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Body Shame and the Extrovert Ideal

September 24, 2016

quietI recently read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Mercifully, the book validates the “quirks” of those of us who tend to take pleasure in solitude, need alone-time to recharge, listen attentively, speak concisely. You know, introverts.

I deeply appreciate Cain’s affirmation of the tribe and (could you guess?) me. And I’m grateful for her book’s unexpected bonus: an additional perspective on the cultural roots of body shame.

If you’ve read The Woman’s Belly Book: Finding Your True Center for More Energy, Confidence, and Pleasure, you know I report on the cultural valuation (and devaluation) of women’s bodies and bellies from prehistory to the present.

These are the central questions: How do we move beyond body shame? How do we begin to love our bodies and our bellies now?

I’ve fielded these questions in radio interviews, workshops, and everyday conversations. My response: The problem is we’re jumping outside ourselves and looking back, inspecting our bodies as if we’re peering into a mirror, judging our bodies as we fear others will judge us.

That’s not even living from the outside in. That’s living on the outside, period.

(Even the term “body image” assumes this virtual visual assessment, this exile. I realize that’s a relatively subtle point. I imagine that many if not most body positive activists — including the fabulous Taryn Brumfitt, founder of the global Body Image Movement — use the term in their good work. We have to start somewhere!)


The solution I’m exploring is living from the inside out, attending to how my body feels, valuing the obvious and subtle sensations of bodily experience. Preoccupation with body image gives way to fulfilling body awareness.

Who has a talent for living from the inside out? Introverts do. But our culture dismisses introversion and rewards, as Susan Cain calls it, the Extrovert Ideal:

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk­taking to heed­taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.

If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain…. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

Here’s the bonus: Cain marks the turn of the twentieth century as the time when the Extrovert Ideal came to dominate American expectations. She joins cultural historian Warren Susman in naming this change as a shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman famously wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”

Americans responded to these pressures [of the urban, commercial age] by trying to become salesmen who could sell not only their company’s latest gizmo but also themselves.

[Reference: Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century]

We started to focus on how others perceived us — and how we could sell ourselves. We started jumping outside ourselves and turning back to see how marketable we might appear to others. We cast our bodies as commodities. We submitted our bodies to the marketplace to determine their value.

Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.
— Anaïs Nin

The Extrovert Ideal is not, after all, the ultimate standard for human being. Living on the outside looking in is not all that entertaining. No matter how much our culture applauds the Extrovert Ideal, the culture is still evolving. The talent for living from the inside out, for deepening body awareness, is key to the process.

As I write in The Woman’s Belly Book, activating the pro-creative power dwelling within our body’s center — within our bellies — is an act of cultural renewal. It’s a path to reinhabiting our center of being and a personally rewarding way to live.

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