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Early Body Shame and Binge Eating: Memories Can Hurt

How your early body shame can drive current binge eating and poor body image.

Growing up, certain memories and experiences make an indelible impression. From the smell of your mother's cookies to the shirt you wore for your fourth-grade picture. Memories can be a captivatingly sweet time capsule to your past.

But what about early painful memories? How do they linger on in your present day? Like the time your crush picked you last for the soccer team during recess, or when a classmate whispered a hurtful insult about your weight?

Body Shame Can Live For Years

I can attest to the way body shame can echo for years in your mind. A personal early memory of body shaming still stings, 20 years later:

I was sitting outside waiting for my mom to pick me up after basketball practice, drinking a diet cola. An older boy walked by and said, "With those thighs I can see why you’re drinking diet soda."

I sat there all alone, speechless.

When my mom picked me up I didn't mention the body insult. The shame of that small moment felt so paralyzing that I couldn't even talk about it.

For some, this may seem like a relatively harmless memory. For me, I can still feel the hot embarrassment I felt creep into my cheeks that day.

Research Shows That Shame Memories Impact Binge Eating

Research shows that early body shame experiences can significantly affect your present-day body image. Memories of body criticism can get lodged deep inside and even drive binge eating.

For example, a 2017 study correlated body shame memories with the level of binge eating severity in those diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder. This points to body shame as at least a contributor to binge eating.

Early body criticism can feel painful and even traumatic. We know that trauma can reoccur in the form of overt flashbacks and countless other physical and mental symptoms.

It stands to reason, then, that early body shame memories could act like small traumas that continue to flicker in one's mind, causing a nagging pain.

This low-grade pain could certainly shape a person's body image in the present. Additionally, flashbacks of body embarrassment hurt in real-time, making a person vulnerable to using food as a way to calm, distract from, and numb the pain.

The best way to conquer the lingering effects of body shame is to confront the memories and release them.

How to Release Body Shame

In my coaching work, I've found that shame-release exercises can help heal decades-long shame bruises.

A shame release exercise that is very empowering is to role play and defend. This involves going back to a body shame experience and reinserting yourself into the memory so you can defend yourself to your bully.

When you're being criticized or attacked, it's difficult to defend yourself well. However, after years of thinking about the encounter you have new strength and perspective to fight back. The exercise can work either by speaking out loud or writing down your defense.

Defend yourself from the unfair and hurtful words. Allow yourself to feel angry and afraid. Channel the emotions of the old memory and use your new present-day power to move through it.

The result is often a feeling of relief, liberation, and renewed power. It can be surprising how much a distant memory can be weighing you down.

Start With Acknowledgement

Body shame is one of the most painful experiences a person can endure, especially as a young woman. Don't discount your pain even if it occurred far in your past. Painful memories remain vivid through time, causing real pain.

Acknowledging that the shame exists is often the hardest part. Locating the shrapnel of body shaming is tough work, even as an adult. Then, excising the memory takes courage and patience.

I highly recommend seeking the help of a trained professional in the area of self-esteem, body image, and trauma.

Though it might feel uncomfortable to dredge up past pains over your body, know that it is almost always transformative.

Even 20 years after being teased over my big thighs and Diet Coke, defending myself and releasing the shame makes me feel stronger and braver.

Learn more about my journey to stop binge eating and my emotional eating life coaching services at Brynn Johnson.


Duarte C., Pinto-Gouveia J. The impact of early shame memories in Binge Eating Disorder: The mediator effect of current body image shame and cognitive fusion. Psychiatry Res. 2017