(The following is an excerpt from The Diet Survivor’s Handbook)
We live in a shame-based culture, spreading the message that if your body differs from the coveted thin physique, something is intrinsically wrong with you and in need of fixing. Your worth as a person has become inaccurately defined and simplified as thin equals a good, moral person and fat equals a bad, shameful person. The words people use in everyday speech show how much we have taken this equation to heart. Have you ever said these statements to yourself?
-I was bad today (referring to what you ate).
-I’m too embarrassed to go out because I feel too fat.
-I’ve let myself go.
-I’m ashamed to eat in public.
-I’m too ashamed to be seen in public.
These are shaming statements that go to the core of how we experience ourselves. Our culture teaches us that all bodies should conform to one standard ideal of thin, and that failure to do so is shameful, a reflection of our weak, flawed character, born out in our unattractive bodies. That message has been drummed into us for so long that many of us have adopted this belief system and made it our own. The result is that you feel nothing about you is okay. You feel both exposed and diminished. These feelings can be identified in the following ways:
-You feel you are what you weigh and let the scale determine your worth
-You envy thin people, and equate their appearance with every manner of
success, while your body implies failure
-You feel “less than” because of your body size
-You feel that if only you could lose weight and get thin, all of these negative feelings would disappear.
If you see yourself in these statements, it means that the shame based cultural messages have been incorporated into your very identity. Rather than seeing the culture at fault for its insistence that only one type of body is acceptable, you have adopted the faulty belief that, “I am flawed and defective because I am not thin enough and haven’t been able to get and stay thin through dieting.”
Accepting the Shame-Based Culture Into Your Psyche
The consequences of these beliefs are enormously damaging to one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The first step into this downward spiral is the absorption of the culturally induced body-hatred into your own psyche. Again, because this process is experienced by virtually everyone embarking upon a diet, it must be seen as the natural progression of a set of circumstances rather than the problem of a particular individual. It is only because you live in a culture that induces feelings of shame for not being thin enough, that you embark upon a diet in the first place. The act of dieting mirrors the shame-based cultural notion that you are either a good person because you are dieting or a bad person because you have broken your diet.
Once you have taken in these culturally shame-based messages, it is understandable that you would turn to diets to lose weight so that you can lose the shame. The problem is that the culturally supported idea of dieting to lose weight doesn’t work – at least for the long-term. Remember, 95–98% of all dieters will gain back their weight. When the pounds return, you are left feeling like a diet failure. After all, the prevailing myth is that if you had enough determination and willpower, you could keep the weight off.
Despite the fact that this is based in myth rather than fact, you are left feeling that regaining the weight is a testament to your lack of willpower and weak self. You feel ashamed that you have not changed your body in the way you feel you must in order to be happy and successful. You feel disgust with yourself as you continue to binge on “forbidden” foods before you begin yet another diet. The anger that surfaces is directed at yourself as an object that cannot be trusted, rather than at the culture, which at its root is shame-based when it comes to body size. When you begin looking at your body as a negative object that must be manipulated into something more acceptable, and adopt dieting as the method to achieve this goal, you have taken in the culturally induced shame as your own. When you berate yourself because the diet fails, believing you are at fault, and experiencing a profound sense of shame, you have taken in the culturally induced shame and made it your personal shame.
As you repeat this process, you find yourself in the diet/binge cycle, feeling both ashamed and believing there is no one to blame but yourself. You believe that your shame originates from a personal shame, a flawed body and character, rather than originating from a culture that creates shame and offers the solution of dieting, which fails almost every time. By becoming aware of the dynamics of shame, and how shame moves from cultural messages into the very depths of your core identity and being, you can gain power over it.
When you name these cultural messages as the form of oppression they are, you can begin the process of healing. You can begin to challenge the notion that only one body type is acceptable, and that dieting is a healthy method to achieve that body. You can begin to celebrate and honor the diversity of body types and learn a new method of eating which nourishes you physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Eat well! Live well! Be well! Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, are co-authors of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet www.dietsurvivors.com Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating: 847.267.1200