough. The research revealed that many people feel they don’t have the body type that is usually found in a gym. A reported 40% are uncomfortable in their skin and embarrassed by their size, and 36% feel pressured by society to strive for a certain physical appearance. And then there is nutrition shame piled on top of all that body and fitness shame, according to the study. It’s like an omnipresent cloud looming over us.
What’s worse is that people are hearing messaging about health that are often conflicting: “Processed foods are bad”, but “eat everything in moderation.” Eating healthy is marketed as so easy and simple, yet the messages of what experts are telling us to do are not so simple. People like me (hey, dietitians) like to talk about how easy it is to eat healthy, but when people find it hard for a gazillion reasons (lack of access to healthy food, no time to cook, lack of culinary skills, cost of fresh foods), people can often feel that these oversimplified messages minimize their own struggles. Let’s face it, in reality it is not so easy and attainable to be healthy. Even when we are doing what we’ve been told, we find that good health and socially desirable body types don’t automatically happen, nor are they as easy to attain as we’ve been told. For example, 72% of dietitians recommend intuitive and mindful eating, but only 16% of people have tried it, probably because it’s tough to fully understand this complex eating philosophy. And 51% of dietitians recommend clean eating, but only 17% have tried it—again, what does “clean eating” really mean when you’re in the supermarket aisle?
Welcome to the great disconnect! And there are even more barriers for those in lower incomes. For higher income, time is the main barrier for achieving health and body goals, but for lower income individuals, it’s money. There is disparity in income among black and Hispanic consumers, as well as genders. So, this even widens the disconnect between health and achieving our goals. On top of that, who is health really marketed to? That upper income white, thin female toting along her reusable water bottle to yoga class, right? We are also tossing aside our cultural, traditional food patterns in our search for achieving the latest healthy eating goal of the day. We may be told to do “The Carnivore Diet” (which I personally detest), or to ditch all grains, when our traditions were based on rice and vegetables, for example. The end result is that we end up feeling isolation, guilt, and shame. A reported 64% of consumers want to keep their nutrition goals to themselves.
While it’s a really good thing that we are finally addressing issues of food and body shaming in our society, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Shame becomes less powerful when it is brought into the light, so it doesn’t thrive in isolation. So, let’s talk more about how to fight shame with a few of my own personal tips.
How to Fight Fitness, Food, and Body Shaming
1. Small Steps
Just small positive changes can be enough. Really. You don’t have to feel the pressure to make massive shifts, which can end up failing and make you feel even more guilt. Instead, focus on positive changes that you can feel good about. Eat one more vegetable today. Add one more fruit to your snack pattern. Go for a walk on your day off. Give yourself a pat on the back because you have accomplished great things!
2. Be Enough
Be in the moment today and remind yourself you are enough. You have done an amazing thing today, whether it’s paying your rent, taking your kids to school, putting a meal on the table, or listening to a friend. Those are all monumental things to accomplish in your community and own life! When it comes to health goals, find your enough. Is it joyfully exercising a few times per week on your easiest days of the week? Or cooking one healthy recipe once a week? Take a deep breath and give yourself credit for all the things you are already doing!
3. Practice Self Care
A huge part of wellness is caring for your own mental health through self-care. You can literally reduce stress and inflammation in your body by doing so. It can be hard to make time, but look for regular ways, whether it is spending time in nature, listening to music, meditating, talking to a friend, or just simply doing something that renews your soul.
4. Ban the “Shoulds”
When you start measuring up all the “shoulds” in your health goals, such as I should be cooking a healthy dinner every night, I should be meal-prepping this week, I should join that fancy gym in the city, I should be one size smaller by summer, take a deep breath and break the cycle. There is a never-ending list of “shoulds” that are simply unreasonable and nonessential. For example, there is no study that shows you must join a gym and sweat buckets to be healthy. Walking has been found by a body of research to be one of the best exercise plans. Fad diets fail time and time again; sustainable diets that are healthful for the long term are enjoyable, as they include favorite foods, love, and joy. Just look to dozens of healthful dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean Diet for proof.
As a dietitian, I can tell you that I have experienced debilitating shame when it comes to body and fitness. You can feel that you should always do more, but by finding enoughness and shining light on isolation, we can break the cycle. I would love to hear from you about your own experiences with food and body shame, and ways that you have broken this damaging cycle. Let’s share and be stronger together.
Eat and Live Well,