Shame, Somatic Power, and Eating Disorders
I have been posting on my Instagram (@revkatie) this week for National Eating Disorders Awareness week sponsored by NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. I needed some more room for this message though.
Today I want to talk about how shame which leads to a loss of somatic power, contributes to eating disorders.
People and society try to shame us for our body looking the way it does and/or for the clothing that we wear. They tell us that our bodies are disgusting, embarrassing, weak, too big or too small, too pretty or not pretty enough, too sexually attractive or not sexy enough, and more. They say that because our bodies are any one (or more) of those things, that we are bad people. We are worthless. We do not belong.
Dr. Brene Brown defines shame as being told or feeling “I am bad” rather than guilt, which is “I did something bad.” Shame, believing we are inherently bad and thus unworthy of love and belonging, is terrifying. Humans need connection to survive and if we are bad and not worthy of connection, we could die (at least that is how our brain interprets that threat to our safety.) We will do anything in order to be safe. In the case of body shame, “anything” often means harming our body (eating disorders and self harm) by trying to make it into a different body shape, and/or dressing in ways that are not congruent with who we are in order for us to be worthy of love and belonging and thus, safe and cared for.
Not only are we shamed, but we are disempowered. When people are disempowered, they often become dysfunctional, and disempowerment is one way abusers and bullies seek to control those they abuse. Those of us who have undergone therapy for trauma work a lot on taking back our own power so we can be healthy and whole.
When someone shames you over your body and dress, they seek to take away a specific kind of power, somatic power.
Dr. Laura Brown says:
“I think of power as happening in four ways: Somatic power (in our bodies), Intrapersonal power (in our relationships to ourselves), Interpersonal Power (in our relationships with others and the world around us) and Spiritual/Existential Power (in our capacity to make meaning in life). This is not a prescription; it is an evolving list of ways in which people empower themselves in the world.
Somatic Power: The powerful person is in contact with her/his body; the body is experienced as a safe enough place; accepted as it is rather than forced to be larger or smaller than it would be if adequately nourished. If its size or shape creates a lack of safety for a person, change of size or shape happens in the service of safety. There is connection with bodily desires for food, sexual pleasure, and rest; no intentional harm is done to one’s own body or that of others. Does not require the ability to see, hear, walk, or talk, nor is a powerful body necessarily free of pain or illness, nor strong or physically fit. Body modifications reflect moves toward power and congruence, and personal construction of self. There is compassion for one’s body.”
For almost a decade I have been a public advocate for body acceptance and allowing people to wear what they want. Body shame goes hand in hand with shaming people about what they wear. As a public advocate, I often got pushback and while it never felt great, I was always able to handle it, until one day a few years ago when someone told me that my body and the way I dress was “disturbing,” “disgusting,” and harmful to other people. They also felt my advocacy about allowing other people to be happy with their bodies and dress in a way that fits them was harmful. They told me I was bad and "needed to be stopped."
That was an extreme form of shaming, where I was basically told to change my body, silence my voice, and give up my somatic power in order to be a good person. In order to be a good person I had to look different, and I had to be quiet. The shame was fierce this time and harder to handle than usual, so I stopped writing on my blog very much. To this day, every day when I get dressed I have to fight off the voice that says I am disgusting and hurting people. I changed what I wear. I decreased my advocacy and shared less of who I am.
Some people will roll out that old trope “No one else can make you feel anything,” or “no one else can take away your power.” If that were true then no one would ever be hurt by the words and actions of other people and physical and emotional abuse would not exist. The reality is that the brain is hardwired to first assess safety. So, yes, someone else’s words and/or actions can make us feel terror and make our brain interpret danger to our survival. It is not our fault and people really should be held accountable for shaming others.
At the same time, we can still work on owning our own power.
What is hard about taking back our somatic power is that almost every minute of every day we get messages that our bodies are bad. Women especially are told that their bodies are dangerous and inappropriate. People treat us poorly based on our bodies. For teenagers, the social isolation and emotional abuse is constant, at a time when they are naturally becoming more independent from their family of origin and looking to find their place in order to know that they can survive on their own when they are older. People of color and those in the LGBTQ community are attacked in ways and to a greater degree than most of us will never understand.
Due to the constant shame messages, in order to take our power back, it is often a minute-by-minute, day-by-day process. It is a lot of work and can take a lot of time. But no matter how long it takes, do it anyway.
You are worthy of love and belonging, no matter what anyone else says. Your body is perfect as it is and nothing about it or the way you dress should keep you from being in community. If other people have a problem with your body, they should take the responsibility to get help with their own issues that they need to resolve.
Here are a few ways that you can start taking back your somatic power:
Go to a trauma-informed or somatic therapist. You could also see any number of us who have training in neurology and decreasing threat in the brain and body.
Unfollow toxic social media pages and stop watching shows and movies that promote body and/or style shame.
Get space and time away from toxic family members.
Wear what you love, even if the biggest step you can do right now is add one small accessory that brings your body in line with who you are inside.
Eat in a way that makes you feel good and allows you to do all the things in life you want to do. (And, no, being liked by other people who are mean and judge your body is not a thing in life you should want to do.)
Find supportive friends and family members.
When someone makes fun of what another person is wearing, simply say: “I think they can wear whatever they want.”
When someone comments on food as if it has a moral value, such as “Fries are bad,” “I can’t believe I am eating all of this, I am so disgusting,” “I only eat clean food,” simply say: “I am all for eating what you want.”
If you need immediate help with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237
For a good mindful eating recovery program, check out Am I Hungry? They often have local groups and individual therapists.
*Disclaimer: I am a minister and health and wellness coach, not a therapist or doctor. These posts are for informational use only. Always check with your doctor and/or therapist about any treatment options for yourself.