Shields was born in Provo, Utah to Heidi and Eric Shields. Her father is employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its Church Educational System. She is the second child in a family of eight children. Shields was raised in a conservative Mormon family in Tooele, Utah and Gresham, Oregon.
She graduated from Orem High School (Orem, Utah) in 2000 and Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) in 2004 with a degree in Anthropology and African Studies. While at BYU, Shields went solo to the University of Ghana for a semester and then collaborated in the creation and administration of the Ghana Medical Anthropology Field Studies Program from 2002-2007 where she led numerous students and professors to Ghana each summer. She talked about this experience at length in a 2014 radio interview with Thinking Aloud. In 2005, Shields began a MA/PhD program at Boston University on a FLAS (Foreign Language and Area) Fellowship in the languages of Yoruba and Twi and is currently a dual PhD candidate at Boston University in Cultural and Biological Anthropology, completing her dissertation on "The Social Life of Placebos: The Proximate and Evolutionary Mechanisms in Asante Ritual Healing"
Until 2014, Shields worked as an Anthropology sessional instructor at various universities in the capacity of a PhD candidate student, including Boston University, Towson University, Brigham Young University, and Utah Valley University where she taught Medical Anthropology, Psychological Anthropology, Physical/Biological Anthropology, African Studies, and American Culture courses.
Shields married Michael Strayer in 2005; they divorced in 2015. She currently devotes most of her time to consulting, activism and being a mom to her one daughter.
Shields is best known for her activism to combat religious gender inequality – specifically in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in which she was raised, though she is currently inactive and is no longer a believer in Mormon doctrine or scripture. Shields delivered a TED Talk on the topic of Religious Gender Inequality at the TED Fellows Retreat in September 2015. In November 2015, the talk was featured on TED.com under the title, "How I'm Working for Change Inside My Church." She is also a contributor featured in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. In an interview following that talk, Shields acknowledged that she may face church discipline for her actions, including excommunication. ""I could get in a lot of trouble for giving this talk today.""
Shields is President and co-founder of Mormons for ERA, a group dedicated to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She is a co-founder, former board member, and active strategist for Ordain Women, a group dedicated to creating increased access to administrative and ecclesiastical decision-making capacities for women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the ordination of women to the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. She is also on the board of the Sunstone Education Foundation, an organization that discusses Mormonism through scholarship, art, short fiction, and poetry.
Shields’ academic work focuses on the concept of social susceptibility or why human bodies have evolved to be susceptible to social manipulation. She has spent 26 months over the course of a decade in the field in West Africa researching Asante indigenous healers, ritual ceremonies, and biocultural interactions. Shields argued that grounding human behavior in social adaptations and viewing biocultural interactions in sickness and healing from an evolutionary perspective reveals important discoveries in placebo and ritual studies, religion, pain, stress, emotions, empathy, and social inequality. Shields spoke about how these sociocultural, biological and evolutionary concepts clash in a TED talk at the 2013 TED Fellows Retreat in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, where she used an Asante ethnographic case study of bonesetting to elucidate socially mediating pain mechanisms.
Shields was originally a cultural anthropologist and extended her studies to include a PhD in biological anthropology in order to explain the proximate and ultimate mechanisms of what was happening during ritual healing ceremonies. Her findings brought her deeper into evolutionary biology, placebo studies, and human behavioral ecology.
Most of Shields' research is built on an evolutionary foundation of human behavior that is rooted in how adaptations for sociality impact modern health. She speaks regularly about how many of the current health problems that we face are the result of a social mismatch between the environments in which human bodies evolved and the environments we currently navigate. Chelsea spoke about this concept as one of the keynote speakers at the University of Utah Religious Brain Project on "The Evolution of the Religio-Social Brain" in 2014.
Shields turns concepts of cause and effect in biomedicine on their head by arguing for an approach to health solutions that are rooted in social medicine and situated in deep evolutionary knowledge and argues that doing so helps explain many aspects of the modern mental health pandemic in the United States and why so many of us develop bizarre coping mechanisms.
Shields is a freelance strategic consultant for agencies such as BeyondCurious in Los Angeles, Uncorked Studios in Portland, Boncom in Salt Lake City, and others. Her specialties include brand strategy, business strategy, ethnographic and user research, e-Learning, m-Learning, content strategy and design, content management, and group/workshop facilitation – mainly for digital products and campaigns.
Shields has worked with major brands such as Toyota, Lexus, Parrot Drones, Deseret News, Deseret Industries, Brigham Young University, and others.
Shields was born and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her experiences as a Mormon girl and woman, while traumatic and challenging, were instrumental in the formation of her feminism and personal attention to the plight of women in conservative and patriarchal religious institutions.
Shields was integral in transitioning the Mormon feminist resistance from literary activism (which had been the model for the previous 40 years) toward more direct activism and advocacy. She was a co-founder of LDSWAVE (LDS Women Advocating for Voice and Equality) where she also served as President and Ask a Feminist columnist She has also spoken publicly in many podcasts such as Mormon Matters, The Mormon Women’s Roundtable, and Feminist Mormon Housewives. She has been a keynote speaker at retreats and conferences. and helped edit The Words of Women book.
Shields was active in the LDS church until 2013 and held various callings including Gospel Doctrine Teacher, Relief Society Instructor, and Young Women’s leader. She is currently a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but does not attend services and is no longer a believer in Mormon doctrine or scripture. Shields considers herself a secular Mormon who seeks to retain her Mormon cultural identity.TED Fellow, 2009–present
Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Grant, 2009
Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation Fellowship, 2009
Boston University Women’s Guild Scholarship, 2012
Boston University Graduate Research Abroad Scholarship, 2011
Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, 2007