I've been thinking about shame a lot today, after a Facebook friend linked to an article about discrimination against fat people by airlines. The author wrote about feeling not only embarrassed, but humiliated and ashamed, for taking up more than his share of space on a plane. I've certainly experienced my share of feeling those emotions, but I think the distinctions among them are important to consider.
Embarrassment arises, I think, from the sense of having one's shortcomings obviously displayed in public. We are embarrassed when we belch or sneeze during a quiet moment, when we drop food on our bosom (my own personal nemesis), when we need a seatbelt extender, when we trip, and the like. Humiliation comes, generally, from someone else's lack of compassion and empathy. We feel humiliated when someone else points out our shortcomings, often in public and with malicious intent. Bullies know all about humiliation. Both of those emotions are real and unpleasant, but in my opinion, they can't inflict nearly as much damage as shame.
Shame is, at least in this context, about not feeling entitled to do whatever it is one feels ashamed about, or even to exist. In my various times at Green Mountain, I've met many women who feel too much shame to allow themselves to dance or go swimming or enjoy any activity that would require them to expose themselves physically, even though most of us there have similar issues to deal with. The kicker is that many of those women are often what the world would consider "normal" size. And it isn't just weight that makes people feel shame; many of us have other things that make us feel we have no right to enjoy life.
What's even worse is that shame often drives us to do things in secret. Thought the things we feel shame about might be obvious for all to see, the behaviors that result often take place in the dark, or when we are alone, or when we are alone in the dark. I've struggled for years with secret, nighttime eating, an act of which I have been profoundly ashamed. Sure, part of the secrecy was a kind of denial, maybe even a guilty kind of pleasure. But I think it mostly stemmed from my feeling, very deep inside, that I didn't have the right to feed myself well. Part of the healing process for me has been trying to keep eating out in the open, because whatever my size, I have a right to nurture myself and take pleasure in the food I choose to eat. Just as I am entitled to be comfortable when I ride my bike, even if it means wearing clinging bike gear that may not be wonderfully flattering but prevents chafing and blisters. And I have the right to dance my fool head off, even if that means shaking the rafters of the house.
It's all about giving ourselves permission to be who we are and live our lives as safely, comfortably and joyously as possible.