There are many ways in which people shame each other over their bodies and appearances – fat and skinny shaming, and slut shaming being the most obvious. There are plenty of people making the case for why shaming others is cruel and unhelpful, so I want to take a different tack and talk about the assumptions you have to make to get the whole process under way.
Step 1: I believe that I can look at someone, even a total stranger, and make a reasonable judgement about them based only on what I can see in the moment. The surface that I can see is the whole story – be that the tight dress, the body shape, the cleanliness, the apparent poverty, or lack of apparent poverty (shaming the poor for not looking poor enough is becoming a thing). What I see in front of me is the whole story.
Step 2: Thinking that I can see all there is to see, I believe I am entitled to infer things about the sort of person I am looking at – a refugee who is well dressed can therefore be considered suspect. A girl in a short skirt is asking to be raped. A fat person is greedy and lazy, etc. All of these judgements are incredibly harsh and critical, and assume the worst of the person I’m looking at based on no real evidence beyond my interpretation of a surface impression.
Step 3: I have successfully created a power imbalance in which I give myself the moral high ground, and determine that the other person is inferior to me. This gives me an even greater sense of entitlement which in turn enables me to take action.
Step 4: Based on my sense of moral superiority, I tell the person who I’m judging some ‘hard truth’ I ‘tell it like it really is’ – I spout my hate and assumptions and expect them to take this onboard. I also feel entitled to act unpleasantly in line with these assumptions.
Step 5: If the other person objects, I point out that I am only doing it for their own good, to help them and that they need to face up to reality and sort themselves out. I leave the encounter feeling like I’ve done them a massive favour (which of course I haven’t), and not like I am a total git, which would be a lot closer to the truth.
Many disabilities are not visible. Depression is not visible. Whether someone’s partner just died is not visible. Whether someone has just made huge progress in getting to a healthier body size is not visible. Whether someone is on meds affecting their body size is not visible. How promiscuous someone is, cannot be seen by looking at their clothes. How promiscuous someone is, is not actually a measure of whether or not they are ‘good’. People who are poor are not required to conform to certain dress codes so that you can see they are poor – there’s a double bind here: Look smart and clearly you aren’t really poor, look rough and downtrodden and you’re a lazy person who hasn’t made the effort so your poverty must be your fault.
When we shame people based on how they look, it actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about the person who is doing the shaming wanting to feel superior to someone else, and feeling entitled to inflate their own ego by bullying someone else. This kind of shaming also lets us off the hook, because if we blame the other person we can tell ourselves we’re under no obligation to help them. Even if you think you know what’s going on with someone else, maybe you don’t, maybe they haven’t told you.
Helping people starts by not shaming them, not humiliating them, and not assuming we know what’s going on for them and consequently what they should do about it. Ask, listen, enable, support. That kind of thing can make a difference. The other thing just mires people in misery, and makes it harder for them to speak. Blaming people just doesn’t make anything better.