Thursday, May 26, 2011

On shame, and self-worth

One of my very favorite podcasts is KCRW's Good Food, a weekly show that runs the gamut - from what's seasonal at the farmer's market, to area restaurant reviews, to interesting features about the culture, science, and politics of food.  I was catching up on some older episodes yesterday when I came upon Slate writer Christy Harrison's account of her Hive topic.

Hive is a Slate discussion forum in which readers are invited to offer solutions to wide-ranging problems.  Harrison's topic was Childhood Obesity.  When host Evan Kleiman asked about extreme proposals, this is what Harrison reported:

"We saw quite a few responses that talked about how kids needed to be shamed into being healthier and feel stigmatized for being overweight if we were ever going to have hope to make them lose weight we needed to make them feel bad about themselves."

 I'm going to venture a guess that those responses were from people who have never struggled with disordered eating, depression, or obesity.

There's plenty of information out there about how size is not a valid indicator of health.  Take me, for instance.  Someone who doesn't know me could look at me and assume that I'm due for a heart attack.  But compare my blood pressure with, I dunno, anyone outside of a serious athlete, and mine will probably be healthier.

I don't really want to talk about my physical health, though.  I want to talk about my mental health.  I want to talk about what shame did for me.

Before I became active this year, I was filled with shame.  Every time we'd walk with friends, or we'd be invited on a hike with family, I would be humiliated that I couldn't keep up.  Or humiliated that I was puffing.  So I'd elect not to walk with them.  I'd elect not to walk at all.

Whenever anyone would comment on what I ate - "wow, that looks... filling..."  "you shouldn't be eating that cupcake..." etc.  I felt so much self-loathing.  Anger at myself, and a LOT of anger at whoever was judging me.  After all, much of the time, I ate just fine.  I maintained weight for several years, with a gradual uptick.  Some of the time I didn't eat well.  But I doubt you ever saw me.  Because I was so ashamed of it, I did it when I was alone.  And the more anyone tried to make me feel shameful about it, the more I'd eat - in private -  as a reaction.

Shame, for me, was not a motivator.  It was the anti-motivator.  It made everything that much worse.

It was not until I went to therapy, and worked on everything surrounding my disordered eating and lack of exercise, that I was able to work on that issue, too.  It wasn't until I found the Fat Acceptance community, and realized that I deserved respect no matter what I looked like, that I was ready to respect myself.  It was not until I felt worthy of taking care of myself that I was ready to make the changes in my life that have made me stronger, more nourished, more balanced.

I'm not an Oprah watcher, but I caught her last show yesterday. (I'm a sucker for finales.)  She said something that rang so very true to me:


  1. THIS. I agree completely. And, God, you remind me of my "secret eating." I can't remember a time when I didn't sneak food. It's less pervasive now, but I still am wary of grabbing food from the break room when there are thin, beautiful people in there. Sad, right? (God forbid I EAT?!?!)

    I'm not sure how to help kids be healthier. All I know is that shaming DOESN'T WORK, as you've said. I know that being teased in gym class (and purposely hit in the head with a kickball a few times -- thanks Yenis! -- oh, yes, I still remember that bully's name!) made me super self-conscious about my weight, and how I looked while active. It's a shame -- with my height/long legs, I'm a damn good sprinter. But I wouldn't join the track team or even TRY running until now because I was embarrassed by how I would look (fat rolls/boobs giggling, etc.).

    I don't think the solution is campaigns aimed at kids. The problem in our culture of how we approach food/health/bodies is too deeply ingrained to solve from the bottom up. Gotta go top-down. We have to systematically change the way that ADULTS think about bodies and health. If adults/parents realize you can be Healthy At Any Size and find nutritious, healthy food available to them at lower prices (ie: low-income families have no chance in hell of eating decent food, currently), they will feed those ideas back to their kids. Also, OMG, can get some REGULATION on how shitty food is marketed to children? Because is another HUGE issue.

  2. Shame is a great motivator, to take drugs, to engage in risky sexual behaviors, to encourage lying and to keep people from risking themselves in any way. I was heaped in shame as a child and teenager. Both by the actions of my family and what I was told by them.
    I only learned to reach for what I wanted in my late twenties when I realized that shame & guilt are merely tools by witch others controlled me. When I learned to self acceptance and love I learned to control myself (as much as I do anyway) - you have to start with accepting where you are and then choosing the direction you want to go . . .the journey continues.

  3. As a jewboy, I was raised with plenty of guilt, but absolutely no shame. Society and my own youthful insecurities handled some of the shame for me ... but thankfully did a lousy job of it - and it didn't stick. I hope everyone gets over their childhood or societal shame and guilty as early as possible. Life truly takes off without that absurd baggage.

  4. The only way I can see trying to make kids healthier is to stop cutting funding for school physical education and sports teams for one. It's absolutely mindboggling that schools would even consider cutting extracurricular activities that would only help children.

    Course, I was one of those kids who used to get bullied in gym class by not only students, but teachers as well, so I don't know how you'd stop that. Kids can be some of the cruelest critics out there, believe me, I know first hand how they can be. I think ultimately, there should be some programs implemented in schools that teach self-esteem classes. Dove currently has a campaign to empower young wouldn't be hard to put into place.

  5. I am not yet at the self-acceptance state. I agree that shame is precisely the wrong motivator, but it's the one I use most often against myself. Because, you know, I don't deserve the good motivators. I still have that compulsion to treat myself like shit. And I know it doesn't work! When I'm up, I have the stamina to exercise and make good choices. When I'm loathing, I have no energy and crave starch. I was skinny as a kid, but bullied for being different nonetheless. Still haven't gotten over that damage, but maybe someday.

  6. This is the most touching post I've read in the blog world in a long time...

    I really regret not seeing Oprah's last show because it sounds as though she covered so much...including self-worth..something that I struggle with pretty regularly.

    Thank you for relaying such an important message.

  7. I think the first way to help kids become healthier is to focus on their mental health and to learn tolerance in a major way. I've worked in education for years and understand that all kinds of kids get bullied nearly every hour of the day for any reason whatsoever, especially fat kids. I believe what will help fat kids in a big way is to stop the bullying, to discuss tolerance of people's differences with their classmates, as well as acceptance of our own differences, whatever they may be.

    I think this same conversation needs to be had on a constant basis with kids' parents, many of whom are on board with shaming their fat children into losing weight, even though they have all good intentions in mind.

    Once we begin to effectuate some social change with fat kids, their classmates and parents, I think kids will start to feel better about themselves and, with guidance, can feel confident about making choices that can help them maintain their health.

    I think it's important to remember, though, that having 'good' health is not a moral imperative; it's not a sign that you're "less worthy" because your doctor is unhappy with your blood pressure. I believe what's most helpful for everyone is a sense of emotional well-being, a sense of comfort that they can be who they are at work, at school, at home and no one will tell them otherwise.

  8. Hoping Blogger will let me's been giving me fits lately.

    I just found your blog from your guest post at Kenz's. You seem to be in a place with food/life/health/acceptance/balance that I'm moving towards. We seem to have much in common. Movie / tv geek, here.

    You posted something recently that said what I couldn't put in to words for myself , so I printed it out to make a word poster out of it. Anyway, blog crush here. Thank you for your eloquent writing and being REAL.

    Oh, and we are "secret Ninjas" still fat on the outside, healthier, more active than can be imagined on the inside.

    And I love hearing about the Hollywood/La area-the farmer's markets, vintage Hollywood scene..etc ...etc....

    Ok, here's the thing about this topic. I was an obese kid through adulthood. It is all I know. I've lost 135 lbs and I weigh 220 to 210 ish right now which is my lowest in decades and I'm loving it and yet uncomfortable with it.

    But being obese, is so shaming and so deadly. As a kid, I was ashamed but I was a secret eater and binger because it was everything for me-love, anger, defiance,comfort, all of the above. I climbed the kitchen cabinets of our house to binge on cookies before I was 5. I needed therapy and support and unconditional love and lot's of activity and healthy food. I had the shame already. I think the jaime oliver Food revolution has it right.

  9. Thank you all so much for your comments. It's a topic that is fraught with difficulty, and I appreciate all of you speaking out about your experiences.

    Alexa, I hear you on the feeling weird about eating in front of people. But I've been trying to own all my food, including what is the moderate but "less-healthy" choices. Still a challenge, and I think it might be a lifetime kind of challenge.

    Cynthia, you are absolutely right about shame/guilt being used as a tool of control. And though we can't control everything, we are in control of our own actions. I love looking at it that way.

    ZlickiSm, I want to follow your example as someone who ditched his shame baggage. You are shameless, my dear! ;)

    Matthew, I really appreciate everything you've said on this topic, here and elsewhere. What you're doing with the Facebook group is beautiful and I am so proud of you.

    Leanne, I have hope that someday you will find peace in yourself. You have already made some progress in the time that I've known you, and that is something to be proud of. Don't stop trying.

    Kenz, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. (I bet Oprah's last show is online somewhere. It has to be, right?)

    Thirtiesgirl, your perspective as a teacher is so helpful; I think that those in a position to help children (politicians, specialists, etc) should be listening to teachers like yourself for a deeper understanding of the situation. And you are absolutely right. There is no moral imperative to good health - thank you for reminding me that. I, like you, agree that it's most helpful to aim and seek good health.. but I know that it is not a choice everyone makes for themselves (as is their right) nor is it a choice everyone CAN make. After all, we can't control health, really - we can only do our best to try to help it in the right direction. Some people, like my mother, had no choice in the matter.

    PJ Geek, I am totally blushing right now. Thank you for your feedback - I'm really pleased that what I said has been helpful to you. I'm glad to hear that you're on the move toward food/life/health/acceptance/balance - I'm on that move too. But don't think I'm there yet... I'm just doing my best to find where "there" is.