My Body’s Shadows – Shadow Work and Body Image
Trigger warning: Fatphobia.
Shadow work entails systematically addressing the areas of your identity, behaviours and personality traits that have been relegated to the shadows of your awareness through the forces of shame. Shame is the most powerful and insidious affect, motivating the worst parts of ourselves to materialize and spread to everything we touch.
As I identify and interrogate the shamed aspects of myself, it becomes clear that my darkest shadow lies in my relationship to my body. Many, if not all of us have felt shame around our bodies, perhaps for what they look like, what size they are, what they cannot do or be. Anti-fatness, anti-blackness, transphobia, colonization and ableism wield our differences against us, training us to deny, bury and divest from the very parts of ourselves that make us who we are.
The damage that has been done to our bodies through weaponized shame in our families, communities, education system and the media is so deep that many never recover from body image issues, eating disorders and self-sabotaging behaviours.
I knew I had challenges with internalized fatphobia, which was evidenced by a history of disordered eating, but I didn’t realize how deeply it had impacted my relationship to myself overall. Of course I had compartmentalized it as an insignificant aspect of myself that didn't define me. As a matter of fact, it dictated my whole life and decided my worth.
Shadow work asks us to name the things that we have strong adverse reactions to in the world around us. Those things are projections of the parts of ourselves that we have denied, stuffed down and rejected. Through a series of inner child meditations, I began to unpack the various (too many!) memories I have of witnessing fatphobia, body shaming and diet culture. I remembered comments that were made to me about others, or to others about me, and watched as my inner child shrunk to avoid the possibility of disconnection by policing myself and others in the same way. Fatphobia seeps into the subconscious mind from all angles, and we often collude with this toxicity to safeguard our belonging. Once I could visualize my inner child absorbing these messages, I was able to imagine how a healthier scenario might look and feel. What would have gone differently? How would my adult self respond to these attacks on my psyche? And who would I be today if I had heard fat-positive ideas growing up?
Sometimes, the biggest barrier to self-acceptance is emotional awareness. Personally, I have spent my life lying to myself about how I really feel, and that has slowed a lot of this work. In my experience, mindfulness meditation is life-saving, because it trains the brain to observe the thoughts and emotions that come up, building awareness and the capacity to differentiate between emotion, thought and intuition. This practice has cultivated self-honesty like nothing else, because once I developed awareness, it was very difficult to hide from myself.
It might sound like unpleasant work to drudge up past hurts, but shadow work has helped me feel better than I've ever felt. It is impossible to feel fully connected to ourselves, and empowered in our authentic expression while remaining in denial of significant markers of our identities and experiences. These shadows can keep us small, hurt and stuck in cycles of self-abandonment. They can contribute to low self-worth, experiences of depression, anxiety and self-harm. Ironically, these were the very experiences I was attempting to avoid as I worked tirelessly to ignore and obliterate my proximity to fatness.
In a fatphobic culture, we are clamouring for recognition, acceptance, respect and integrity by a measure of how close we come to the Eurocentric beauty standard invented and imposed to marginalize and disempower us. We compete to degrade and disappear ourselves because we are told that our very sense of belonging is on the line. And the power of this narrative is very real, in that, belonging truly is at stake for those who exist on the margins of a hetero-patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist culture. To diverge from normativity often means losing support and connection, both of which are necessary for survival.
Unlearning fatphobia can be isolating and exhausting at times, and it may be a life long journey. Remember that fatness does not cancel out belonging. True belonging begins with seeing and accepting the parts of yourself that you have been taught to hate. It is a process from the inside out, not the other way around.
As is the case at many junctures on a recovery journey, I am learning to broaden the lens of what belonging means and how to connect with it. I’ve made a lot of gains on this path, but none as impactful as confronting my relationship with my big, beautiful body. I am allowed to be fat, it’s allowed because I allow it. And you are, too.