Shame is a feeling of social rejection and isolation, and almost nothing in human emotion can rival its power.
We are social creatures, we feel secure in groups, and when a group sets us outside its boundaries we feel vulnerable and exposed and terrified.
Lone zebras get eaten.
I walk bare-chested because I enjoy the feeling of freedom it gives me. I started quietly walking bare-chested publicly two years ago. The vast majority of my interactions with passersby were and remain neutral or positive, but there was a learning curve in those early walks. A Washington D.C. police officer once stopped me and said, “It may be legal [to be bare-chested], but we’re going to arrest you anyway, because it’s unreasonable.”
He did not arrest me. I had broken no law. He was just trying to use his perceived power to shame me into conformity.
I have walked bare-chested confidently and peacefully all over the east coast of the United States and have a lot of conversations about the ancillary issues associated with normalized female bare-chestedness… social equality, legal equality, breastfeeding, body pride, sexual norms, gender identity, empowerment, etc.
But what has emerged to me as the most fundamental, most important issue is how society uses shame to control people.
We all know the words. Whore, slut, bitch, fat, ugly, sin. Maybe you have had them used against you. Maybe you have used them against others. But let’s look closer at why people use shame and why the idea of women walking around immune to shame tactics is so terrifying to some people.
In many places in the United States it is perfectly legal for women to appear bare-chested and I don’t know anywhere that legally prohibits public breastfeeding. These laws were created by a democratically-elected legislature overseen by a legitimate judiciary. People who object to those laws have mechanisms (voting, activism, the courts) to express themselves.
Women also repeatedly report strong positive feelings after peacefully going bare-chested in public, at the beach, in a park, on a bike ride. Yet even women who wish to still hesitate before going bare-chested and while it is certainly improving in places, some people still shame women who openly breastfeed or go for a walk bare-chested. Why?
Well, as one of my blog commenters matter-of-factly pointed out in his own defense when I asked him why he was attempting to shame me into conforming to his expectations of “proper female modesty,” “shame is how I control people.”
And a light turned on for me.
It’s no revelation that people use shame to control people. What did strike me for the first time is that people use shame as their last resort to maintain their own sense of security and feel that the order of their herd is at risk if whatever idea or behavior they are shaming takes root and becomes socially accepted.
Shame, in other words, is a bully tactic. And bullies are fear biting dogs.
The United States is built on the premise that a legitimate democratic process will provide each of its citizens with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The means for guaranteeing these inalienable rights is to guarantee such fundamental rights as free speech (to a point), equality under the law and so on. We also guarantee that no state or local government can make laws that limit these fundamental rights, anticipating that people insecure about equality will try to do so.
A legitimate process protects legal equality. But asserting legal equality upsets the fundamental assumption that socially men are higher than women, a position to which many men and women adhere. It’s all they’ve ever known. Inequality is their social order. Equality in concept is unnerving to them. Equality in practice triggers a panic. The change they’ve feared happening is happening.
Never mind that women breastfeeding or walking represent no actual threat. Breasts can’t physically hurt anyone. It’s the immunization to shame these behaviors represent that is the upheaval.
Putting ourselves in the position of someone who has bet the farm on inequality as a form of social order, a woman openly breastfeeding, walking around bare-chested, etc, provides a strong visual image of a woman who has freed herself from shame, and if shame is how I control people, and if this woman is immune to my shame, I can’t control her. I have lost control. I am going to die. Panic. Fight.
Nor does it matter that neither the breastfeeding mother nor the woman taking her walk have any intention to harm the poor soul panicking. It does not matter. The act has triggered a mechanism that does not listen to logic.
This morning I awoke to five messages from women who had their Facebook accounts suspended last night for sharing my article, “I Can Feel Bare-Chestedness Normalizing,” which has a cover photo of me standing bare-chested in front of Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
I don’t use Facebook myself because of its nipple censorship policy but my article has been floating around Facebook this month after a supporter posted and shared it. I can see through my blog analytics when Facebook refers visitors and several times activity has spiked rapidly only to be cut off suddenly a few days later. I’ve been waiting for Facebook to remove the article completely for some time now, especially after I found out the article was floating around with my “uncensored” photo attached.
I hate Facebook’s female nipple policy, but Facebook is a private company and can make its own rules. There is no morality consideration in its policy. Someone somewhere has a survey that says if we allow female nipples, we will lose money. When market forces shift in such a way that it becomes good business for Facebook to allow photos with female nipples, it will do so. So I don’t waste my time fighting Facebook directly. Facebook doesn’t care about equality or health. It just cares about profit. Facebook is a follower, not a leader. When society normalizes to female bare-chestedness Facebook will follow. I get that.
But ponder what Facebook’s nipple policy says about shame.
Facebook has become what it is by making itself the medium of our conversations with basically everyone in our lives. We talk to our friends, family and colleagues, we flirt, we read the news, we get school and Little League schedules, all through Facebook. Facebook IS our herd now.
And when you violate a policy, what does it do? It isolates you, puts you in time out. It shames you before a group you have handed it to use against you. It’s brilliant.
I very much appreciate all the people who have shared my article on Facebook. I really can’t conceive how many times it has been shared, but more than 100,000 people from 150 countries have visited my blog this month from that article bouncing around Facebook alone. Imagine how many people saw the thing for 100,000 people to have taken the time to click on it and read the article. Prior to that, barely 10,000 had visited my blog in three months.
It would be nice if Facebook recognized that this many people sharing a thing is a de facto vote of their acceptance for that thing, and a handful of flags or complaints in the face of a sea of neutrality or positivity does not express the community’s will. Until then, I will simply use this as an opportunity to point out this truth.
A woman immune to shame is a force.
A population of women immune to shame could change the world.
Let us use our power to make the world a better place for everyone.