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Shame, Body Image, and Weight Loss

Shame: The Master Emotion, Part 2

In my first post on shame I laid out a paradigm for understanding and healing shame. (Click here to read Shame: The Master Emotion.) I wrote that shame has two components. First there is an assault (e.g., criticism, physical attack, patronization, disrespect). The assault by itself is painful, injurious, and needs address and redress however it doesn’t cause shame—it doesn’t lead the person to ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Shame results from the second component—someone witnessing the assault in a way that denies the assault, minimizes the injury, or blames the victim for the assault. When an assault is witnessed in this way, the victim of the assault is likely to internalize this viewpoint and think things like “Why am I so sensitive? How come I am making such a big deal about what happened? Why do I do things that bring on hurt and injury?” These questions are the manifestations of shame.

In my earlier post I identified one archetypal example of how this occurs—a child is hurt by one parent (the assault) and the other parent denies or dismisses the event and injury (the shaming witness). As a result the child suffers in two ways—the injury and the shame. While both are critical, it is often the shame that is a more difficult, enduring, and resistant strain to heal.

Another all too common example of shaming occurs when a person looks in the mirror (or steps on a scale, or puts on some clothes) and doesn’t like what they see. “My arms are flabby,” “My belly rolls in on itself,” “My thighs are too big,” This shirt looks terrible on me.” In fact, a Glamour Magazine study found that 97% of women are “cruel to their bodies” every day.[1] These criticisms are an assault—they have the capacity to hurt, to injure, but they do not shame. However, the story rarely stops there. Another part of the person, an internalized witness, says, “You are lazy;” “Why did you eat that ice cream last night?” How come you can’t stay on a diet?” “You eat too much comfort food,” “Can’t you deal with your psychological problems and lose more weight?” This internalized witness, this “voice,” ignores that there was an assault, demonstrates no compassion for the pain, and blames the person (the victim) for their suffering. Making matters even more egregious, many people, especially girls, perceive themselves to be overweight even when they are not! (e.g. a Teen Magazine Study found that 50 to 70 percent of normal-weight girls think they are overweight.[2])

A powerful example of this kind of shaming occurred on a Dr. Phil show where he was trying to help women lose weight before their weddings.[3] First, the premise of the show is shaming. The women on the show all have criticisms of their bodies (the assault), but instead of defending them from this criticism or responding to the pain they suffered as a result, Dr. Phil inadvertently colluded with these women’s assessment (and the culture’s assessment) that they were indeed too big. His failure to witness the injury and assault of this criticism denies or dismisses it and shames them. He proceeded as if the pain these women experienced was because of their body size not because of the criticism of their body size. In this way he blamed the victim of the assault. To avoid this kind of shaming he would have had to do something most folks don’t do—consider the possibility that these women didn’t need to lose weight to feel better about themselves.

Later Dr. Phil had thinner women parade across the stage wearing the wedding dresses that his guests were hoping to wear but in a smaller size. While Dr. Phil intended to “motivate” these women to lose weight, his intervention created a painful moment of assault and injury—women being compared to other women who are thought to be more attractive. Again, the assault went unnoticed, the pain not felt or witnessed, leaving Dr. Phil’s guests to think “How can I lose more weight? How come I can’t look like that?” They walked away thinking that they suffered because they couldn't “fix” themselves not because they were in a public place being criticized for their body size. Further, those guests who don’t lose weight, or who lose it and gain it back (which is likely to be almost all of them), are likely to think “What’s wrong with me? Their shame will be amplified.

What would a non-shaming witness do? To help answer this question, we need to consider what is happening psychologically. Here’s how: imagine women were paraded across a stage in front of dozens of people, two at a time, while someone sat there saying “You look pretty, attractive, beautiful,” to the first woman and saying to the second one, “You look fat and unattractive—why can’t you look like her?” referring to the first woman. This is the kind of inner criticism and comparison that is happening inside these women, in Dr. Phil, and in some of the audience members’ minds. Would you sympathize/empathize with the second woman? Would you be able to defend her? If you could speak to that judge, what would you say? How would you challenge or educate them?

If you would sympathize with the second woman and if you could defend her, then you already know how to be a non-shaming witness and you already know how to bring healing to a shaming event and you have the capacity to bring healing to yourself and many others by speaking about your feelings and perceptions.

Further, if you are willing to speak up then people will be less likely to think there is something wrong with them. And when people don’t think something is wrong with them: they are less likely to go on diets that don’t work (see my post Zen and the Art of Dieting: Part 1 for more data on the effectiveness of diet programs); 81% of 10 year-olds won’t be afraid of being fat[4]; people won’t ignore studies that find that being overweight, and even mildly obese, doesn’t lead to greater health risks[5] while gaining and losing weight does;[6] and people are more likely to defend themselves from criticism and critically think about a culture that demeans and objectifies people, especially girls and women, with regard to their bodies.

I would love to hear your stories. Feel free to make comments or go to my website for more information…


David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed books are available for sale on the website: Follow David on Twitter @lovebasedpsych for regular updates on dieting, dreams, relationships, sex, addictions, and more. Feel free to join his Facebook page and post your comments and questions.

[1] Shaun Dreisbach, “Shocking Body-Image News: 97% of Women Will Be Cruel to Their Bodies Today”Glamour Magazine. Accessed on January 16, 2013, - The Real (Really Harsh) Things Women Think About Their Bodies.

[2] Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, “Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?” Last reviewed June 1, 2012, accessed on January 16, 2013,

[3] “Overweight Brides,” Dr. Phil, CBS, January 12, 2005.

[4] Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, “Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?” Last reviewed June 1, 2012, accessed on January 16, 2013,

[5] Katherine M. Flegal, PhD; Brian K. Kit, MD; Heather Orpana, PhD; Barry I. Graubard, PhD, “Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” JAMA. 2013; 309(1):71-82.

[6] Glenn A. Gaesser, Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health (Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books, 2002 [1996]), 77.

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