The June 2015 cover of Women’s Health magazine featured a slender Gwyneth Paltrow and the words “BIKINI BODY In 2 Weeks! Tight Butt, Lean Legs, These Abs!” with an arrow pointing to Paltrow’s washboard middle.
Covers like these have drawn their share of criticism. The idiom “bikini body” suggests there is only one kind of person who can fit into a bikini. It’s an example of body shaming.
That term can be imprecise. What exactly is shame anyway? And can we cope with it?
Author and academic Jennifer Jacquet defines the concept in her book “Is Shame Necessary?”: “Shaming, which is separate from feeling ashamed, is a form of punishment, and like all punishment, it is used to enforce norms.”
Stray from society’s expectations and risk being shamed. Jacquet notes that shame differs from guilt because, in “contrast to shame, which aims to hold individuals to the group standard, guilt’s role is to hold individuals to their own standards.”
Sometimes shame can be healthy. Sometimes it can be harmful. Its value is a function of the norm being enforced.
If we demean a friend, it is reasonable for us to feel ashamed—we violated the norm of decency. As psychologist Brené Brown said in a TED talk, “We’re pretty sure that the only people who don’t experience shame are people who have no capacity for connection or empathy.”
Shame becomes harmful if it’s used to enforce an unhealthy norm, and there is no shortage of unhealthy norms. Type, “I feel ashamed of my” into Google, and the search engine will autocomplete with “body,” “job,” “past,” or “sexuality.”
Brown explained that unhealthy norms tend to be gendered—to conform to female norms, she said, women must be “nice, thin, modest, and use all available resources for appearance.” For men, it’s more simple: avoid acting weak. Men are expected to control their emotions, prioritize work, and pursue status. We are prone to feeling ashamed when we stray from these norms.
Shame can be most harmful when it becomes internalized; when it shifts from being about what we’ve done to being about who we are. Psychologists refer to “toxic shame.” as the feeling that we are wholly inadequate and fundamentally unworthy of love. [Editor’s note: when I feel like this, I turn to the Self-Esteem pack. It helps.]
Toxic shame can take a huge toll on our emotional health. “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders,” Brown says.
Read more: Low self-esteem doesn’t have to be forever
The antidote to feeling shame is a willingness to be vulnerable, Brown says. To be human is to be imperfect— to have scars and stretch marks, and to cry when sad or afraid.
Brown suggests we seek the empathy of friends and loved ones. “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment,” she explains. “If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
Importantly, people also can work to change harmful norms. In a 2015 online survey, Women’s Health asked readers what words or phrases they might avoid printing on the magazine’s cover. Options included “slim,” “lean,” and “bikini body.” Respondents overwhelmingly objected to “bikini body.”
In a sense, readers chose to enforce a new norm. In their determination, the magazine should encourage health, fitness, and a positive body image. Wrote one reader, “I hate how women’s magazines emphasize being skinny or wearing bikinis as the reason to be healthy.”
In an open letter responding to the survey, editor-in-chief Amy Keller Laird said the term “bikini body” would be banned from the magazine’s cover. “Dear ‘Bikini Body,’” she wrote. “You’re actually a misnomer, not to mention an unintentional insult: You imply that a body must be a certain size in order to wear a two-piece. Any body—every body—is a bikini body.”
Added Laird, “You’ve got a shaming, negative undertone that’s become more than annoying.”