Embarrassment

Shame About Your Looks?

Shame, even more than fear, keeps people from showing up.

Posted May 23, 2010

A cartoon taped up in my study shows a baby sitting in front of a full-length mirror, thinking: This diaper makes my butt look big. The caption on top of the picture says, "It begins."

Shaming messages about the body don't start quite that early, but females are especially hard hit by messages that we're not okay looking the way we do.

When my friend, Mary, was in junior high school, her home economics teacher instructed the all-female class about buying fabric for a dress they would be making in class. "When you go to the fabric store, girls, keep this in mind," she said. "God made the canary yellow and He made the elephant gray!"

God's wisdom in the animal world, the teacher went on to explain, meant that regular-sized girls should choose fabrics in the bright colors of our feathered friends. But large girls should remember that God made the elephant gray-and should choose solid, dark colors accordingly.

In one fell swoop, the teacher compared the larger girls to elephants (and, by association, to other lumbering gray animals like the hippo and rhinoceros), and instructed them to not draw attention to themselves. Hers was a prescription to hide out in drabness, a lesson in shame. My friend tells me her that teacher's words still come back to her when she shops for clothes.

If we are overweight, we're especially likely to be on the receiving end of shaming or taunting messages. Most young people are dreadfully insecure themselves and always on the lookout for someone to dump their anxiety on someone else, usually in the form of shaming.

But adults, too, are anxious and insecure, and shaming comments don't stop just because you're out of school and have your own apartment. "Fat people today are still on the receiving end of vitriol once reserved for 17th-century witches," author Natalie Kusz tells us from first-hand experience.

Kusz notes that doctors have an especially difficult time restraining themselves from repeated lectures on the health risks of obesity. "Doctors admonish me at every visit," she writes, "until I mention the fat ladies I know who, afraid of being shamed, never brave a medical office until they are too sick to be helped much at all."

Shame, even more than fear, keeps people from showing up. Of course, a doctor is responsible for putting forth the facts about risky and unhealthy behavior. But that is different from admonishing, lecturing, or hammering in the point after it has already clearly been made. My work with women confirms Kusz's observations. The fear of being shamed by a doctor is greater than the fear of avoiding the doctor--and thereby risking disability or death.

Skinny girls are not immune to shaming messages. Despite my voracious eating habits, I was unable to gain weight growing up. I was "underdeveloped" and my peers taunted me with the lyrics of a popular song of the day:

I know a girl named Bony-Marony
She's as skinny as a stick of macaroni!

More painful to me were adult insensitivities. When I was a non-budding adolescent, an uncle walked in on me while I was changing into a bathing suit in the bedroom of his apartment. I was stark naked. I folded my arms in front of the breasts I didn't have and yelled, "Get out!" I'm sure I sounded rude, but I was upset. My uncle stood solidly in place, looked directly at me and said coolly, "Don't worry, Harriet. You have nothing to see."

But any large departure from the norm, any difference that makes a difference, can become a target for shame.

I'm reminded of a man I saw in therapy who towers over other men. He is constantly on the receiving end of quips such as, "What's the weather like up there?" Or "Haven't you grown since I last saw you?"

No one seems to consider that he might find both his height and their remarks painful-but he does. Most people would undoubtedly restrain their urge to comment if he was unusually short.

As you probably know from personal experience,  shaming messages often come in the form of "well-intentioned concern", like the comment "Are you OK?" (meaning you don't look OK) or "You look tired." (Who wants to look tired, even if you happen to feel tired) or, "I'm only concerned about your weight because I'm worried about your health" (Do they really think you have somehow missed out on the endless stream of messages regarding the risks of obesity).

What to do? We can learn to say, "Please don't say that to me, again. It's not helpful" " We can practice letting shaming comments about looks and appearance float by us. We can remind ourselves that shaming comments have to do with the other person, and not with us. And we can create a better world by passing alone along less shame (ideally, none) than we receive.