Part II: Body-Shamed to Body-Image Love for the Filipino|x
This Part II of Body Shaming post, If you haven’t read Part I: Filipino Body Shaming Culture, I encourage you to start there.
So, you entered mom’s sala excited to catch up with the latest tsismis. But, before that you get caught up you with anything, you get the usual greeting from her-
O, napapadami ata kain mo (looks like you’ve been eating a lot more)
And mom with a smirk on her face (obviously joking), then moves her cheek to receive yours.
Mom went on to the latest tsismis and you are stuck with that old feeling of-
Research has pointed out that internalized shame and low self-esteem may be correlated (Woodward, McIlwain, Mond, 2019) and that transmission of how we’ve been shamed can be passed on the next generation if we are unable to metabolize it’s message in our very core.
In short, the shamed becomes the shamer.
Our bodies and our brains have memory muscles and although we may not consider such body-shaming statements as “traumatic,” they can leave imprints. Imprints are shadows of the past that block our lens from actually seeing the view.
How much of this shadow of shame covers your landscape? Do you find yourself-
- Easily swayed to move a different direction for the fear of being rejected by those you love?
- Unable to express your needs and wants in a relationship and normally leaning to what others want in fear of being abandoned?
- You feel stuck and helpless in certain situations even though you know (cognitively) that as an adult you can simply change paths.
- You shame yourself & critical of your own decision-making, or
- You are critical of others as a pattern.
This is not an exhaustive list but simply a description of how shame can show up in our lives.
In Filipino-American Psychology the word shame seems to only have a negative connotation. Shame can be a protective factor in contexts where our survival relies on it.
The problem exists when we continue to use protective factors when the threat no longer (or little) exists.
THE LOOK OF SHAME
One day I was baking with my kids and decided to video tape it with my IPAD so I prop up the device so my kids can see themselves in the video.
It was quite entertaining for them & seeing their faces and they pretended that other kids were watching them ala their own kids cooking show.
I left all the other ingredients on the table & turned my back to grab more flour. My older daughter who was 3 ½ at that time had the brilliant idea to pour all the chocolate chips in the batter!
Returning to the table, I shrieked, not loud but rather a high-pitched tone and quickly scolded her Filipino mom style-
Ay Naku, anak! Why did you do that?
And if that were not enough, a tsk..tsk..tsk...that seems to went on for days.
Remember these were all caught in video and I’m able to re-tell the story from the replay I’ve watched over & over again.
In those replays, I watched how I shamed her and the clip by clip look of shame, like a dog reprimanded for pooping like a dog.
Her shoulders immediately shrugged down, her eyes curved as an automatic response and her smile dissipated like steam from my coffee mug. I have shamed my daughter.
Knowing this at the time while it was happening, I quickly recovered and gained control of my own nervous system, calming down and unshaming (in my best effort) my kid who acted like one.
In this scenario, shame is used to stop someone from continuing to do what they’re not supposed to do ( keep pouring chocolate chips) . A better example would be a child who has inadvertently grabbed a knife and a parent sharply scolding the child to shame to bring such behavior into extinction.
Shame has different purposes and the frequencies of shaming-statements (whether a caregiver use this once in a while or all the time) may be a factor to its transformation from being protective to internalized shame. How shaming statements are delivered can be argued. Some may say that if you shame the deed versus the person that this should be of less intensity.
What I do know is that the birth and rearing of shame happens in our childhood and that when children are left to fend off their own shaming feelings, they ALWAYS conclude that its about them. We all have a deep need to be seen and felt by our caregivers and to sustain such loving feelings towards the latter, it’ll make sense for a child to conclude that I am the bad one rather than them (caregiver).
Another equally important factor in metabolizing shame is the recovery process. The ability of the caregiver to catch the self and help the child makes sense of what just happened. This could look like an apology, telling a story to the child to explain why the adult over-reacted ( I don’t want you to get hurt, for example), or simply re-connecting back to the child with touch.
As I write this, I critique my own words as I know as a Psychotherapist using regression in hypnotherapy that a single event can leave imprints in our very core. But, I’m also observing that these imprints are “easier” tended to in therapy|coaching. If you’re interested in finding out more, read Hypnotherapy for Filipino Women: Is it Effective?
It is also to highlight important research on body shame.
Association theory by Fredrickson and Roberts discusses how men and women are socialized differently about our bodies resulting to self-objectification. The latter reflects treating oneself as an object of scrutiny that can be manifested in persistent body surveillance and/or comparisons with unrealistic societal ideals of appearance.
Self-objectification may result in anxiety about appearance and physical safety, reduced awareness of body sensations, and heightened body shame. (McKinley,Tiggemann, 2016).
Body-surveillance can also mean others eyeing you, like is when a tita greets you with,
Busog ka ata ngayon (you look full).
Body-surveillance can be seen and heard in many social media platforms, in what you consume in Netflix, in the e-magazines you read, or in products you consume although mom’s insensitive remark can put us all on a spin, so can other information around us.
As the act of body-surveillance may not always result in body shame, why do Filipinos do it anyway?
SHAME IN THE PHILIPPINES AS A PROTECTIVE FACTOR
Before we explore ways to move ourselves to Body Image Love, it’s important to understand the cultural context of shame. Many times, “the making sense” process is as crucial as the actual inner-work.
Philippines uses human capital as its competitive advantage. The rise of ship workers and telemarketers have been a source of GOP and income for Filipino families. Since the 1970s, the Philippines has used emigration for the dual purpose of capturing foreign exchange and reducing domestic unemployment (Bello et al. 2004; Rodriguez 2002; Semyonov and Gorodzeisky 2004).
A collective & developing country such as the Philippines, adhering to group rules means survival, in the example above, economic survival. The use of shame as a locust of control not to distort the group survival is like milk to a baby.
The phrase utang na loob, teaches the child to tumanaw (to look back on, remember, to glimpse) a good deed they’ve been privileged with.
The phrase walang utang na loob refutes and shames the perceived recipient of goodwill to have forgotten the latter resulting in non-reciprocity or a violation of basic human expectation (abuse, stealing).
Body surveillance may become a way to remind the other of their potential for human capital. Even today, resumes in the Philippines have potential employees’ photos attached to them.
It’s a running joke when I was younger that if you’re not attractive, you can work in the hotel but only behind the curtains.
Such shaming statements send the message to look good, to be of certain size to be able to buy privilege. The non-privilege (or less) in the Islands pay a steep price from discrimination to sub-standard service from school to government service programs to their voice being heard.
In today's governance with Duterte’s regime, many elder Filipinos recount feelings of threat similar to the era of martial law. The threat to one’s safety can bring memories of trauma, or the very least an unsettling feeling of being wronged and not being able to do anything about it.
Although discrimination and institutionalized racism in America still runs rampant, protests and civil unrest that voices these social injustices are a platform to be heard.
In the Philippines, these platforms can run someone the risk of being killed, ostracized, disappeared on the face of the earth, or harassed at a minimum. of course, this has not always been the case in our history (ex. Edsa People Revolution in 1996) but nevertheless, it influences our psychological vulnerabilities because we store trauma/imprints in our very core.
These threatening parts of history influence the fabric of Filipino parenting in the Philippines and in America. Privilege becomes an important ladder to climb as this elevates voice, choices and options. The privileged ones feel they have the option to un-mask during the COVID pandemic (not all) but the less privileged do not see this as an option, or even an option to take.
When the environment is unsafe, the Filipino parent in the Philippines uses shame to curb unnecessary behavior(s) that can attract negative attention. These negative attention can be in the form of being a part of the out-group, a peril for any human/animal species’ to survive in a collective habitat.
It can also look like this type of parenting as a way to remediate loss of privilege and more importantly, to thrive and survive.
How dare you answer back-
The unspoken fear: The protestor who risk being sent to jail without due process.
You need to be a doctor-
Their fear: Without privilege, you will have no voice.
You’re too fat-
Their fear: I’m afraid people won’t take you seriously.
Worthy to state that Filipino parents using shame vary in intensity, it may be expected that families who are less privileged may therefore use more shame in their child-rearing style. As in studying human behavior, nothing is absolute. I have met many poor families in the family (less privileged) who speak very tenderly to their children and affluent parents who may even use insult as words of wisdom.
Feelings of safety and it’s meanings therefore precedes state. How can you feel more safe in your body now?
BODY LOVE: FEELING SAFE IN YOUR BODY
Internalized shame is stored in our core ( mind & body). Sometimes language and details of shaming events may escape you but their meanings stay with you. Meanings mean everything. I’ve expounded on this in Part I Filipino Body Shaming Culture: Changing the Meanings of “Fat”.
In neuroscience and study of trauma, we’ve learned that it's how we make sense of things that would differentiate between living life traumatized and someone who has experienced trauma. It is also important to note that each one of us defines what “trauma” feels like, rather than events deemed as solely traumatic.
In finding meanings, it’s important to gently excavate fears, threats and mode of survival in the context of both the shamer and the shamed.
In most cases, the shamers have been subject to the same fate, once they were the shamed. Similarly to internalized oppression, the oppressed when convinced of her own inferiority as set forth by the oppressive group/individual becomes her own oppressor.
In restoring body love from internalized shame, affirmations and correcting distorted thoughts just won’t do in the beginning.
Our internal working model (the map we use to sense the world) is deeply attuned to prevent harm to come our way. Our core becomes an alert system that is triggered by the most subtle nuanced in the environment, with the sole purpose for our survival--not for growth.
Once activated as a pattern, like a child shamed many times with little to no recovery attempt from the caregiver, our map of the world becomes rigid (because god forbid “it” happens again). Thereby, detouring through life’s challenges with malleability will be too risky of an action to take.
To feel safe in your body again:
- Be-friend cues that your body sends you. Grab a mirror and choose a funny or a sad movie. Stop the movie in moments you feel strong emotions. Put your hand on your stomach, look at yourself in the mirror, watch your pupils and the color of your skin. Note your observations as if you were observing a baby incapable of expressing through words.
- Talk to an alien technique. I use this a lot for teaching clients to slow down their nervous system, the part of us that acts on automatic when triggering feelings come to play. When strong emotions arise, talk to an alien about what’s going on with your body and pacify him (alien) that what’s happening a human phenomenon and that soon you will calm down. The goal is not to scare the alien away and so you would have to speak robotic, s-l-o-w, so you can be well-understood.
- Meanings are changed in the subconscious mind and I’m a strong believer in hypnotherapy as an effective tool as it speaks languages through visions, and images, consequently pivoting old, outdated stories to your preferred story. To find out more, read on Story Therapy. You may also try to engage in yoga and other mindfulness techniques that involve the use the body.
- Inner-child embrace, as mentioned adults temper the negative effects of shame through attempts to recover. This is usually through a story that make sense to the child. When we miss this opportunity, children absorb the shame narrative rather than what actually occurred (they spilled the chocolate chip because she was acting like a kid). In the inner child embrace, think of a scenario where you felt shamed. Sense how you feel about the scenario, watching your body cues. In your mind’s eye, be the adult who would come and help this child (you) make sense of what just happened. The embrace can be both physical or an embracing through a recovery narrative. For example, you’re just a kid and mommy had a bad day I ended up being a “highblood” to you. Take time in doing this exercise.
- Surround yourself with people who have an emphatic viewpoint of both your story and the context of the shamer’s story. Groups are a dynamic place where people can feel empowered and less alone but they're also mightlity powerful in keeping old stories alive. These old stories can keep you stuck and hearing common stories with others without an attempt to move to a recovery process is like band-aid to a wound that needs air to heal.
These are just some ways to start witnessing your body as a beautiful container that is neither too good or too bad, but simply just is. To me, this is the definition of body-love.
Ok, ok, ok...but how do I talk to the shamer in those potlucks?
By this time, if I did my job well in lending compassion towards the shamer and the shamed, your question(s) would be led with a need to connect rather than to put anyone in their place.
Remember, that the shamer, once shamed had been made to feel that no place is their place. Shaming of any kind to bring shame down is shame’s biggest fame.
If you must, be guided by your light-heartedness and a softness that only the resilient-hearted can offer:
- Use humor- this one goes along way and when used with light-heartedness; it’s like pouring water to fire, putting it out and releasing immediate steam. For most who use body-surveillance statements to ease up awkward situations, or even to connect, this can even be an entry point to meaningful dialogues later on. This is the strategy I often use. When someone comments -uy tumaba ka, using humor can sound like this-
Masaya ako e (‘coz I’m happy).
Bagay di, ba (it suits me, right?).
Me pambili e ( ‘coz I can afford).
- Clarify what they’re actually asking- In general, Filipinos have not been primed to ask about how others are feeling and therefore comment on other’s physical attributes to gauge their insides. This does not mean that taking offense especially in the Filipino-American context is a loosing battle. Now, that you understand what can be behind these comments,clarifying what the other means can look like this- Oh, do you want to know how I’m feeling? Do you need an update on how I’m doing? Yes, things are good (answering what they don’t ask verbally).
- Speak their fear- Most parents worry about their children regardless if they 9 or 99. Sometimes the use of derogatory statements is a a way to inquire if their biggest fear has come true. Many Filipino parents also worry about how they would be perceived by others- their reputation of their ability to parent do not end when a child turns 18. In the case of the latter, simply state their fear- Don’t worry, you taught me well. You’ll see, you will be proud of my decisions later. I think you're worried I’ll be a disappointment. I might not be the richest person in the world but I think you’ll be happy that I’ll be happy and have a full stomach (the full stomach part will lessen their defense to the first part of your statement).
- Express your need to be felt- It’s important to be in a tempered state of mind in doing this. Read part I: Filipino Body-Shaming Culture for ways to pivot stories in your mind. Finding subtle empathy for the shamer can alter your tone, your pitch and everything else in the way you convey your message.
- Use gentle start-ups so as not to put the other in a defensive space, for example, I don’t think you intend to____. But when you say ____. I feel_____. I think you’re worried about me because I know you care about me. I appreciate that. It’s just that I feel _____ when you mention things about my body. Let’s think of a better way to greet each other.
You can even be silly here like suggesting bumping hips or fist pumps...your playfulness is your guide.
Many Filipino Americans who have expressed tenderly their greeting-preference have positive outcomes. Some share that the shamer explained why they were doing it, some don’t know why they did it but most pivoted in the direction of modifying their shaming language.
Giving the shamer space to redeem herself/himself, loosens up the transmission of shame in Filipino|x families. In experiencing your energy of acceptance and kindness as you openly express your feelings, the shamer gets to experience a parent (your energy representation) who continue to accept them and be interested in them in spite of their errors.
Giving them a sense of being seen and felt without shame will inevitably make them SEE YOU and slowly and eventually FEEL YOU in a more profound way.
If shame is running your life and you want to break free from its shadow, check out
Roanne has been a Psychotherapist for more than 12 years. She has frequented at least 400 Filipino homes and counting. She is the author of the Ebook: 5 Pinoy Love Languages and the creator of the presentation entitled: Filipino Core Values & Considerations in Culturally Responsive Care.