Dr. Michelle Lelwica, professor of religion, was featured in Reading Religion, a leading biweekly newsletter and publication of the American Academy of Religion.
Lelwica was interviewed about her book, “Shameful Bodies: The Religion and Culture of Physical Improvement,” and its research. “Shameful Bodies” explores the concept that religion plays a role in shaping the feelings we have and the judgments we make about bodies, our own, and the bodies of others.
There are three main lessons Lelwica would like readers to take to heart. First, she says the feeling of shame about your body is not a natural response, rather a culturally conditioned reaction, and it is shaped by the confluence of religious and philosophical narratives that associate virtue with a body that is controlled, one that is praised in popular culture.
Lelwica says the question the book asks is, “What happens when your body doesn't look how you think it's supposed to look, when it doesn't feel how you think it's supposed to feel, and when it doesn't do what you think it's supposed to do?” She explains that the natural response for many of us is to feel shame. We accuse our bodies of betraying us, rather than examining what external forces, like dominant cultural narratives and norms are teaching us; we put the blame on ourselves and our individual body.
“The idea of this book is that we are not born with that sense of body shame; body shame is a learned experience and perception – one that we often project onto other bodies,” she says.
The second lesson is that the lines that distinguish “religious” from “secular” attitudes toward physicality are not clear. Christian narratives have been repurposed into secular forms of culture and experiences. Even medical, self-help, or commercial discourses are still influenced by the beliefs, images, and moral codes of traditional religion playing a hidden part in shaping our feelings and judgments.
Lastly, many mainstream products and programs that are promoted to help us “improve” our health are in fact damaging. Defy aging, banish wrinkles, and blast belly fat are all common phrases that use pseudo-empowering language that creates an antagonistic relationship with our bodies. We’re encouraged to see our bodies as enemies that need to be defeated. Once this mentality is recognized, we can begin to consider alternative approaches to health, healing, and physical improvement.
Lelwica hopes her book inspires others to be more mindful of how they view and treat their bodies.
“I still feel extremely humbled by and grateful for all the positive attention ‘Shameful Bodies’ has received,” she says. “More importantly, though, I hope the book sparks more public conversation about the topic of body shame, especially since shame is a feeling that tends to grow in private, whereas talking about it openly opens the door for transforming shame into pride, solidarity, compassion, and resistance.”