Tag Archives: shaming

Toxic female – asking for it

I’m exploring the things that women do to other women that hold us all back and keep us down. Today I want to talk about body shaming, slut shaming and how we give each other toxic ideas about consent.

Women can be very quick to blame other women for sexual abuse and harassment. Choices of clothes, makeup, shoes and how a woman presents are long standing targets. There’s a long history on calling a women ‘no better than she should be’ – being a roundabout way to slut shame another woman. It has been women, historically, who have particularly alienated from their social circles the ‘fallen’ women, where men with mistresses and illegitimate children never faced the same consequences.

Clothing, hair, shoes and makeup are never a person’s consent. No one gives sexual consent to a total stranger or a passing acquaintance, or even a friend or a boyfriend by wearing clothes. Or not wearing clothes. No one is asking for it. And yet, I saw only last week a whole bunch of women on facebook agreeing that a topless woman was just asking to be groped by a stranger and that it was her fault for not covering up.

When we make male behaviour about female clothes choices, what we tell each other is that men can’t control themselves. It’s a pretty shitty attitude to men. We teach our daughters to cover up, look demure and not act sexy so as to avoid rape and other assaults, when we do not tell our sons not to assault women. If a woman is sexy, we blame her for any negative consequences that can be associated with that. I think this is because there can be a tendency to give jealousy a lot of room in these situations. So often it seems to be women who do not suit the conventional male gaze shaming and blaming women who do. But that keeps it all about the male gaze, and doesn’t get us talking about healthier and broader takes on beauty and not making invisible women who are not young and curvy.

We tell stories about women who we think have slept their way to career advances. We haven’t told stories about male abuses of power, but about women using their sexuality to get results. Those stories need to change, and I think they are changing.

We tell stories that suggest we don’t have the right to own our own bodies.

The thing about covering up is, remember what happened with the Victorians. Swathe a woman in fabric, and suddenly a flash of ankle becomes the erotic focus of the male gaze, and the woman who shows too much ankle is just asking for it and is no better than she should be. The problem is not what we wear – no matter what we wear. The problem is that the female body is sexualised, and treated as an object. So long as we keep telling each other that women who get attacked were asking for it, we let this sort of thing continue unchallenged.

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Body differences and the weird logic of diets

There are a great many people who are not able to lose weight through diet and exercise. The standard response is to assume they just weren’t trying hard enough. We have no qualms about shaming people who can’t manage their weight by the means they are told will work for them.  As though the human body is a simple system, and always works in the same way, and as if what you eat and how much you move are the only factors involved in size.

To talk about this, I’m going to step sideways into the parallel world of muscle. Muscles are complicated, and we don’t all have it in us to build the same ones. Some of us are better suited to speed than lifting power. Some of us naturally have more stamina than others. Hit the limits on what your muscles can do, and the odds are good the people around you will assume it’s because you’ve hit your limits. It may be about how much glycogen your muscles can store – that may be genetic.  And of course muscles don’t work alone, there’s bone and tendon to consider, blood flow, reflexes, metabolism.

Get into the world of muscle even a little bit and you’ll find it is complex, and there’s no expectation that all bodies are going to work the same way. We don’t shame people for having sinewy strength rather than big muscles. We assume that difference is normal. This is in no small part because we have generations of knowledge that different bodies respond to exercise in different ways and that different people have different strengths.

On the whole, fat is a new problem for us as a species. Perhaps for much of human history, it was fair to assume that more often than not, fat went with how much you ate. That didn’t necessarily make it an unpopular thing, either. Historically, fat has equated to wealth and opulence – historic portraits of people have a lot of bigger people in them. The rich have carried their extra pounds with pride. However, this century has seen fat become a widespread issue for poor people, and that makes it a problem, and no longer desirable.  Perceived greed is something the poor are always punished for.

Sleep deprivation causes weight gain – the evidence is out there but it isn’t much publicised. Sleep deprivation is for the greater part a industrial ailment, made worse in recent years by 24/7 culture, shift working, stress, screens and time pressure. Hard to get enough sleep if you’re working two jobs, and this too is a modern problem.

We feed growth hormones to creatures raised for meat, but I’ve not seen anyone suggesting that there could be a relationship between weight gain, and eating something that was pumped full of chemicals to make it gain weight. We put all manner of chemicals into our food, and the long term experiments to discover the long term impact of eating them? We’re it.

We should be asking about the relationship between malnourishment and weight gain – if your diet is about filling up on not very nutritional carbs, what does that do? What happens when you can’t afford to eat good food? What does stress do to metabolism and body size? Some of us burn frantically in response to stress, but what if some of us stock up reserves? What if dieting just adds to the stress that has your body trying to store calories? Why should there be just one story about how we get fat and how to shed that fat? It doesn’t add up.

We need better research into the issue of weight gain, rather than this endless preaching about the imagined moral failure of being fat. We need answers that take into account body difference and that we’re no doubt not all designed to be exactly the same shape. We need to work out what healthy weight means – the Body Mass Index is worse than useless. We need health measurements that aren’t just about size and we also need to start recognising that if a large person is ill, it may not be simply a case that they need to lose weight and get more exercise. Perhaps if we were collectively slower to pathologise fat, we would be able to have healthier ideas about how to live with the bodies we have.


The dubious logic of appearance shaming

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.


Druidry against shame

One of the repeated themes for me at Druid camp, was the issue of facing down that which is shaming. There’s a world of difference between being ashamed of genuine shortcomings and errors, and quite another having someone shame you. Shaming is a widespread activity. When we are made to feel shame for things we have no control over, or for things that are important to us, when we are shamed by others for our mistakes and shortcomings, humiliation is inevitable. It is a painful, self-reducing process and there is no good in it.

At camp we had naked people. We had the red tent exploring menstruation and other generally unspeakable women’s mysteries. Shaming around bleeding and the female body is widespread. There were stories of people shamed, and of shame resisted.

There is a role for ‘name and shame’ tactics. When people undertake to deliberately do the wrong thing, when there is hypocrisy, when power is corrupt and abusive, then calling it out is important, and there is a place for drawing shame down upon the head of the perpetrator. However, there’s still that difference to hold between recognising an action or behaviour as shameful, and shaming a person. The point at which we say ‘this bad thing is on the inside of you, and you are therefore a bad person’ is a troubling one.

I have learned, in the sharing of stories, that bearing the humiliation of exposure can be very powerful. One of the reasons I have repeatedly put my blood, pain and fear into the public domain is I’ve realised this enables other shamed people to speak up, to acknowledge what has been done, and to make some moves away from being in a state of shame, or pain. The two often run together. It doesn’t help that our culture tends to view acknowledgement of weakness, or injury as shameful. I still find it hard to cry in public. It does not help that professional people have attempted to shame me for weeping.

Today, I heard a story about a brave boater who has put a humiliating letter into other people’s hands, making a stand for justice. The Canal & River Trust habitually sends out the kind of letters that shame recipients. For a proud and independent soul, being told to go and get council housing when you shouldn’t need it, is shaming. Putting that in the public domain, feels humiliating, but I’m going to raise my hand and say, me too. I had one of those. I was told that the home I had paid for would be taken from me and that I would have to go and apply for council housing. And the shame of it burned deeply. That shame keeps us silent, afraid of what will happen if we draw further attention to the way in which we’ve already been humiliated.

Shaming only holds power if we let it do so. As soon as you can face it down, meeting the eyes of the aggressor and refusing to be humiliated into silence, then shaming ceases to be a weapon someone can use against you. Refusing to be shamed for who we are, what we are, for our natural bodies, for our hopes, beliefs, ideas and dreams is not an easy choice. It is far simpler to accept being slapped down, and not to fight it, and invite further ridicule and harassment. It is also a way of having bits of you cut off.

I am going to learn not to be ashamed of my body. I am not going to allow bullies to humiliate me into silence. I’ll keep saluting those other brave souls who show their wounds publically so that others know they are not alone.