Unthinkable: Should we ever be ashamed of our bodies?
Is obsessing about appearances, and the ‘spectacle of the public putdown’, all driven by economics?
Mirror, mirror: ‘Many psychologists believe we are hard-wired for self-conscious emotions such as shame’
How is it that a spot, a grey hair, or a bit of flab can crush the spirit so? For highly evolved beings, we still have a very primitive reaction to seeing ourselves in the mirror, detecting blemishes in our body shape or fretting over the whiteness of our teeth rather than marvelling at the fact that we are here at all.
Each generation seems to up the ante (thankfully, I missed out on the whole “abs” thing or I’d be a quivering wreck) and, even if you stay ahead of the game you can’t count on fads such as “the thigh gap” (a gap between the thighs that some beauty “experts” claim you can achieve through workouts, even though, in fact, it depends on having a specifically shaped pelvis).
How much is the media to blame for this state of affairs? The “sidebar of shame” is now a popular addition to news sites, while putting people on weighing scales and watching them cry has become a mainstream TV genre.
Dr Luna Dolezal, an Irish Research Council fellow at Trinity College Dublin, is studying the subject of body shame for a forthcoming book. Tackling the issue from philosophical, psychological and cultural angles, she provides today’s idea: A societal response is needed to the challenge of body shame.
Is shame ever a useful emotion?
Luna Dolezal: “Shame is notoriously ambivalent. We tend to see shame as a negative emotion that must be avoided at all costs. It is an extremely painful experience, threatening one’s sense of belonging and one’s social bonds. On top of that, shame is itself shameful. Chronic shame can be a powerful tool of social and political control. We only have to think of social movements such as Gay Pride or Black is Beautiful to see how overcoming shame and transforming oppressive social norms can be politically important for a marginalised group.
“Despite all of this, shame is in fact also necessary; we cannot live or grow without it. Shame establishes boundaries within social relations and facilitates the formation of a coherent and stable social world. For instance, shame plays an important role in child development, especially with respect to helping children to gain a sense of control over their bodies and bodily functions. Shame also eventually enters individuals into moral and ethical life.”
What is responsible for creating shame about one’s body?
“I think body shame arises as a result of a complex mix of factors, it is obviously dependent on social and cultural norms, which are historically contingent and open to change, but there also seems to be an undeniable biological and physiological component.
“Many empirical psychologists believe that we are hard-wired for self-conscious emotions such as shame, pride and guilt (that involve an awareness of how others see us) in a way that other animals aren’t, except maybe chimpanzees. Apparently animals like dogs and cats do not have the capacity to feel shame.”
In your research, you cite the ‘public put-down’ as something that fuels body shame; how so?