Body Shame

si-mammomat“I am now going to gather up the breast tissue from under your arm and push it onto the tray,” says Ana as she transforms my body into a scientific specimen. I am literally squeezed into place by the mammography machine, which feels smooth and cool as I lean in to embrace it. I look down in amazement at my right breast, now pancaked between two glass slides. At the same time, I am intellectually riveted, thinking about my relationship to technology and the Canadian health care system, especially my recent promotion to the age-related category considered “at risk” for breast cancer. “Don’t worry,” advises the petite Filipina woman as she raises the platform, forcing me to straighten my spine. “The machine is not too high, though sometimes people complain.” I smile and declare “Oh I’m sure you know what you are doing,” while glancing at the framed radiology degree on the wall. “Hold still,” Ana commands after shifting my shoulders and back into perfect position. I am a passive cyborg robot creature. “Okay you can move now,” Ana finally decides, as she regards the resulting digital picture. Then something surprising happens. “Oh my,” she gasps, “I have never seen anything like this before. Come and take a look.” Now, some people might be alarmed by such a pronouncement, but not me. I am optimistically certain that my breasts are fine. As usual, I am fearless until I have a fucking good reason to be afraid. I excitedly scurry over to Ana’s screen, eager to see medical imaging technology in action. “It is just beautiful,” she notes, describing my image as “a textbook case” while tracing the distinct outline of my clear breast with her finger, lingering on the prominent pectoral muscle. “Do you mean that the development of my underlying chest muscle is unusual?” I ask. “Surely you have had other muscular women in here before?” Apparently not. I beam with pride. This process is repeated for each of the next three x-rays, creating a sudden friendship between us. I contemplate inviting Ana over for Mexican pulled pork tortilla wraps. I bet she would like that. “Thanks Ana,” I say on my way out, filled with endorphin-joy from the physical effort of this rather intense process. “No, I should thank you,” she beams, “for giving me these beautiful images.”

It is only later that I wonder what she plans to do with the pictures that she has characterized as gifts. Are they really hers? Will she sell the admittedly gorgeous breast scans online? Should I proclaim some kind of legal right to the products of my own body before that happens? Or will my mammograms instead be used in a textbook, accompanied by the lively caption: “feast your eyes on these perfectly healthy tits.” Maybe Ana will put my mammary glands into her teaching file, showing them to hundreds—nay thousands—of admiring students. I know that the CAT scans of my deformed feet were used in this fashion by an orthopedic surgeon in Fredericton who clapped his hands with glee after seeing the rare form of bony fusion. Thanks for nothing jackass! But I digress, so back to my tits: if they are really so great, I should probably be making hay while the sun shines. Would anyone pay cash money to see them online? Would I get fired from my job for pimping out said jubblies by means of a web cam? Would Sony Pictures buy the rights to my thrilling life story after the ensuing lawsuit was settled? 

Contemporary artist Jo Spence refused passivity during her mammogram by producing her own pictures of the process (from her series The Picture of Health? 1982-86)

Contemporary artist Jo Spence refused passivity during her mammogram by producing her own pictures of the process (from her series The Picture of Health? 1982-86)

“Sorry to interrupt your ridiculous spin cycle, FFG,” I imagine my incomparably delightful readers thinking, “but what has all this got to do with body shame, the topic promised in the title of this post? It sounds like more of your usual body bragging and showing off.” Well hold on, my little gingersnaps, because I am getting there. Mind if I continue? Gee thanks. … While I was looking at the images with Ana, I did not bother to hike my flimsy hospital robe over my breasts. They were just out there in all of their glory. “You can cover yourself now,” said Ana, clearly disapproving of my shamelessness. I did not comply, but was reminded of a similar experience a week earlier when I was at the doctor’s office for my pap test. After the procedure was finished—as usual I discussed recent travel experiences with my engaging doctor while she rummaged about with my cervix—I simply hopped off the table and stepped into my thong. Am I really supposed to sit trembling beneath a paper apron until the doctor leaves the room? In my opinion it is silly to feign modesty before a person who has just removed her hand from my vagina. Anyway, while receiving instructions in proper bodily decorum from Ana I realized that I had (at least) twice in recent memory failed to perform body shame. It made me ask the following questions: How do people learn body shame? And how do some people avoid those lessons, or at least manage to unlearn them? 

I have not arrived at a singular answer, but have been thinking about the multiple repeated admonitions that toddlers receive—put that away; no one wants to look at that!—as well as traumatic incidences of high school gym class shortings, among other events. It all adds up, slowly but surely to produce naughty zones and ugly parts, flat asses and skinny calves. I am always puzzled when women at my gym decide to change in the bathroom stalls—and annoyed when I am lined up, waiting to go pee—or cringe behind locker doors while sliding out of their clammy lulus. To my knowledge, no one is looking at and judging them. I know this is a dream but I fantasize that the ladies’ locker room is a last bastion of freedom from norms and ideals, where cellulite is standard and backne is typical. In any case, we owe it to ourselves and our sisters of all genders to strip unashamedly and honestly, using our vulnerably imperfect flesh to resist the otherwise overwhelmingly oppressive beauty culture. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that you flash your 70s porno bush around the premises, thereby burning out the eyes of those younger close-shaved ladies [yes this one is for you GlamPro. Enjoy]. Nor do I recommend that you flop your expansively moist ass onto the small black wooden stools so thoughtfully provided by the management. Instead, I long for a world in which you would bare that ass in a rather more hygienic fashion but with a sense of pride. I look forward to the day when I can lead the cheer for C-section Fridays. Are you with me? [Aside: Clearly I am being willfully naive here, ignoring all of the good reasons people might change privately or be embarrassed by their bare ass. I have uploaded the book called Fat Shame and will soon be reporting on it but also look forward to all of your own thoughts on this issue]. 

Jo Spence and Tim Sheard, Exiled (left), from the series Naarratives of Dis-ease (1989).

Jo Spence and Tim Sheard, Exiled (left) and Booby Prize (right), from the series Narratives of Dis-ease (1989).

As I was hosting a dinner party the other evening—by the way it was a gastronomic triumph—our conversation naturally turned to the locker room. One of my lovely guests was discussing how much he hated swimming at the public pool because the change room inevitably revealed what he called “a row of cock.” “Ugh that is so disgusting,” the strapping young man declared. I could not help but pipe up: “I see lots of lady parts in the locker room and it doesn’t bother me.” “That is different,” he affirmed, “because unlike the female body the male body is hideous, without exception.” Every female and male diner agreed with this statement, except for me. I was the only one who stuck up for cock, not to mention the always adorable man belly. I also happen to like a nice hairy back. That’s right. You heard me correctly. I said it. This discussion quickly spiraled me into a state of moral outrage. Raising my fist in anger, I climbed onto the soap box that I keep in the living room: “Let us affirm the love of all flesh without discrimination,” I cried, passing around a petition to that effect. Sadly, no one would agree to sign it. So I stepped back down and served up some black bean chocolate cake.

As I was noisily getting ready to head off to teach my spin class this morning, my still-in-bed man partner awoke from his slumber, smacking his lips and scratching his belly. “Do you ever experience body shame?” I inquired. “What?” he replied in a raspy morning voice while blinking in confusion. “No. Never. What does that even mean?” I suspect that shame regulations are applied less forcefully to bodies that are visibly male, but remain open to correction. My attention to gendered differences has been supported, however, by various HBO comedy specials, including one in which Louis C. K. gleefully announces that his chubby groin and upper thigh area resembles “a pig’s ass” and another in which Jim Gaffigan proudly brags about eating at McDonalds and getting justifiably fat. [Aside: I just noticed that he has written a new book called Dad is Fat, though he certainly doesn’t look very fat on its cover]. But maybe these confident and ultimately body proud men are unusual? I doubt that my LSP is the best example of contemporary masculinity, for he is unwaveringly self-assured in every situation, whether trudging away on the elliptical machine I now force him to use at least twice a week, competitively trying to beat my 10-year-old Little Sister at Dance Dance Revolution, or enacting Stuart McLean’s voice to recite Missy Elliott song lyrics. “I would like you…to get up….into my spaghetti.” If you are a Canadian lover of CBC radio, you know that this imitation mash-up is fucking hilarious. But even if you have no idea who Stuart McLean is, you should know that my LSP has got a lot of spaghetti. And he is just fine with that. So how do you feel about showing off your own pasta bowl?

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 49-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

22 thoughts on “Body Shame

  1. I’m always sort of astounded at this strange dichotomy between social “graces” when it comes to nudity and the scientific necessitation of clinical disinterest when I have reason to be naked for a medical checkup. I take that sheet off so they can feel me up and man, once they’ve done that, why on earth am I going to put it back on? The mystery is gone, and I have NO problem conversing with someone when I am naked and they are not. They just had their hands on me in an entirely respectful, useful manner, and I trust that they’re informed and mature enough to handle all aspects of the situation. I am under the impression that America is much more inclined to “psych out” over this topic than most other nations/cultures.

    Also, my friend says I have “cleavage all the way up to my neck” because of my pec development. I have no regrets.

    • Thanks babyeaterlifts. I think we have a similar point of view about our bodies. I admittedly love my breasts and cleavage, which have most definitely been enhanced by building muscle. That is part of the reason that I am surprised when some women choose to have plastic sacks surgically sewn into their flesh as a first resort, instead of lifting weights to gain the physical improvement they seek. Building muscle will have additonal health benefits and fewer side effects too.

  2. This post really got me thinking. I equate nudity with a sense of vulnerability. Voluntarily going naked in front of others is akin to sharing personal data with complete strangers. Once it’s “out there”, it’s liable to be used against me, whether through social judgement or approval or other reasons. Public space occupied by strangers of the same sex or otherwise does not feel safe.

    I am mystified by the idea that women do not judge other women in gym locker rooms or change rooms. I have always assumed that they DO judge, and I am one of those women you are annoyed by because I always use a bathroom/shower stall to change out of my gym clothes after training. As far as I’m concerned, a locker room is public space, and I don’t care to be judged by complete strangers for something that I consider private (my naked body).

    I don’t feel it’s about shame so much as it is about objectification. I’m not obese nor do I consider myself a “prude”. I simply believe that there is a time and a place for everything, and I resent the feeling of my naked body being evaluated under non-medical circumstances. It seems inevitable that because most people have seen so much nudity in mainstream pornography and media, most of us have become hyper aware of how our own bodies compare to the “perfect” standards that we can’t possibly live up to. I assume that my body is being judged all the time, but I’d rather have some clothing on because being naked just makes me feel that much more vulnerable.

    I recently visited a women’s only spa (http://bodyblitzspa.com/), where the majority of women socialize and bathe in the nude. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had. Even though I was wearing a bathing suit, I felt I couldn’t comfortably speak to other women who were naked without my being distracted by the fact they weren’t wearing any clothes. I was baffled by the idea that women there “could be comfortable naked in the absence of men”. How? Why? Are women not even more harshly judgemental of other women’s bodies than men are? Allowing my naked body to be evaluated/judged by other women seems about as relaxing as a pap smear.

    But – at least with a medical examination, I receive proof of health/results so I ultimately feel somewhat empowered with the information I receive from test results; the temporary nudity is simply a “price” I have to pay.

    • Thanks for your thougtful comment JMS. Now I cannot speak for all women, but I can assure you that I would never be judging you in the locker room or at the spa. I see naked or undressing women as people first, not objects, and I am not examining anyone’s cellulite, just as I presume that they could not give a rat’s ass about my ass. I sometimes think that women look at me and feel judged; that they presume that I am judging them because I am indeed quite fit, and have a pretty good body for a 45-year-old woman (if I do say so myself). Though my fitness is admittedly motivated by health concerns as well as vanity, it does not make me scrutinize other women harshly. I am pretty judgemental about other things though, which I am working on, including my bafflement when people seem to lack a passion for life, or accept bad relationships as the best that they can achieve, or shun intellectual engagement with the wider world. But I would never spend my time caring about the size or shape of their breasts…

  3. Great post. Having myself always changed rather unashamedly in the locker room, I was shocked one day (summer 2012, thereabouts) to hear two young-ish women tittering away about a woman who got naked in front of everyone and walked over to the shower. Having done that myself not 10 minutes ago, I could only assume that I was the one who caused their outrage. The comments were such as: “who does she think she is”; “no one needs to see that”; “can’t she respect other people’s privacy.” I hadn’t seen these women in the gym before, and, in trying to understand their gossip, could only assume they had never before seen a woman without clothes. This led me to reflect on the dominant conservatism in this province, and how even though I’m a pinko atheist, there are women out there, in my own city, carrying huge amounts of guilt about the female body, their own included. So, for a while I tried being more modest in the locker room, respecting the conservatism of my hometown. But now I’m like “f” it. The prudes will have to deal. Maybe they’ll learn to respect other women — and themselves — more in the process.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit lately, with the annual temporary swelling of the ranks in the gym and the yoga studio after New Year’s. There is a noticeable increase in the number of people who feel the need to change in the bathroom stall, or in the restroom in the case of the yoga studio where I practice. At the studio, practice space is maximized at the expense of changing and storage space, and yogis are expected to change in six curtained-off (not sex-segregated) spaces. There are two restrooms with signs on the doors requesting that people change in the curtained areas, but there are always people who can’t bring themselves to do that and they change in the restrooms anyway. This can be a problem at a studio with a capacity of 80.

    I have a hard time getting my mind around this. I was raised to be fairly prudish, but – and I can’t remember how – I somehow managed to get over it so that I could deal with the high school locker room, and with the dorm roommate situation in college. During my last semester of dorm life, my roommate was a friend, and it was at that time that I developed the habit of sleeping in the nude. At about the same time, I was shown the pleasures of soaking naked in a hot tub, and for a while there I had very few friends who hadn’t seen me in the nude. I’m no exhibitionist, and it’s not that I think I have an amazing-looking body (it’s not bad for a 46-year-old woman, but not as fabulous as yours, I’m sure) but it’s convenient to be able to eschew that shame, or shyness, or however one wants to qualify it. If there’s judging happening in the locker room, I don’t really care because I don’t want to waste time slinking back and forth between the locker and the toilet stall.

    Some time back I was doing a search on locker-room etiquette (women bringing their young sons into the locker room, there’s a tricky thing) and I was surprised at the number of women who expressed squeamishness about open locker rooms. I would have thought that people who go to a gym regularly would have resigned themselves to the communal changing room. What would they have the gym sacrifice to make room for private changing cubicles?

    I think men can be similarly ashamed or shy, but they’re not “supposed to be”, so we don’t hear about it as much. Recently, while waiting to use the restroom before a yoga class, I was in line behind a man who was obviously planning to go in there to change. When I suggested that he’d save us both some time if he changed in the nearby empty cubicle, he said he just couldn’t, he wasn’t comfortable doing that. (He let me use the restroom ahead of him, at least.) Get a man talking about public men’s rooms, and the complicated etiquette of using the urinals. It’s illuminating.

    • Thanks Terra. I was raised by a Catholic mother and yet was encouraged not to be prudish, to run around naked and enjoy bodily displays and noises of all kinds. All of my high school friends have seen me naked as we used to skinny dip and play board games and do god knows what else while nude (it was weirdly asexual and more about acceptance than anything even coming close to orgy-type behaviour). Anyone who buys my upcoming FFG book will also see me naked, though not looking my best! I think that nudity and sexuality have been conflated in a way that is not necessary. I would love to hear from men on this topic, but do recall one fascinating presentation by a male student in my course called “Vision and Visuality” in which he (bravely) observed, mapped and then explained the regulations about bodily display, looking, and eye contact in three different zones within a men’s bathroom.

  5. I suppose I have had a similar experience whilst getting a check up at the local STD clinic after getting sexually involved with a new partner (all was well, we just agreed to be safe in each other’s interests ….and I just realized I felt shame about saying I was at the STD clinic.. SCREW IT, I’M SMART ENOUGH TO ENSURE MY BODY IS HEALTHY. (easy to fall into it as it turns out).

    Anyway, while there, I ended up being one of the only female patients to have a male doctor examine me, as the clinic was short and pulled a male doctor from examining other males. Though young, I have had my fair share of vaginal examinations, especially by men (in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a female examine me). Its nothing new. giddy up, I suppose, I’m not concerned. While I was virtually splayed out for the world to see and investigate, I was pretty non-nonchalant and unconcerned, but I am sure the doctor was acting out a form of body shame, in that he was very ashamed of having to examine my body, and was incredibly nervous. He fumbled around by vagina for 15 or so minutes ending the whole thing off blushing and rushing out. I mean, is my vagina so offensive? Chill man, its a body part.

    I guess the article reminded me that body shame is not just gender specific, it crosses over the boundaries of genders, and plays out in how other genders act and react in proximity to other bodies. The doctor was full of shame (I’m not sure if it was for me having to be examined by a man, or for him having to examine a woman), and while I was unconcerned, I really felt the extent to which even health care ‘professionals’ reinforce body shame, which I had never really considered before. In the spirit of breaking boundaries, next PAP, I plan on shamelessly hopping off the table and proudly brandishing my ass for the entire room to see! Thanks for the great article FFG!

    • Thanks Morganna. I am really surprised to hear that a male doctor was shy as that has never been my experience. I am lucky enough to have a great GP who happens to be female. A friend of mine works at one of the STD clinics in town (and I was good friends with one of the university doctors in Fredericton) so I can report that these are the most amazing professional women in the world, who hold no judgements whatsoever about sexuality! STD screening is a responsible act of self-care.

  6. Or you could spell it Toni, though I prefer the former. I have vague memories of taking baths with my father when I was 3 or 4. I started taking swimming lessons when I was 5 or thereabouts. I began speedswimming when I was 7. Nudity in the showers and change rooms was a given. I don’t recall ever having been body conscious around other women, my doctors (of either sex) or my lovers. As for judging other women in the showers, for me it is more a situation of saying, yes, that woman is fat, but look at that lovely curve to her belly from chest to groin (although not an artist as such, I have had some training and am inclined to assess physicality in terms of “would I like to do a life drawing of them” and interesting always tops out over beautiful/handsome). To make a long story short, my background as a child lay the framework for my acceptance of nudity, my own as well as others. Oh, I am 63, swim irregularly (though up to 1.5 k non-stop, boasting much?) and lost 30 pounds last year. And wasn’t concerned about how others viewed me before I lost the weight.

  7. I used to work at a local gym in Edmonton and also worked out there regularly. I noticed when I was working that there were more complaints from men that there wasn’t enough stalls to change in and that there was no privacy in the shower area like there was in the womens area. So then many men would change or shower in the “family” area. This would lead to complaints from the families using the family area. Because automatically it was assumed a man changing in the family change room was being a perv and trying to spy on peoples kids.
    There were also complaints if there was a dad and a daughter in the mens change room as well.
    There was a huge difference between the two different womens’ change rooms, there was the regular membership one and then the next level up, being more expensive. The women in the more expensive area walked around naked a lot more and would sit in the hot tub naked as well. There was one women who routinely after every shower would use the lotion provided and lotion from her toes to her eyeballs and would do so with one leg on the bench exposing her genital piercing to anyone who looked over, she was a bit of a hero to me, haha. There were no children allowed in this change room either.
    In the regular membership ladies changeroom there was a lot more eyes on the floor or ceiling and I had more than a few confrontations with ladies who thought I was staring at them changing. I refused to face the lockers when changing like many of the other ladies cause that meant I’d have to stand instead of sit and I like to take my time changing. There was often children in this changeroom with their moms and sometimes other women would tell them to go to the family changeroom.
    Lots of men rented a towel for 1$ for the regular mens change room because if another guy looked at their genitals while they were naked it would make them “gay.”
    Working at a gym is never boring, hoowee!

  8. I found the above comment about the women-only spa interesting because I had very much the opposite experience the one time I had the opportunity to visit one. I was travelling in Korea, and the group I was travelling with decided to visit a spa. While swimwear was expected through the mixed-gender areas of the facility, there were two segregated areas for men and women where one was expected to be naked. I decided to try it, the only woman from my group who did, and happily stripped down and tried out all the conveniences (multiple temperature hot tubs! saunas! steam rooms! massages!). All around me, women chatted and washed each other’s backs, stretched out on benches in the sauna, and walked unconcerned through the space. I saw old women, women with cesarean scars, young girls, thin women, women with bellies–all simply enjoying their time in the spa. It was not that women did not look at each other; I became conscious of other women looking at my naked body, curious about what my obviously foreign body looked like naked, but not in a way that felt like judgment but rather like the way one might look at someone else wearing an interesting dress.

    I left feeling lighter and with a profound sense of love and respect for my body and the experience. I think it would be good for women to see real women’s bodies naked more often; we now learn to see female bodies through pornography and glossy magazines, and it would be good for us to see the truth more often (and not only through seeking out body positivity sites on the internet).

    But then, I grew up swimming and taking dance classes, and then I got into theatre in my teens. During a backstage quick change with only 3 minutes to get into another costume and get back onstage, modesty is tossed out the window and everyone is just a half-dressed performer looking for a missing pair of pants.

    • If you’re ever in San Francisco, there’s a place like that in Japantown called Kabuki Springs and Spa. There are three women-only days each week in the communal bathing facility when one is free to go naked, and most women do. I used to love to go there when I was living in that area.

      I agree that it’s good for us to see real women, live and in person. I know that for me, observing women mainly in the yoga studio and the locker room, while avoiding the glossy magazines, has helped a lot.

  9. Wow body shame, what a bummer. I concur that it is a cross gender issue but likely less so on the male side. Thirty years ago I spoke with a gym owner about the locker room design at his gym. It was shower stalls rather than the YMCA “group” shower design ( hold your snickers here please). He said the dudes weren’t comfy showering en masse as it were. My position is more along the lines of “who the fuck really wants to study my bod anyways, aren’t we all narcissists here?”

  10. Can I call you fabulous feminist figure girl?

    I got over whatever nudity taboos I was instilled with around the age of 18, in the dance department of UC Santa Cruz where everyone changed in the same room. Plus there were nude beaches and nude performance art and bike rides through the woods naked (which I didn’t do). I’ve also performed (modern/ballet dancer) with only a very sheer body stocking.

    Now, I do not look the way I did then, being fatter and older and saggier, but I still don’t care who sees my naked tush. But over the years, I have learned to be sensitive to others’ nudity taboos by pretending to be modest. Weird, I know. I often check in the locker room at the gym to see if my body parts are making those around me uncomfortable. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, but at some point I realized that it was easier to just pretend to be modest just to fit in a little.

    My butch identified ex-girlfriend was always much more shy about naked bits, and my current cis-gendered male bodied sweetie is also very shy.

    • Thanks Gwyn. Please feel free to call my anything you like, though I am especially fond of flattery. Hmmm naked bike rides sound a little painful to me. I wonder what a naked spin class would look like? The other day I noticed that my yoga studio—I have now gone twice so I should not overstate this—offers men’s naked yoga on Wednesday nights, not none for women.

  11. If we don’t have exposure to other women’s bodies through communal locker rooms or saunas, then the only we time we see nudity is in sexualized images of genetic and/or airbrushed perfection. That can’t be psychologically healthy.

    Every time I change at the gym, I enjoy experiencing the range of shapes and sizes. I don’t want to know a person would judge other women’s bodies in such a space.

  12. I loved how the women in the hot and sweaty locker-room in Paris would parade fully nude – bushy-bush- with NO feelings of insecurity. They couldn’t be bothered with who may be around them, in fact they conducted full on conversations with each other naked! I loved it. All women are beautiful!

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