The ‘flaws’ of women are often used as fodder for jokes, gossip and plain old bullying and mean-spiritedness. Many people, including women, are socialised to embarrass, humiliate and highlight the perceived flaws of women on a regular basis.
That highlighting can happen under the guise of entertainment (insert almost any reality show featuring women), news or gossip (see your local church or temple or Kristen Stewart).
Women are often shamed for things they can control (affairs with married partners or poor decision-making) and sometimes for things that are beyond their control (health issues, religious or spiritual practices and mental illness).
It is the latter that most interests me — the idea that there are no boundaries when it comes to publicly shaming women, despite what issues they may be facing. With the pervasiveness of the website, this public shaming has moved beyond neighbourhoods and institutions — the real world, if you will — and has landed squarely at our fingertips by way of laptops, cellphones and tablet devices, taking the public shaming of women to a different level.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the shaming of women has to do with physical appearance, since this is the way that women are often measured in society and, quite honestly, it is the way that many of us measure our self-worth.
Despite what might be going on underneath (physical or mental-health issues, religious beliefs or ideologies that choose not to privilege physical appearance over other aspects of the body), we cling to the culture of shaming women around what they look like, as opposed to who they are as whole people.
One doesn’t have to look far to find examples. Take, for instance, the news story about a web user with the e-handle ‘European-Douchebag’, who posted a photo on Reddit of a Sikh woman with a visible beard standing in line, minding her own business at a restaurant. The caption read: “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.”
What we can conclude is that the user, who posted the Sikh woman’s photo without her permission, wanted to embarrass or shame her for having “excessive facial hair,” according to dominant beauty standards.
Cultural critic-comedian W. Kamau Bell has done a fantastic job of showing us how little Americans know about the Sikh community, so it is no surprise that the user obviously did not know that Sikhs do not alter their physical appearance, because of their belief in the sacredness of the body.
The user, who eventually apologised after the Sikh woman in the photo learned of the incident and responded with an eloquent and informative post, admitted that the initial intent was to embarrass and degrade this woman under the guise of humour.
I immediately thought to myself, why would a presumably grown person have the intent to cause pain to or ridicule another person under any circumstances? The short answer is that the user is, in fact, a “douchebag” — his or her words, not mine — or is caught up in this culture of shaming, which is an extension of bullying women because there is an audience for it.
Another recent example of shaming women comes from La Cross, Wisconsin, where TV anchorwoman Jennifer Livingston responded to an email from a viewer, who admitted that he didn’t watch her newscast but felt the need to comment on her weight anyway.
The viewer had stated in the email that Livingston was not “a suitable example for this community’s young people” because she is overweight.
Livingston, the mother of three girls, responded with an on-air editorial about bullying and why her weight should be of no concern to the viewer or anyone else, for that matter. In this instance, again, someone who knows nothing about this woman felt the need to shame her for being overweight, as if she didn’t know it (which is the irony when someone tells you you’re fat, as stated by Livingston).
And anyway, how does that help the person who is struggling with her weight? The viewer’s goal was not to help but to harm — to shame Livingston into doing something about her weight, which in his mind outweighs (tongue planted firmly in cheek) anything else she might have to offer. Beyond the fact that men, who can’t give birth, should never be allowed to criticise a woman who has had children — particularly with all the changes that women’s bodies experience through that process — is the fact that this man thought it was his right to shame a woman who is paid to inform the public about local news, not to entertain this man’s idea of beauty or health.
The viewer, who stands by his comments, doesn’t know if her weight is due to illness, life demands, an eating disorder or laziness. What he did assume from the outset is that shaming this woman over her weight would be acceptable, and it isn’t.
The shaming of women goes beyond appearance and can include behaviour. Michael Arceneaux’s piece on “slut shaming” highlights the double standards that high-profile celebrity women face when they appear to be sexually adventurous or free.
This shaming can even be perpetuated by a male celebrity whose sexual behaviour is as risqu as that of the female celebrity — Drake and Rihanna, in recent cases. The shaming of Rihanna’s alleged sexual behaviour is trumped only by the shaming around her ‘friendship’ with Chris Brown, her former lover and batterer.
Headlines have decried the pop princess’ steady march toward reconciling with Brown, who was arrested for beating her three years ago. Rihanna’s decision to reconnect with Brown is her choice, not ours.
The further shaming of victims of domestic violence won’t help anyone, especially not Rihanna. Anyone who knows anything about domestic violence knows that shame is at the center of the behaviour and is what fuels the reasons that victims (men and women) stay in those relationships.
Shaming someone who is obviously battered (physically, emotionally and spiritually) is not the way to address the issue. I’m not saying that fans should support Rihanna in what many will agree is a bad decision at best, but making her feel worse about herself, for someone who obviously suffers from self-esteem issues and low self-worth, is not helpful to her or other victims and survivors of domestic violence out there. For many victims, it takes a tremendous amount of time and therapy to get out and stay out of toxic relationships.
Rihanna’s celebrity status does not insulate her from this behaviour, which is reflective of mental anguish and illness. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: With the millions of domestic violence victims and survivors in the world, why are we fixated on this one case? Is someone with Rihanna’s beauty and status above being victimised or fallible?
The point is that a culture of shaming women has to stop. It is unacceptable and damaging to everyone, not just women. Much of the shaming is rooted in issues around beauty, particularly in dominant standards of beauty and what happens when you don’t meet them (Livingston), when you challenge them (the Sikh woman) or when you embody them (Rihanna).
What does it mean not to be pretty enough or ‘normal’ enough, or so pretty that you can’t be vulnerable or damaged? There is so much shaming of women that terms like slut shaming, fat shaming and pregnancy shaming are now commonplace. Is it any wonder that ‘shame punishments’ are on the rise?
One thing is certain: If we continue this culture of shame against women, then the real shame will be on us as a society.
Nsenga K. Burton is editor-at-large of The Root.