Identifying antecedents and consequences of shame and embarrassment in physical activity contexts

  • Erin Willson Kinesiology, University of Toronto
  • Eva Pila Kinesiology, University of Toronto
  • Catherine M Sabiston Kinesiology, University of Toronto


Embarrassment and shame are distinct self-conscious emotions that are closely tied to the physical self. The historical conceptualization of embarrassment as a derivative of shame has precluded researchers from examining the distinct properties of this emotion – despite the relevance of embarrassment in physical activity contexts. This study identified and compared the antecedents and consequences of body-related shame and embarrassment. Participants (N=324; Mage=18.97; SD=2.34 years) reported open-ended narratives of experiences with body-related embarrassment and shame and a follow-up self-report of social contexts related to these body-related emotion experiences. Using a content analysis, similar antecedents were identified for both emotions, however, experiences of embarrassment were elicited more frequently by body exposure and fear of negative evaluations from others (e.g., weight-related comments), whereas shame was triggered more by social comparison. Both emotions were experienced during participation in physical activity (e.g., sport, physical education) and in a changing room. Shame was commonly elicited in private contexts (e.g., self-reflection), whereas embarrassment almost exclusively occurred in the presence of others. Embarrassment did not frequently result in behavior change whereas shame provoked a variety of behavioral responses (e.g., concealment, change in diet). This study is the first to examine body-related embarrassment, and identify the similarities and differences between shame and embarrassment experiences related to physical activity contexts. Understanding these emotions within the realm of the physical self can have implications for physical activity as they are frequently cited as barriers to participation.