Unsticking Shame: Considering Lived Experience and Processes of Overcoming

Unsticking Shame: Considering Lived Experience and Processes of Overcoming

Peitho Volume 25 Issue 1, Fall 2022

Author(s): Hannah Taylor

Hannah Taylor is a second-year doctoral student at Clemson University in the Rhetoric, Communication and Information Design program. Her research focuses on corporeal feminism, digital rhetorics and reproductive justice.

Abstract: Taking the Braving Body Shame conference, which featured women discussing their experiences with shame, as a case study, this paper addresses what women do with their affective experiences. The paper examines videos from the Braving Body Shame conference to discuss how participants frame shame as a generative, recursive process of overcoming that stems from a recognition of their subjectivity. This paper offers one way of complicating our scholarly understanding of shame to avoid the flattening of affect and highlights the manifold ways individuals cope and seek empowerment within oppressive systems.

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Shame has become a hot-button topic in popular discourse over the past few years. 

Brené Brown, a researcher who moved into public consciousness through her moving TedTalk “The Power of Vulnerability” and book Daring Greatly, describes shame as “universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience” (“The Power of Vulnerability”). The popularity of Brown’s TedTalk and 2022 HBO Max series, Atlas of the Heart, demonstrates the resonance of this emotion in our contemporary moment. Brown claims that: “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders…if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment” (Daring, 68). Brown positions shame as the root cause behind much tension and turmoil in contemporary society. In contrast, other popular writers, like John Bradshaw, view shame as occasionally healthy, because shame is human and allows us space to make mistakes (127). Kristina “The Shame Lady” Cizmar sees people escaping shame by translating it, interrogating the ideal we are failing to live up to and looking to others who don’t feel shame to model individual behavior (17-19). For popular writers, the key to escaping shame is discussing it publicly, as “people who come out the other side by default feel braver, more connected and compassionate” (Brown, “The      Power of Vulnerability”). Each of these approaches has led to increased public discourse about shame—both its impacts and possibilities. 

This increasing public discourse has sparked new forums dedicated to discussions of shame. For example, the 2020 Braving Body Shame conference, which took place over eight days between February 24 and March 3, 2020, featured 36 men and women discussing their personal experiences with body shame and fatness.[1] Each day, hosts Alicia, Ani and Julie engaged the speakers in conversations about their experiences with shame through interviews lasting between 30 minutes and two hours.[2] Unlike other conferences on the topics of fatness and health, the event was free for participants, held entirely online, and featured a range of experts across fields, rather than academics and individuals whose knowledge is concentrated to a specific discipline.[3] From actresses and professional dancers to social workers and dietitians, the conference asked people from all walks of life to engage with and share their experiences of body shame. The conference had two primary purposes: community building and education. The inclusive, accessible, and diverse nature of the conference allowed speakers and audience members alike to hear others’ experiences of shame, which were all validated as real and important by the structure of the conference. According to the website and opening remarks, building community was a central goal of the conference (“Home”). The second purpose was to grant individuals a unified platform to discuss their experiences of body shame with the goal of educating people in the community about the legitimate harms caused by shame. Within the conference, the speakers were framed as experts due to their own experience, regardless of academic or professional background. 

While feminist academics would likely embrace the goals of this conference, especially its emphasis on lived experience and goal of empowering women, the organizers explicitly position Braving Body Shame as counter to academic conferences and discourse. The home page defines the exigence of the conference as follows: “After attending a couple of in-person academic conferences, one of our hosts saw that there was a BIG part of knowledge and understanding missing from each conference. She realized that there was a great NEED for a conference that was more accessible and less academic-focused” (“Home”). This rationale suggests a gap between academic scholarship and the people these scholars imagine their work speaking to. While the conference organizers address academia broadly, as a unit, the focus of the conference on women’s experience and shame makes their concerns particularly noteworthy for feminist scholars. Indeed, a potential gulf between feminist scholarship and the lived experiences of nonacademic women has been identified previously by feminist rhetorical scholars. For instance, Charlotte Hogg identifies a tendency in feminist scholarship to overlook “elements of women’s lives that may be less palatable to feminists,” specifically the ways that “participants are not working for systematic change in a patriarchal culture and may be  reinforcing that culture” (403). But by overlooking “less palatable” gendered rhetorics, scholars risk misidentifying or mischaracterizing the people we study or that we hope might recognize themselves in our research, shoehorning them into existing feminist frameworks. Though the conference does not make explicit mention of feminist academic scholarship whose work, I argue, closely aligns with the mission of the conference, this aperture offers a fruitful opportunity for feminist rhetorical scholars to further investigate the rhetorical nature of shame. Specifically, this study explores what women do with shame as enumerated through narrations of overcoming this  sticky emotion. 

The conference participants’ views on shame may be “less palatable” to feminist scholars because they position shame as something that can be productive and, what I am calling, inventional. Inventional shame is actionable, it is productive, and allows the person experiencing the affect to do something as a result of feeling. In contrast, many academic conceptions of shame focus on its formation and its inextricable nature. In many  ways, shame is conceived academically as a feeling that cannot be shaped by the people experiencing it. Scholarly conceptions of affect note the difficulty of naming an emotion and understanding its impacts. As Erin Rand describes in her analysis of shame in the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement, “the rhetorical process of labeling the inchoate intensities of affect, of marshaling them in the name and direction of a particular emotion and toward the goals of a particular movement or cause” can be a critical way to engage and change social structures (130). However, this movement and direction is almost always more complicated than simply defining an affect such as shame, “since the language of emotion pins down the fluidity of affect only temporarily and incompletely, at best” (Rand 132). Affect, then, runs the risk of being flattened because in pinning down an affect through a specific definition, the fluidity of its embodied experience can be lost. 

Shame is a particularly complicated emotion for scholars to conceptualize because it is, as Sara Ahmed characterizes, sticky (11). Part of what makes shame so sticky is its public nature— while feeling is commonly discussed as a private experience, emotional responses are shaped by public, social values. Focusing on its public aspect, communications scholar Sara Banet-Weiser asserts that shame is a tool of discipline and self-discipline that renders women unable to act (72). Shame is an innately social feeling and structure of power as it “functions to regulate and police the gendered body” (Banet-Weiser 71). Shame and shaming, then, comprise both the action taken against women as a means of disciplining their bodies and a tool of self-regulation that develops as a form of protection against the material impacts of shaming. Within this conception, shame becomes very difficult to disentangle oneself from. Philosopher Bonnie Mann understands shame as “a viscerally lived experience and as a historical phenomenon” (404). Mann posits two kinds of shame: ubiquitous shame and unbounded shame. Ubiquitous shame is, as Mann describes, “that shame-status that attaches to the very fact of existing as a girl or woman, or of having a female body” (403). This is the kind of shame that all women must navigate in a world that defines their very selfhood. Ubiquitous shame has a “promissory temporality,” one that asserts the possibility of resolution through rectifying the cause of shame (403). Similarly, Ahmed describes, shame is restorative “only when the shamed other can ‘show’ that its failure to measure up to a social ideal is temporary” (107). Unbounded shame, however, exists without a sense of resolution. It builds on itself and sticks. The two types of shame are related, in that the promise of resolution  within ubiquitous shame can lead to unbounded shame—an intense, dangerous, and inescapable feeling that puts the subject at risk. In other words, there is a promise of escaping shame through aligning oneself with the dominant power structure—in the case of body shame, losing weight. However, aligning oneself with a dominant structure does not allow for escape from shame, because dominant structures are often changing and work to continue oppress people. Positioning an action intended to relieve shame as aligning with the dominant power structure that is inescapable flattens the actions that  women take to cope with their own lived experiences. This view  of shame highlights its complicated nature.  

As shame is so deeply embedded in cultural beliefs and practices, there is a tendency in its academic exploration to overlook the ways it is addressed or confronted by the people who live it. However, the Braving Body Shame conference participants see shame as something that can be overcome, and even be generative[4]. Feminists might be tempted to discount these narratives of overcoming shame as unrealistic or wishful thinking but doing so limits the kind of work feminist scholarship can do. As Hogg notes, “broadening the scope of whom we study and how we engage them can better enact the kind of productive messiness and multiplicity we exhort” (401). I argue that scholars run the risk of flattening the productive qualities of shame through focusing exclusively on defining it and examining the multiple layers of its production. By focusing, instead, on what people do with this complicated feeling, I aim to honor the conference participants’ narratives of their own lived experiences. 

My goal in this article is not to make a judgment about whether the participants actually overcome shame, but instead to focus on the rhetorical power of narratives of overcoming for those who experience shame. Taking the Braving Body Shame conference as a case study, this article explores how feminist rhetorical scholarship can both critique oppressive structures and honor complicated affective experiences by focusing on what people do with shame. I attempt to chart this course in my reading of the Braving Body Shame conference by pausing over the urge to critique and focusing first on what participants’ understanding of their own experiences do for them as people living with complicated affects. Below, I examine rhetorics of shame in the Braving Body Shame conference through an analysis of nine video interviews. In line with feminist rhetorical scholarship, these participants frame shame as an ongoing process. However, shame is also crucially narrated as a feeling and phenomenon that can be overcome through private, relational, and inventional acts. By focusing on these acts, on what women do with their shame, scholars can more fully recognize the generative potentials of shame. This study explores what women do with shame as enumerated through narrations of overcoming the sticky emotion. 

To begin this work, I establish my case study approach through a discussion of research methodologies that center lived experience in feminist rhetorics. Next, I examine videos from the 2020 Braving Body Shame conference to discuss how the speakers position shame as a generative, recursive process. Specifically, I analyze the private, relational, and inventional acts that the conference participants feature in the discussions of overcoming. I conclude by noting how narrating shame functions as a generative, inventional practice for the women speaking at the conference and invite scholars to be attentive to the urge to critique individual acts. 

Throughout, I seek to avoid flattening the affective experiences of the conference participants by modeling a process for grounding feminist rhetorical study in the expressions of gendered individuals. For complex affective experiences like shame, this is sticky work. 

Case Study Methods and Women’s Lived Experience 

The Braving Body Shame conference provides feminist rhetoricians an opportunity to grapple with our understandings of shame, particularly what people who experience shame do with the feeling. However, this research also raises an ethical question about employing the voices of women who have expressly disagreed with academic research to produce academic research.[5] My decision to discuss the conference in an academic paper arose from several considerations. First, the videos were public and intended for the purpose of education and grounding narratives of shame in lived experience, which is a goal I advance in this writing. As stated on the conference website, the vision “for this conference is to give those who have braved the path already, those who have overcome many obstacles to find a place of peace, understanding, acceptance, neutrality and yes often love for their bodies to use their voice and share their stories with others” (“Braving Body Shame”). Second, I resist the urge throughout to critique the participants’ approaches to shame, but instead focus on what narratives of overcoming do for the participants. In this section, I unpack my methodological approach to analyzing Braving Body Shame as a useful case study for considering the rhetorical functions of shame. 

I analyze the Braving Body Shame participant videos and paratextual material act as case study data for considering what women do with their shame. Case study analysis is an “inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (Yin 13). According to Robert Yin, the case study method “arises out of the desire to understand complex social phenomena” because it “allows investigators to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events” (14). In other words, case study analysis is one way that scholars attempt to get at the lived experience of the people we study. 

Additionally, case study analysis allows scholars to meet the people in our research where they are. For example, case studies are key components of Jacqueline Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s notion of “strategic contemplation,” a feminist research method which “involves engaging in a dialogue, in an exchange, with the women who are our rhetorical subjects” (21). Also important to Royster and Kirsch is that scholars use strategic contemplation to try to understand the world from the point of view of the people we are studying (21). Case study research allows scholars to focus “closely on existing resources, fragmentary and otherwise, and existing scholarship to assess what we understand and to speculate about what seems to be missing” (Royster and Kirsch 72). As the Braving Body Shame conference illuminates the complex relationship between affect and societal structures, complicates existing scholarly conversations about shame, and provides multiple voices for analysis, approaching it as a case study is appropriate. 

To begin the work of this case study analysis, I follow methodological interventions from rhetoricians Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith that seek to ground feminist rhetorical research in the lived experience of women. One example of a methodology of lived experience is Hallenbeck’s “feminist-material methodology” (21). Hallenbeck employs a case study approach to move beyond the “sanctioned narratives” of feminist scholarship, offering a vocabulary of networks and emergence that, while recognizing individual agency, disrupts intention and uses a feminist material methodology which accounts more for the embodied, broad, experiences of women outside of the sanctioned stories scholars have told about women’s lives (21). 

Specifically, Hallenbeck asks scholars to take “nothing for granted as background or context” and instead situate analysis within a densely populated constellation of materials and objects (22- 23). Scholars can then perform “close, intertextual rhetorical analysis within those constellations in order to identify trends, discrepancies, or transformations” in the ways that phenomena are addressed (21). Much like the often-shortchanged background materials that Hallenbeck discusses, affective experiences like shame are part of the constellation of rhetorical processes that warrant further attention (18). 

Similarly, Michelle Smith builds on these methodologies by reframing Burke’s recalcitrance to move beyond binary gender frames that often squash the material experiences of women. For Smith, a “feminist methodology informed by recalcitrance starts with  a claim and constructs a discursive-material network of gender as lived” (523). Through a case study of utopian societies, she encourages scholars to not predetermine what is context and text, as the material situation may allow a new understanding of how a narrative has emerged. At the end of Smith’s material discursive methodology, “we are left not with the truth of the situation, but with a new narrative” (523). Both methodologies seek to enable alternative narratives for women beyond the scope of sanctioned approaches to feminist rhetorical scholarship. They join Hogg in cautioning against reinscribing accepted ways of analyzing women, challenging the scholarly conversation around women by including the material alongside the discursive—which makes analysis messier and often times more illuminating. 

Building off this scholarship, my own approach to case study analysis challenges scholars to dwell within the narratives that women create for themselves as individuals within larger social structures. It asks feminist scholars, in particular, to pause at our impulse to critique and focus on what experiences can show us about affect. To return to Hogg’s earlier point, centering the affective experience of individuals can help scholars question “what assumptions or ideological approaches are prevalent that might canonize a more monolithic kind of feminism than we identify in our discussions about the state of the field” (392). The feminist-materialist methods sketched above ask scholars to account for the broad range of agents that allow for the emergence of any rhetorical experience, including affect. As Hallenbeck resists the sanctioned narratives of women’s rhetorical contributions, I resist a flattened analysis of shame as a phenomenon beyond the agency of individual women and instead focus on what women do with shame. 

Before undertaking this analytical work, I want to point out that case study analysis requires close attention to the collection of data. According to Yves-Chantal Gagnon, “multiple sources should be used so that the researcher can analyze a variety of information, trace lines of convergence and strengthen construct validity” (58). Of the 36 videos in the Braving Body Shame conference, I chose to analyze nine that feature depictions of overcoming shame from female participants, as body shame is a historically gendered phenomenon. While men also experience body shame, it is a feminine phenomenon, historically, and its material effects are exacerbated when linked to a female identity[6]. I also chose not to focus on the participants who are medical professionals or experts––six dieticians, six therapists, three life coaches, and one fertility coach—who spoke about navigating the medical establishment and finding proper healthcare rather than personal experiences with body shame. Similarly, there were a handful of fitness professionals who discussed integrating body neutrality and acceptance into exercise practices. While fascinating, these presentations did not discuss the speakers’ personal relationships with shame: they spoke to   rather than from the lived experience of shame. Having made these choices, I was left with the stories of nine women to analyze for this case study—Ivy, Ashley, Sophie, Shannon, Amanda, Nia, Georgie, Katie, and Toni. 

Following Hallenbeck’s methodology of constellation, I transcribed the videos in order to analyze emergent themes present in the women’s experiences with shame. The videos and transcriptions were kept in a Google Folder to both increase the possibility of replicability and ensure a clear chain of evidence for the claims I make throughout the paper (Gagnon 57). I then made note of recurrent approaches to shame throughout the interviews, including participants recognizing themselves within larger social structures, attending therapy, seeking community, and participating in social media, to name a few. I then categorized these approaches into the larger themes that illuminated what women were doing with their shame: private actions, relational actions, and inventional actions. The themes I will discuss in the following analysis appeared in all nine interviews to various degrees, with some participants leaning more heavily on therapy and healing practices. This emphasis was highly dependent on the material effects of the participants’ shame. For example, participants who developed eating disorders needed different recovery strategies than those who had a falling out with their families. What is compelling, however, is the almost uniform way participants narrated their processes of overcoming shame. 

It is worth questioning this uniformity, as the participants in the conference were instructed to answer a clear set of questions that may have directed them to frame their experience in similar ways. Every participant was asked a variation of the same questions, and those questions undoubtedly influenced the themes of my analysis: What is your story of overcoming body shame? What communities or tools helped you overcome shame? What differences are you making in your communities now that you have overcome shame? These questions, intended to prompt the participants to discuss their own experiences, assume that overcoming shame is not only possible but a universal experience for the participants. Again, I am not concluding that the women overcame shame or that it is possible to, but rather embracing this opportunity to explore how narratives of overcoming shame function rhetorically for conference participants and their communities. The framing of shame in these questions is not a primarily social entity, nor situated entirely in the individual; it is this interweaving of individual and structural approaches to shame that provides the opening for my analysis. 

Narratives of Overcoming 

The participants in the Braving Body Shame conference narrativized their experiences of overcoming shame. Within their narratives, the women were often empowered individually when they saw themselves as moving past their shame. They were able to connect with groups in more profound and meaningful ways and find a sense of acceptance within themselves. However, as I will examine in greater detail, they are also acutely aware of the social aspects of shame that feature in academic examinations. In this way, this case study is a productive exemplar for analysis of affect because the participants exemplify the kind of shame that Mann describes— one tied up in the political, personal, and social structures of shame—while also offering a way to coexist with the feeling. I see the speakers as navigating shame by engaging thoughtfully in private, relational, and inventional acts to experience relief from shame in their everyday lives. 

Overcoming Shame Through Private Acts 

Shame is a private feeling that impacts one’s relationship with oneself, even situates the blame for shame on the individual. The emphasis on personal methods for achieving resolution is possibly because “shame in contemporary Western, late-capitalist life is a deeply personal and viscerally lived affect,” and therefore requires individual solutions (Mann 404). As a result, individual practices are necessary to unlearn and move past shame. Personal growth and practices were brought up when the organizers asked, “what struggles have you overcome?” Within this question, and the narratives at large, there is an assumption that, over time, it is possible to overcome shame through individual action. The resolution that the participants in the Braving Body Shame conference seek contests, rather than upholds, the structures of heteropatriarchal violence, resisting the unbounded shame they would otherwise experience. The women resist societally sanctioned body standards, and instead seek other methods of resolving shame through personal and private acts. 

Before acting in personal, private ways, the participants had to first become visible to themselves as socially situated subjects. Michel Foucault expressed that visibility is often a trap for vulnerable bodies (187). To make oneself seen, particularly within a marginalized body, is to open oneself up for surveillance. Additionally, particularly in a neoliberal context, visibility cannot be separated from economies: the visible body is the commodifiable body. As Banet-Weiser explains, visibility in neoliberalism “indicates a move toward seeing visibility as an end in itself, where what is visible becomes what is” (67). Visibility, then, is a sort of requirement for any type of change to occur—it acts as a spotlight, highlighting one space while putting the rest in shadow. Visibility has become a performance that doesn’t require further engagement, as “politics are contained within the visibility—visual representation becomes the beginning and the end of political action” (Banet-Weiser 23). The relationship between commodifiable bodies— read: normative bodies—and political visibility can be a damaging one; if there is not a way to profit off a subject’s presence in a neoliberal society, visibility incurring positive action is considerably more difficult. However, these scholarly conceptions of visibility are about others viewing the self, and not what happens when someone becomes visible to themselves. This self- visibility occurs in the Braving Body Shame conference and provides the participants with an opportunity to combat their feelings of shame through private actions. 

The women uniformly narrated a moment of visibility where they became visible to themselves outside of other’s assessment of their bodies. The feeling of overcoming shame was intimately tied to this experience. Here, they were not different because of a personal failing or inability to achieve an ideal, but marked as different by the social structure they existed in. Seven out of the nine women described this as a moment of undoing, in which the social structure, itself, was now clear to them. Katie, a fat activist and social worker, described this moment of clarity as relief because her ontological failing could be corrected and blame replaced to the social structure, stating “obviously I am going to have fatphobic thoughts, because we live in a fatphobic society” (00:30:12-00:30:18). Other women expressed less catharsis from this realization but recognized that “we blame ourselves for all this stuff that is not coming out of nowhere. I am receiving the message multiple times a day” (Sophie 00:11:22-0011:29). This moment which shifted the blame of shame from the individual to the social allowed the women to see themselves as socialized subjects in a world that placed material impacts on their bodily difference. 

It was important for the participants to engage with their identity because, according to academic scholars, shame impacts an individual’s conception of self. Feminist rhetorician Heather Brook Adams discusses in her analysis of rhetorics of unwed motherhood that shame is distinct in its effect on a woman’s view of herself. Shame results in an “ontological failure,” where the woman herself is positioned as beyond remedy or repair, as opposed to the action that brought on the shame (“Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood” 103). In this ontological failing, the woman becomes responsible for the effects of shame, which “resituates an individual’s failure of the self” as responsible for “threaten[ing] the social and economic viability and interpersonal wellness” of both their own life and their families (“Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood” 97). The focus on individual and personal shame was present in the conference proceedings. The first question asked by the organizers, “tell us your braving body shame story,” highlights the conference’s emphasis on personal narrative to overcome shame and particularly the role that visibility plays in these narratives. Each woman expressed in some way that crafting a narrative about their body shame is how they came to publicly speak about their bodies. 

However, this moment of visibility was not a uniquely positive thing. The women recognized that they exist in a system that provided them identity, even if that identity caused them harm. The process of untethering themselves from that identity was difficult. 

Ashley, who is working on her master’s in social work, noted this tie between their shame and identity, “I think a lot of us, our identities become our eating disorder or how we’re obsessed with food, how we’re obsessed with our bodies” (00:05:13-00:05:21). Shame and hatred of their bodies was not just a stumbling block but tied to how they related to the world around them. As Ivy discusses, it was “a lot of work to overcome it because it was a part of how I defined myself early on in life” (00:07:32-00:07:40).  

Additionally, the knowledge of their subjectivity doesn’t do much to alleviate the material impacts of their subjective position. As Shannon, a yoga teacher and sociology student expressed, “like most social constructions, it very much affects my life chances and the ways that people treat me and the way that medical establishments deal with me” (00:24:18-00:24:24) Other women mentioned    that stores still did not carry clothes that fit them, and they feared traveling on airplanes because they may not have seatbelt extenders that accommodate their size. For them, seeing the social structure that creates these material impacts did not provide empowerment. Instead of relying upon the structure to change, the women engaged in other means of seeking empowerment. 

Most of the women used the term compassion to describe their relationship to their body in the present moment—not a feeling of positivity or love, but of acceptance and care. “Body compassion allowed [them] to shed the layers of the body shame” (Ivy 00:06:18-00:06:20). Toni, a disability advocate and Instagram influencer, discussed that some of her first steps in the process of overcoming shame would be to visually and verbally reclaim her body. She said, “I would also  stand in the bathroom and look at myself before I took a shower and say ‘this is my body” (00:35:49-00:35:56). Seeing themselves, then, was an important move towards acceptance. 

Untethered from their identity that was rooted in shame, the women expressed the need to engage in personal growth practices, such as body compassion, therapy, and reflection to gain a sense of embodiment. The rootedness in the individual is important because, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes, shame creates “far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others” (59). To undo these ways of viewing the self, the women have to focus on unbuilding through practices of individual growth. Every woman discussed attending therapy, a support group, or another avenue for self-growth work to, as Katie put it, “come to a place of love for myself; from there the love or acceptance from my body grew” (00:07:16-00:7:23). These moments of growth were working toward the goal of embodiment, as years of shame and living in a body that was marked as different, as deviant and out of control, forced a disembodiment. Shannon describes this, “I didn’t realize how much I had disassociated from my own body…you are told so much that you are wrong that you even stop thinking about this [referencing her body] as you” (00:10:56-00:11:08). Repeatedly, the women positioned their embodying actions as seizing their body back and claiming some kind of agency over it again. From this generative space of personal growth, the women were then interested in reaching outward and creating relationships. 

Overcoming Shame Through Relational Acts 

Part of what makes shame so difficult to capture is the way it is shaped by public and social values. Shame is also located in the female body across historical and cultural contexts. It “structures relationships and shapes women’s identities across the three major aspects of subject formation… the individual, the familial, and the cultural or national” (Johnson and Moran 3). 

Similarly, Adams notes that “shame was communicated by specific persons…but also that it emanated from an indirect source: the socially held standard for women’s purity” (“Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood” 98). Shame’s sociality relates to its rhetoricity, because it is “an affect that is always contingent and ever intersubjective” (Adams, “The Feminist Work of Unsticking Shame” 585). The feeling is the result of an encounter rooted in disappointment, and it does not exist for its own sake, reliant upon the subject to become visible to others. Shame builds on itself and spreads, then, as it comes from both the individual and the social, which then places the blame of its impacts back on the woman to amplify the felt experience of shame. To untether themselves from shame, the participants had to address shame in their relationships and work to forge new connections. 

The participants additionally expressed moments narration that tied to the social nature of shame, and how the feeling requires affirmation from others. There were instances in each interview where the women said, “when I usually tell this,” (Amanda) or “as I have explained on my blog” (Nia). In fact, it was clear through the introductions of each participant that the reason they were selected for the Braving Body Shame conference was their willingness to tell their story and act relationally. All but one of the women I discuss here were introduced with some variation of “your powerful story has impacted me,” or “people have been touched by your stories.” Additionally, I noticed an initial moment where the women described being looked at by others. This moment, expressed by each participant as pivotal in their story of shame, showed the women that they were different in a way that incurred judgment from others. In a sense, the difference always present on their bodies became visible to them. For example, Amanda, an 18- year-old professional dancer from Los Angeles, described a time when she was 7 at a dance convention where other attendees stared at her. She describes feeling confused, stating, “I didn’t know why at first…and then I kind of put it together that it was because I didn’t look like everyone else” (00:14:11-00:14:19). Sophie, a psychology student who studies Health at Every Size, mentioned that “[she] was kind of always aware that there was something not quite right with [her] body, apparently,” but that repeated encounters with people in middle school illuminated her difference (00:06:57-00:07:05).[7] It is important to mention that this was not framed as a positive event in their lives. Their difference, rooted in the body, becoming visible spurred shame, in every case, and in more extreme circumstances mental health crises and eating disorders. 

After recognizing the moments when the women become visible to themselves as socially situated subjects, attention to narrative can show processes of coping and overcoming: what do the women do with this newfound understanding of their positionality? How do they employ this knowledge to cope and exist in the world that may still actively work against them? As previously discussed, scholars have conceived of shame as difficult, if not impossible to extract oneself from. However, these women view the shame trap as escapable through intentional moves and relational acts over time that are unrelated to their body presentation. 

Supportive friends and family were a key element to the women overcoming shame. When asked what support they had in the process of overcoming shame, every woman emphasized the importance of friends who understood their struggle. For example, Nia noted that it was “important to have the time and space with friends who you can have those honest conversations with” about body shame (00:24:22-00:24-31). Contemporary scholars agree that “shame arises when a break in social connection is made or threatened, whether real or imagined” (Stenberg 121). Therefore, work has to  be done in order to rebuild those social connections. Georgie, a teacher from Australia, expressed this: “I find it’s really important to surround yourself with people…you need some people in your life that have the same experiences as you” (00:39:37-00:39:52). The emphasis is on finding other women who had similar experiences of shame. For many of them, they would be the only fat woman in their town, or the only person willing to disagree with diet culture or dominant cultural messaging about their bodies. Connecting with other people who could help maintain strength to subvert hegemonic ideals was a priority. 

When asked what three things listeners should take away from the conference, almost all of the participants stated, “find community.” Ashley explained the importance of community, stating: “when you live in a marginalized body…having community is essential for getting through  the muck…being able to have a resources, and I consider other people a resource…and being able to reach out, find solidarity…find people who occupy the same intersectional identities that you do that is huge and has been huge for me” (00:28:03-00:28:32). It was important not only to have community for the sake of having people to talk to, but to grow and change in their relationship to shame. For the participants, the internet was an important place to build connections and relationships. Katie noted that “online was the first place” she was able to find support and that she was “really really isolated” before joining online communities (00:31:34-00:31:39). Online spaces provided participants with a place to engage with others and work out their experiences of body shame among likeminded people. 

The relational acts that the participants engaged in, in some cases, allowed them to get out of their shame. Shannon noted this her experience engaging with others: “The love you have for yourself should also.. you should see that for other people…sometimes you can’t have the energy because you are focused inward but sometimes the way to get out of that, the way to give yourself more energy to work on yourself is to work for and with other people” (00:35:11-00:36:03). The women see their engagement with others as undoing, at least some, of their shame, as it allows them to think carefully about their own relationship to their body and challenge body shame in others. Many of the participants noted that this also allowed them to engage with others more carefully. Sophie stated that engaging with others allowed her to be more thoughtful  in how she discusses body shame: “on a small interpersonal level, the way I interact with people related to food and body image is very deliberate” (00:42:38-00:42:43) The relational acts to overcome shame allowed the participants to not only unmoor some of their own shame but also discuss shame more clearly with others. 

As I outline in these sections, the complex network of private and public affective experiences make shame a difficult feeling to grasp. Within these complex academic discourses of shame, feeling shame is hard to escape. Because of its social nature and its role in policing the embodied experiences of people, shame lingers in a profound way. Therefore, to combat  feelings of shame, the participants engaged in various public discourses. These discourses, while individual, were often inventional in nature, as they encouraged others to grapple with their experience of body shame through creative practices. 

Narrating Shame as Inventional Practice 

The public-facing acts that the participants engaged in were inventional in nature—they allowed the women to create worlds where they were untethered from their shame and beckon others to do the same. This invention could happen because the participants engaged their shame in public and invitational ways. The participants of Braving Body Shame’s processes were inherently public through the videos, opening themselves up to others. This is how they were selected for this conference—they are outspoken in how they live in fat bodies in a world that is constantly telling them to change. When asked how they saw themselves making change in the world around them, the women most frequently cited their public work of telling their stories. 

This again emphasizes the importance of narrating women’s experiences. As Toni describes, “if we had more people living life and showing them living life…we would have less astonishment when we saw people living in public” (00:29:56-00:30:07). Four different women mentioned that they wanted to be the role model they wish they had. Amanda, a young woman, explicitly stated that she “wanted to be the account she wished she could have followed in middle school” (00:21:19-00:21:24). They saw others in a world where shame was less of an issue, and in doing so, worked to invent their own. 

Additionally, witnessing other women’s acknowledgment of their subjectivity in public spheres became important for overcoming, as it provided models for how to overcome shame. Other ashamed women’s expressions of shame became key for the participants to understand and move past their own feelings, as it allowed them to invent a world where they were untethered from shame. One, almost uniform, space where this invention took place was on social media. 

Instagram, specifically, provided a space for women to see like-bodied and minded people. This is worth pausing to discuss, as social media and its relationship to visibility is complicated. As Shari Stenberg describes, “while the prevalent role shame plays in cultural dynamics would seem to lend it visibility, in fact, the opposite is true” (123). This is because shame is an emotion that compounds, and publicly showing an experience of shame has the potential to compound its effect. Benet-Weiser discusses the role of humiliation in shame, particularly in public, online spaces. The public nature of social media, and the way it makes the body visible, can be an instrument for shaming. Though “social media sites… certainly have multiple functions…shaming, especially of women’s bodies, seems to be a practice that they all share if not encourage” (Banet-Weiser 67). With the presence of trolls and fatphobic sentiments, to raise a few concerns, engaging on social media has the potential to reinforce the material impacts of shame. 

Therefore, the choice of the women to display and discuss their bodies is counter to many scholarly conceptions of how social media operates within shame—it is an act of empowerment through reclamation, an act of invention. Toni describes her joining Instagram as a formative moment in her own acceptance: “I was seeing other people have those bodies and seeing them and loving them and thought, oh I can do that, too” (00:43:37-00:43:39). 

The power of Instagram was tied to its ability to show bodies and provide a space for visibility. It allowed them to invent realities where they could exist without shame. Seeing bodies like their own existing happily was empowering for the women interviewed at the conference. As Sophie describes, “we seek permission from people who came before us to be ourselves…I want to see myself to get permission.” Once they were able to see themselves as not alone in their experiences of shame, the women were able to move to create change in the world around them. 

To do this, they started blogs, created art, moved to careers to help other women realize their subjective, socialized position in the world. In this way, shame is an inventional practice. Shari Stenberg, building off of Elspeth Probyn’s work, argues that “writing shame is an invitational, critical, and generative act” (121). Much like the women Stenberg analyzed who shared their stories of sexual assault, the participants in the conference sharing their experience of body shame invites others to analyze their own relationship to shame. It additionally becomes a site of invention, a catalyst to create. This conference, itself, is a manifestation of the generative potential of shame. It demonstrates that if scholars are attuned to the ways women write their shame, we can analyze how women use shame to connect to their larger communities. As shame creates a break in social connection, these efforts are paramount to the processes of overcoming shame. Notably, all but one of the women, Katie, resisted the term “activist.” Nia, an Instagram personality with a large following, expressed, “I don’t set out to fix the world, but I do put my story and experience out there and I think that a lot of people take that as activism because it is advocating for marginalized people” (00:37:51-00:38:08). Though the work they are doing is oriented toward acceptance, it is still deeply rooted in and borne of the personal because of its ties to narrative. 

Despite the private, relational, inventional ways the women work to overcome shame and make visible their socialized subjectivity, the participants were hesitant to condemn or critique other women who were not fighting shame. As explained by Ashley, the women highlighted the importance of understanding that we all grow up in this. “We are all indoctrinated into this. And some of us have unlearned it and some of us haven’t yet and it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person that you haven’t unlearned and interrogated that yet, you just haven’t done it yet” (00:34:13-00:34:42). The  women don’t see other people at fault for their shame and subjectivity, but rather point to diet culture, the Western ideals of thinness, and other material in social pressures that force shame upon them. In short, as enunciated by Sophie, “I have compassion for the individuals, I just hate the system” (00:43:11-00:43:14). 

This move from difference and shame to embodiment and empowerment seems very neat as I present it here, but I would not be doing justice to the stories of the women if I didn’t point out that the overcoming was, as all of them described, messy. It was not something that went away for them the moment that their subjective position in the world became visible to them. 

The material world and infrastructures intervened, even when their intentions were to overcome. When the women discussed multiple marginalization, such as race and disability, the social pressures placed on them emerged in different ways. This particular forum for storytelling did not emphasize these roadblocks and realities as much as other spaces may, because it was guided and structured in a conference setting. More investigation into how the discursive and material realities of these women interact is needed to fully understand their relationship with their bodies, and with shame. 

Reflections on Narration, or What to Do with Complicated Feelings 

This is the moment in my analysis of this case study where I would typically turn to the ways that the women in the Braving Body Shame conference are, even if incidentally or accidentally, reinforcing harmful body discourses that ultimately undermine their goal of escaping the sticky ties of shame. I would point out their emphasis on individualism and how that emphasis does not question the larger structures at play in their conception of shame. In other words, I would make the critical turn. However, I want to resist this urge, as it does not accomplish what I want to do—to meet the women where they are and grapple with their experiences as they see and describe them. 

Within this case study, the women saw the narration of their affective experiences as part of their process of overcoming shame. These practices, particularly the creative and public expressions of shame, are inventional and generative practices that could potentially allow others to engage with their experiences of shame. What this research has illuminated is the generative potential of shame for the individual that scholars may miss if they focus too much on the structural formation of shame at the onset. Feminist tenets remind us that the personal is political, but perhaps we have lost sight of the truth that the political, likewise, is personal. Political structures impact people on a personal level just as personal experiences reinforce structures. 

These women have come to know themselves as socialized subjects through their personal experiences with shame. The participants of the Braving Body Shame conference saw focusing on the individual as the beginning of their move outward, but it was rarely the final move in the undoing shame. They start blogs, recruit other women to the cause, and see their interpersonal engagements as changing the structures they see themselves existing in. If scholars stop at critiquing the personal, we risk missing a wide breadth of generative, empowering practices. 

This is not to say that the women have fully overcome shame, particularly because shame exists as a cultural phenomenon separate from the bodies that experience it. “Shame discloses without resulting in a corresponding cognitive understanding of what is disclosed” (Bartky 85). Scrutiny toward the cleanly aligned narratives presented in the conference is fair, as shame rarely plays out as neatly as presented here. But these processes of overcoming resist the kind of unbound shame that results in harm and helplessness and maintain a sense of hope and agency. As Mann notes, “the futural, the promissory dimension is paramount” (413). We need a space for levity and hope within our scholarship, even in the face of difficult affective experiences. 

The Braving Body Shame conference shows that there is more work to be done in feminist rhetorical scholarship to more fully capture affective experiences, particularly those that exist within complex structures. None of this is to say that the structural critiques feminist rhetorical scholars engage in are not important, but I challenge scholars to continue to find ways of grounding their analysis in the experiences of women as characterized by women, so as to not flatten complex affective experiences. It is worth taking the time to ask: How are participants identifying with our analyses? How can we work to allow women to feel and express empowerment individually and collectively and do the essential work of critiquing the larger structures at play, especially when these goals are seemingly at odds? 

This case study offers one way of dwelling with this tension, though further research needs to be done on the material infrastructures at play in people’s relationships with their bodies. The participants repeatedly pointed to the compounding material effects of their multiply marginalized bodies. More scholarship needs to turn to the lived experience of people of color, disabled, and chronically ill people to understand how, as feminist scholars, we can reconnect the personal to the political. More broadly, we should ask who is served when we obey the academic impulse to critique. As Shannon eloquently framed it, “if you start undoing all of those ties and you haven’t set something else up, you’re gonna leave somebody lost and floating alone in a really scary world” (00:31:22-00:31:31).  

End Notes

[1]Scholars have shown how fatness and shame reinforce one another. For instance, Amy Farrell has looked at the material impacts of shame when experienced by fat women, and Esther Rothblum and Janna Fikkan offer a broad analysis of the impacts of weight bias and the work happening in fat studies. Jeannine Gailey also discusses explicit moves from fat shame to fat pride. 

[2]Within conference proceedings, the hosts only used their first names. The full names of the conference hosts are available online, but in this essay I follow the naming conventions of the conference. 

[3]There were paid options for additional resources, but the bulk of the material and all of the interviewers were available for no cost. 

[4]The concept of overcoming is a complicated one. Both disability scholars, like Ellen Samuels, and queer theorists note that overcoming is often associated with triumph narratives that render queer and disabled bodies incomplete. However, this was a theme of the conference—I both acknowledge the harm of overcoming discourses and seek to engage with the conference participants’ own language. 

[5]I attempted to contact the hosts of the conferences both via email and social media. Since the first conference, two of the hosts have also left. The information and interviews were public, as well. 

[6]For Heather Adams, shaming is “a lingering experience of femaleness” tied to the social relationship between femininity and modesty (585). This is not to say that men do not experience body shame, just that the links between the ideal female and shame as a policing mechanism are very strong. This being said, body shame is increasingly experienced by men in the 20th and 21st century, and shame within the gay male community is a growing area of study. For more on this subject, see Jonathan Alexander’s work on counter-discourses of shame and Erin Rand’s work on queer shame. 

[7]Health at Every Size, or HAES, is a size acceptance group that promotes health not focused on weight. It is a branch of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/content.asp?id=19 

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