‘I stopped exercising and got a bit chubby’ – cue the shame sirens

Coping: Shame should be fought, or reasoned away

Shame is something we always have the capacity for; we may find the triggers for it intentionally or by accident. Photograph: Getty

Shame is something we always have the capacity for; we may find the triggers for it intentionally or by accident. Photograph: Getty

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I fell off my bicycle struggling my way up an incline on a country road. The day was idyllic. The sun twinkled off any vegetation that leaned toward it. Leaves whispered softly in the light breeze, and all about, rabbits flashed the wedding-dress white of their petticoat tails like runaway brides, but I couldn’t absorb the warmth of the day. There it was again; that old familiar shame, and the sensation that always accompanied it, anger.

I’m unfit. That phrase rather stings. Unfit for what? Specifically, for purpose

I had fallen from my bike for reasons I didn’t want to admit – I’m unfit. That phrase rather stings. Unfit for what? Specifically, for purpose. I am unfit to carry out this task of cycling up this mild incline carrying a backpack of groceries. My body is unfit, unqualified for the job. It is a liability. Every pedal burns the large but flaccid muscles in my legs to the point that they scream from inside my skin.

The result is that the determined but meagre push I give them isn’t enough, and over I go, slowly, comically into the undergrowth by the side of the road. The bunnies scatter back to their burrows like panicked citizens running for their lives as King Kong ransacks their habitat.

Time for embarrassment

During the slow tipping, I had what felt like time to think, and mostly used the time to feel pathetic and embarrassed. My backpack opened somewhere in the flailing melee that occurred between my soft body and the hard road, and out tumbled some potatoes (a love of which has certainly helped to get me into this mess) and a litre of milk. The carton hit the hot tarmac like it couldn’t take this shit any more, and had flung itself from my bag of its own volition.

Part of adulthood is recognising that victimising ourselves is a recipe for stasis or decline

As it whistled through the air to its death, I could have sworn I heard it claim it could have walked home faster even without legs. It exploded dramatically with an accusatory, “et tu”, whip-crack upon the road, drenching my shoes and legs, and confirming that the shame I felt was entirely justified. A car whizzed by in a momentary blur of image and sound, and some teenagers leaned out to point and laugh at me, in case I hadn’t got the message.

Excuses

There are always reasons why people end up allowing responsibilities to slip. They may even be legitimate reasons, but they always look and sound like excuses and part of adulthood is recognising that victimising ourselves is a recipe for stasis or decline. Sadly, no one cares. I stopped exercising and got a bit chubby (I’ve never been slender anyway), which isn’t really a big problem – the solution isn’t a mystery.

It seems that shame is something we always have the capacity for

As the milk started to dry into my trousers in the midday sun and pump out that curdled milk stench, I wondered why weight gain is such a trigger for me, and for so many women. That realisation that you’ve spread and bloomed a bit to take up more space than you or others might like turns over a flat rock within you. Underneath, in the dark and damp, armoured feelings of guilt and rage and loathing scuttle about like woodlice. You thought you had stamped them out, but there they still are, living in the gloom within you.

Shame

There are philosophers – like Kant – who think that shame is heteronomous, or subject to laws external to ourselves. Others, like Bernard Williams, have argued that the seat of shame is within oneself. Regardless of which may be true (and there are interesting arguments on both sides), it seems that shame is something we always have the capacity for, and others or ourselves may find the triggers for it intentionally or by accident.

Once this happens, it becomes our own burden to manage and translate into sensible terms we can understand. Shame should be fought, or reasoned away. The next morning, I woke up and engaged in some strenuous exercise. This is good for everyone, but it isn’t a solution to the wider problem of distorted self-image. Like many of us, I’m still working on that. Accepting oneself while still striving to improve is a great challenge, and the sirens of shame will always call out to steer us onto the rocks.

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