You look in the mirror, you feel self-disgust followed immediately by body shame. You hop on the scale - more shame floods through your veins. You head out the door to a doctor's appointment and you're already dreading how you're going to feel when he/she asks you to weigh, or undress. The list of things there are to feel body self-disgust about are never-ending in a Western culture. But are body shame and shaming helpful when it comes to achieving health and wellness? I know we believe that if people are ashamed enough they'll take action, but are there other aspects we may have overlooked?
Dr. Mario Martinez says that in some countries in Latin America when a woman is going through her menopause and having hot flashes it's referred to as 'bochorno": a Spanish word meaning “shame.” In other words the hot flashes are interpreted as a type of body shame and have a shaming component to them. Shame and shaming are stressful and change how our bodies function.
Dr. Martinez, reminds us that neither honor or shame are the same in every culture. He also points out that as human beings we turn those cultural meanings into our biology. In other words, our internalized beliefs, as a result of our cultural story, is a mediating factor between health and wellness. That brings me back to the body shame we experience in our Western culture of 'be thin and toned',and oftentimes we'll experience this even when we are thin.
He shares research indicating that shame and shaming can cause inflammation of the immune system which then releases interleukins (molecules that cause inflammation), in exactly the same way as if you have a wound or infection. What’s the problem with that? According to this 2013 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to chronic stress (body shame and shame around eating, lack of willpower etc...definitely cause millions to be chronically distressed, not just daily but over weeks, months, years and even decades) —changes the way genes are activated in immune cells.
Simply put, excessive amounts of chronic stress over time get our cells fired up to fight off an infection that doesn't really exist, which leads to the increased expression of genes that lead to inflammation. And inflammation raises the risk for all sort of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and more. For example researchers often refer to type2 diabetes as 'internal inflammation.' So it's obvious then that shame and shaming are health and longevity eroders.
Researchers found this negative cycle to be true in both the cells of mice and the cells of humans.
Studies find that women in Peru have higher levels of inflammation during menopause (a process that has been cultured) specifically during the experiencing of hot flashes. Now,(and here's the important bit), let's contrast that with women in counties where the cultural messages around menopause are honoring instead of shaming. In Japan menopause is believed to be 'a second spring,' a marker of a period that signifies moving into your wisdom and thus gaining status in your community. These women do not have the inflammation Peruvian (and other Latin American women) have. It's a wonderful look at how our culture shapes our psychoneuroimmunology. You see the problem is that our culture literally gets under our skin, and changes how our body functions at a cellular level. And that changes our health and longevity.
This should give us pause....before we shame others AND ourselves, before we feed our self-disgust, how is that changing our biology to create the health problems that are so often all blamed on our body size.
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