I have some idiosyncratic body-shaming experiences that I’ve only shared with my husband, a few close friends, and a therapist or two. And, here I am: about to share them with anyone reading this blog. It’s a little scary. But, I think sharing these experiences might help others—so here goes.
At age nine, I went to an all-girls overnight summer camp. One night, a group of about six girls stripped me naked and threw me out of the cabin in the dark. It was a punishment that our 9-year old leader came up with, for a “crime” that started with a disagreement about words to a then-popular song.
At age 22 and a college sophomore, I decided to finally rid myself of my virginity (something most of my friends were already rid of). I got naked with my first serious boyfriend. He casually noted that my stomach looked bigger with my clothes off. My 55-year old self would have known just what to say (i.e., where to tell him to stick it) as I put my clothes back on and walked out the door. Instead, my 22-year old self sucked in both my reactions and my stomach and had sex with him anyway.
Like I said, these aren’t experiences I share easily. When I have shared them with a select few, I’ve gotten empathy, anger, and an acknowledgement of how wrong these experiences were. Those I’ve shared them with have also helped me understand the impact of these experiences on my psyche, including trust issues in friendships with women and disdain for my “poochy belly.” Thanks to trauma-work with a good therapist surrounding the camp attack, a husband who loves all of me (including my tummy), and several treasured women friends, I thought I was over these issues…until today.
Today, I was taking a yoga class – something I’ve only been doing the last few months at a very gentle, wonderful studio with very gentle, encouraging teachers. It took a friend’s continual encouragement to go because the first time I tried yoga, the instructor used a demeaning tone to tell me that my shoulders looked like OJ Simpson’s. He then rather forcefully pushed them into position, while grasping my hand where I’d recently had surgery. I cried out in pain. I then cried tears of anger—and doing what my 22-year old self hadn’t done, I told him this was no way to treat someone who was trying yoga for the first time. I walked out.
But, today in yoga, I realized that—maybe for the first-time ever in my life—I felt totally connected to my body. In my body. With my mind turned off. And, that’s when it hit me. The reason I spend so much time in my head (even when it spins round and round like a broken, anxious record) is that I am still avoiding feeling my body.
I, like most women and a good number of men in our culture, have body-shame. My shame is due to the idiosyncratic experiences I just described, coupled with a culture that continually objectifies and criticizes women’s bodies, all the while holding out an ideal that we can never reach. Other women and men have other individual experiences to layer onto this cultural landscape—sexual abuse, teasing by siblings, critical coaches or parents, even well-meaning ones. (Sadly, in retrospect I see that even though I tried not to criticize my own precious daughters’ bodies, my own shame leaked out and so I did so anyway).
But, the yoga—including its physical postures, breath focus, and meditation—is resulting in a profound shift that talking about my experiences never has. No wonder therapists and researchers have found that yoga has a positive effect on a myriad of psychological and physical dimensions, including recovering from body-image concerns and eating disorders, and enhancing sexual functioning.
In the words of a yoga instructor, talking about the body poses, “… Our bodies, we are told, are too hairy, too lumpy, too noisy, too big, too scarred, too heavy and too smelly. Then you begin to practice yoga and, for one thing, you begin to appreciate your body for what it can do. It can hold you in a balancing pose. It can carry you through a flowing sequence of standing poses.”
And, of the relationship between mindfulness and positive sexuality, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, “To have sensational sex, you have to focus on the sensations and not on how you are doing or looking.”
Finally, in terms of the breath work of yoga, as explained in a Huffington Post article, sexual pleasure is enhanced by breathing consciously and deeply.
Clearly, perhaps the ancients knew what we psychologists too often ignore, and that is that the mind and the body are one. To heal the mind, one has to involve the body. A few colleagues of mine are immersed in this notion, as they learn the method of Somatic Experiencing to heal clients’ traumas. This method “does not require the traumatized person to re-tell or re-live the traumatic event. Instead, it offers the opportunity to engage, complete, and resolve—in a slow and supported way—the body’s instinctual fight, flight and freeze response.” (To find an SE practitioners: click here).
I may learn this body-oriented method at some point to help my clients, but first I am going to keep going to yoga. I am going to tell my students and my clients. And in this blog, I am sharing the power of yoga with you, my dear readers, in hopes it can help you learn body love and self-acceptance.
I was afraid to write this blog. But, now I see that the reason it was scary was because I was still holding shame. Without shame, the fear is gone.
As a psychologist, I’ve known for a long time that letting go of shame and pain requires speaking the unspeakable. Now I know that sometimes speaking is not enough. Sometimes we have to move, to breathe, and to deeply focus without thinking or talking at all.