I think there are things in the world for which people should be ashamed and shamed. I tweet about them nearly every day through the Polaris Project handle. I think people should be ashamed of hurting each other, should feel shame when they make someone else’s day harder.
But there are things I think we spend energy feeling public shame and private guilt about that aren’t worth the effort. Body-shame (which I certainly duel with), shame around money and negotiating, shame around sex and sexuality and gender and anything covered by a standard-issue bathing suit all seem like wastes of time for me.
This doesn’t mean I think there’s something wrong with molding your body into what you want it to be–we’re not floating heads; we have bodies and I think we should live within them. I don’t have a big argument to make here. Everything I want to say has been said exceptionally well by Stop Hating Your Body (not safe for work or businesses who benefit from body shame) or in Anne Lamott’s powerful commencement speech at Berkeley. When I went to buy pants in size 12 (when I’ve always been 6 – 8) I tried to remember this quote from her speech:
You’ve graduated. You have nothing left to prove, and besides, it’s a fool’s game. If you agree to play, you’ve already lost. It’s Charlie Brown and Lucy, with the football. If you keep getting back on the field, they win. There are so many great things to do right now. Write. Sing. Rest. Eat cherries. Register voters. And — oh my God — I nearly forgot the most important thing: refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you’ll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you’ve just eaten. The pants may be lying! There is way too much lying and scolding going on politically right now without your pants getting in on the act, too.
To me, refusing to feel body shame is a process and separate from wanting to feel fit. I try and shape my exercise goals around how strong I want to be, how much I want to run, how well I want to sleep after a good work out. I try not to think about making myself smaller, because the one thing women don’t need is to take up less space.
Wanting people to feel less shame around money doesn’t mean I want people to obsess about money or not care about it, just that I think it makes us (for “us” read “most women and some men”) weaker in a capitalist society when we’re uncomfortable talking frankly about money.
Case in point: I was honored to be accepted into a local choir last fall with a competitive audition process. After my audition, I was going over logistical details with the conductor. I mentioned that I’d read the handbook on their website and I had no problem with the rehearsal schedule or the dues, and that I had my dues with me if he’d like them before my first rehearsal. He made this pushing away, flailing motion, and said:
Oh no, I don’t even touch that stuff. A board member handles all that.
Which, ok, fine, that’s a reasonable distribution of labor. But renting a performance space costs money, and I know that, and he knows that, so what’s with the embarrassment in that we both know it costs money to do amateur music? I saw the same thing when Matthew and I watched Pawn Stars on TV on a weekend last fall* and one man after another came into the pawn shop and bargained away a collectible for cash. Then a woman came on, and instead of negotiating like everyone else, titters and says:
I trust you guys. I’m not good at negotiating. Just tell me what it’s worth.
I don’t particularly relish haggling because I’m afraid the person on the other end will think ill of me for being too pushy, but that’s a reaction which comes out of money shame and is a waste of time. It also has real harms: Penelope Trunk makes the solid point that being shy about comparing salaries doesn’t benefit anyone except businesses who underpay their employees.
Finally, sex shame. This one is the toughest because I honestly don’t want to know about anyone else’s sex life. As long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual, I am happy to have no one to every talk to me about their personal experiences with sex ever again. I like privacy; last fall I nearly wilted after a little bit over a month of no room of my own where room is defined as a space with a door I can shut and lock and no one else can come into. I say this as an introvert, as a feminist, and as a person who likes to spend a quarter of her waking hours online: I don’t want everything in everyone’s life to be public.
But, and this is a big but, the things which we keep private shouldn’t eat us up on the inside, shouldn’t protect predators, and shouldn’t be wildly out of our public performances of our selves.
I also think some things should be private, but the secrets we keep to insulate our inner selves from the incautious winds of the casual viewer shouldn’t protect abusers.
But we live in a culture which manufactures cognitive dissonance about sex, and whichever narrative we believe (we’re supposed to be chaste/ready-to-go this very second, modest/dressed like runway models, motherly/bombshells) we lose. But in a world where there’s a lot of ugliness around sex, I’d rather risk hearing about other people’s sex lives than risk victims of abuse or situations that might turn into abuse being too embarrassed to ask me, or someone like me, for help.
A lot of the time silence and holding our experiences helps no one we want to help. There are ways to talk about nearly anything, but no way anyone can know and help with any insight without some raw, unchopped, unglazed talking.
Shame has its place; but let’s make sure it’s hurting the right people.
*A much smaller-stakes source of shame I am over: pop-culture shame. I like trashy TV sometimes. If you don’t like it, I’ll pull a Ray Bradbury and “pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
“No matter what you look like, what color, what gender, what size or however many “flaws”, healthy, not healthy, working on it, we are all human, we all deserve to be happy, we all deserve to love ourselves.”–Part of the “Stop Hating Your Body” manifesto