Wednesday, June 15, 2011


How much shame is okay? Seemingly, one of the by-products of post-feminism is a loss of bodily shame. On the one hand, this signals a positive body acceptance, a move away from the beauty and body ideals that can be so terribly constricting for women -- leading to such diseases as anorexia and bulimia, as well as self-loathing. This is "Dove campaign" feminism -- love me and my curves and my flaws. It is also the backbone of the Fat Pride movement. But pride in fat is tricky, a step or a few steps beyond acceptance of imperfection. Fat Pride signals a more defiant stance -- women and men "claiming their fat" as the song "The Ladies Who Lunch" puts it. But Fat Pride seems dangerous -- do we want to have pride in diabetes, pride in heart disease, pride in the myriad health problems caused by obesity? Should we be angry when an airplane tries to charge us for two seats or embarrassed that we require two seats? Isn't a little bit of shame a good thing?

I ponder this not simply as summer starts and I am seeing way to much flesh paraded shamelessly around my neighborhood (male, female, young, old -- too many bellies, too many giant legs, giant arms, too much cleavage); but as I am raising two kids, and wondering whether to instill shame or not. In part, it is an issue related to weight. My mother used to touch her fingers to my stomach when it got pudgy and let me know if I was looking fat, to encourage me to lose a few pounds. It was demeaning but effective. But was it a good idea? I never had an eating disorder -- I didn't have what I took to be the resolve (I took laxatives once, had to get off a public bus to find a bathroom in a Chinese restaurant and vowed never to go that route again). (I know thinking of it as resolve is sick, but like many girls I was a little envious of anorectics until I understood the depths of it better and knew a few friends who suffered from it -- then I recognized that it was a terrible illness, not willpower). I never had an especially good body image. Now, I look at pictures of myself as a kid and I see a healthy relatively lean kid but then I was convinced that I was pudgy. So, did I have too much shame?

What do we tell our kids? When my son got chunky a few years ago, we worked to teach him better portion control and better habits. We didn't shame him or call him fat but we did tell him that he was gaining too fast and needed to take better care. It helped him learn and he now thinks about what he eats a bit more, but still enjoys food. If we didn't teach him, but "accepted" his fat, would we have been doing him a favor or leading him into a lifetime of bad health?

With my son and my daughter, I have discussed food and body in terms of health and fitness, not appearance. I have made clear to both kids that they should be healthy, that they should not worry about the ideals in magazines, that plastic surgery for appearance is unnecessary, that they are normal, wonderful kids. That's relatively easy.

But what about other kinds of bodily shame? As puberty looms, I think about sexual shame. How much should I worry about my daughter's changing body? What can she wear and what can't she? I feel a prudishness growing in me, a desire to cover her, hide her, protect her from the gaze. But that seems a wrongheaded shame. My shame, not hers, as she has none, not yet at least. Part of me wants to keep her shameless, proud, open, and free. Still, I want to teach her to protect her body, to know it privately and share it wisely, not to show it heedlessly. Is this too focussed on the body? Too alienated from it? Or just realistic?

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