Back Body Image
By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.
1 New Notification: [Someone] added a photo of you.
Oh wow. It’s not good. It’s so not good.
Whatever the reason — bad angle, unflattering position, weird filter, googley eye, whatever. You HATE it. We’ve all experienced this one way or another. If not after being tagged in a pic on Facebook, Instagram, or a blog, then in a school picture, family portrait, or whole album of vacation pics. It’s a yucky feeling.
After you’ve exhausted all your untag/hide-from-timeline options, what comes next? For too many of us, the embarrassment of being captured in a less-than-ideal photo isn’t easily brushed off. In a world where girls learn from childhood to monitor their appearance at all times, and where public identities are carefully crafted online at every waking moment, a picture speaks more words than ever. For some, the sight of a photo she deems unattractive is enough to spark thoughts and reactions directly related to one of our favorite (like the bad kind of favorite) subjects: body shame.
You’d think someone who has spent the last decade researching that subject would be immune to the effects of it, right? I should be unflinching and invincible in the face of bad photos of myself, right? Ugh, I wish. Let’s use my own personal example of being captured in a cringe-worthy pic to illustrate what body shame can do to a gal, and how to fight that shame with some healthier options, shall we? I’m not one to hide in a photo. I actively resist the temptation to self-objectify or hold myself back from activities (or photos) because of concern over what I look like while engaging in those activities (or being pictured in those photos). I posed for a group photo and thought nothing of it until Instagram and FB notified me of a newly uploaded photo that had an unanticipated effect: it made me feel sick. Because I hated the way I looked so much. It struck a yucky chord in my brain that told me I was disgusting and everyone on the planet was going to see the documented evidence of how disgusting I was. Sounds asinine, you say? Yeah, definitely.
This is your brain: “That’s not a great photo. Oh well.”
THIS is your brain on body shame: “This photo has captured what I really look like — not what I think I look like. Why didn’t anyone tell me I look so awful? I’m never wearing those clothes again. What made me think I should be in the front of the photo? I’m always going to be in the back now. I can’t wear my hair like that anymore. Is the gym still open so I can go run and burn off the crappy food I ate at the party?” Asinine doesn’t begin to describe it, but the “brain on body shame” doesn’t see the asinine-ness of those thoughts — it takes those thoughts and runs with them. Almost literally. On a treadmill. And not for healthy reasons. But the gym was closed, and thankfully, my education and experience as a body image researcher started to kick in pretty quickly to tell me that what I was experiencing was all too familiar and entirely conquerable.
Shame makes us want to HIDE or FIX the thing that doesn’t meet our standards. That showed up immediately for me in depressing thoughts of planning to hide in pictures, throw out clothes, and burn as many calories as I could quickly. And speak of the devil, beginning with puberty, females are TWICE as likely to experience depression as males. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads us to evaluate and control our bodies more in terms of our sexual desirability (a.k.a. self-objectification) than our desires, health, or competence. Self-objectification has been linked to way too many negative consequences: disordered eating, plans for cosmetic surgery, diminished mental and athletic performance, anxiety and depression, etc., and these occur among women of all backgrounds.