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Shaming and Positivity.

5 July 2017

There’s a debate that rages about whether kids should be taught self esteem, and that then that will make them want to achieve because they want to live up to their potential, or if kids should be taught to achieve, and then they will gain self esteem. I’m not going to weigh in on parenting: I was only briefly a (step) parent and I wasn’t very good at it. So I’m not going to pretend to have good ideas about how to tell people to raise their kids.

But I do have some ideas about what self esteem is, how to earn it, and what it helps us do, or not. Because I think it also relates to the current wave of anti-shaming shaming. Basically, whenever anyone says anything about a person (or a group of people, or a theoretical group of people, and sometimes even only about themselves) that can be considered negative, they are often attacked for “shaming”. Shamed, as it were.

One of the most frequent of these is so-called “body-shaming”. Now, this is certainly a thing that exists. Insulting people for being overweight, or (less commonly) too skinny, and using how someone looks to bully them is an extremely common abusive tactic. Other forms of ugly and bullying shaming include poverty shaming, disability shaming, sexuality shaming, slut shaming, etc. etc..

Shaming is, as near as I can tell, bullying with faux-morality attached. “You’re fat because you’re weak,” “You’re poor because you’re lazy,” “You’re lonely because you’re a slut.” And shaming is bad because it is designed to make a person feel inferior for things which are either matters of choice without a moral aspect (like not caring about one’s BMI), or outside of their control (like needing a wheelchair). Shaming is an attempt to control someone else’s behavior and feelings by weaponizing negative self-esteem.

And so generally – though I certainly think shame can be a useful emotion, and can be deployed to good effect in limited circumstances – shaming is about trying to make oneself feel better at the expense of another. Thus, generally frowned upon. It’s emotional colonialism; an extractive mechanism designed to conscript emotional wealth. We therefore discourage it.

Unfortunately, like many things, the concept of anti-shaming has metastasized beyond its useful origins. It becomes attached to many things, and has obtained a political penumbra which allows it to be used for its own type of bullying and community-enforced behavior modification. And it can be used to support falsehoods designed to make us feel better but which do us harm.

One of the examples of this is at the extremes of “body-positivity”. Normally the perfectly appropriate concept that one should not bully people over what they look like, and that no matter what a person weighs they should be treated like a person. I totally endorse those statements. But body-positivity runs into dangerous ground when it asserts that “everyone is fine the way they are”. Well, it depends on what one means by “fine”.

If a person is happy with what they weigh and how they look, and they are willing to bear the health consequences of that weight, then by all means, none of my business and I support treating them well regardless. But it is outright false to simply tell people that the only difference between BMI 32 and BMI 24 and BMI 16 is waist circumference and vapid societal approval. There are specific, known, proven, and dangerous health consequences of the first and last of those numbers. Sometimes deadly ones (certainly so at the level of public health).

But, unless a person is asking me specifically for advice, or I am their physician (I am not a physician), it’s probably inappropriate for me to comment on the potential health consequences of someone’s physical fitness choices. And it is inappropriate to use medical terms to describe a specific person’s weight in a public setting. But when speaking in the abstract, or about myself, discussing the health consequences of weight in scientific terms is not “shaming”, nor is it in opposition to “body-positivity”.

I talk about my physical appearance a lot with respect to weight. I do not want to be obese. I want to look a specific way that I find appealing and that I hope others do too. Specifically, that I hope my partner does. I also want to be lighter because it will help me race faster and do less damage to my joints. When I talk about myself, I am not shaming anyone. If someone feels shame based on how I talk about myself, that is coming from inside them, not from me*. I have goals around my body and my weight, and yes, some of them are aesthetic goals and I am 100% ok with that.

Fundamentally, my fitness goals are about not getting type II diabetes. It runs in my family, and it destroyed my father’s life when he would not or could not do the things required to successfully manage the disease. But I have secondary goals around capability, fitness, and appearance and I don’t have to apologize for any of that. I’m not shaming anyone by saying, “I would like to lose 10 pounds and add some muscle to my back.”

Self esteem comes from inside. It comes, for me, from setting goals that are challenging but achievable, and then working towards them. I do this in my work, in my fitness, in my hobbies, in my relationship. I tend to succeed because I know to set reasonable but ambitious goals, and I know how to work towards them. I fail sometimes. Sometimes it’s because I set a goal badly. Sometimes it’s because I didn’t do what it takes to achieve it. Sometimes it’s just luck.

But most of the time I feel pretty good about myself. I have worked very hard at making good decisions since I got sober, and even though I often fail, I succeed more than not. I am positive about my body: I have trained it to do some pretty amazing things in my own estimation. But I also recognize that I could be better in many ways.

Life is a project. The experiences I want to have require a body that hits some significant fitness benchmarks. My medical history requires that I work hard to maintain basic health. I like to talk and write about my journey. And I like to encourage others, because I believe that fitness and the experiences I’ve had earning it are good and widely available. I don’t believe any of that is shaming.


*Bearing in mind of course that there are ways to pretend to be talking about oneself when actually making broad and cruel social commentary, like, “I’m sure glad I look better than all those people who refuse to work out.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    5 July 2017 10:59

    Good post. I agree with all of it, and the only thing I would add is that we ought to refrain from making assumptions (and therefore judgements) about what other people of are capable of. We don’t even know what we ourselves are capable of, most of the time. How can we know that for somebody else?

    • 5 July 2017 11:10

      I agree we shouldn’t make assumptions or judgments about what people are capable of. But I don’t think encouraging people to improve their fitness does that except in rare cases.

      Saying, “I bet you can do a 5k run, and I bet you’d feel great when you finish!” to someone who is considering a 5k run is not making assumptions or judgments. But saying the same thing to a person who’s never indicated any interest in that might be.

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