Long before Freud and Jung, there was Moses. The account of the Fall not only reveals theological truths, but anthropological truths as well. If we are not careful, we can over-spiritualize it and miss the deep psychological truths that would otherwise be difficult for us to discover. The velocity at which our first parents hit the ground from their lofty fall left them and all of their progeny with a form of altitude sickness we call Original Sin. While shaking the proverbial cobwebs from their heads, Adam and Eve instantaneously became aware of the fact that they were naked and felt afraid (Gn 3:7-10). In short, they experienced shame and no longer comfortable in their own skin. Photoshop and makeup cannot cover over the fact that our flesh and our spirit are at war with each other and all of us experience this conflict to varying degrees. There is a universality to our discomfort that we label generically as “shame.” Only at the General Resurrection will the fa…, err, big boned lady sing her song of conquest. Still, freedom in Christ can be found in what we do here and now. It is in this spirit that I would like to examine our latest cultural crusade—the elimination of fat-shaming.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, fat shaming is “the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size.” Our crusaders have even given it a label—Sizeism. As a partial diagnosis, eliminating cruelty towards those who are deemed overweight is a battle worth fighting. While on the surface the obese person appears to be lacking in self-control, the reasons for an individual person being overweight are usually more physically and psychologically complicated than that. Rash judgments and cruelty often serve only to pull the scabs off of an already wounded person.
Notice however that in the definition, “critical comments” are included in the list of offenses. Even doctors, whose job it is to make critical comments about one’s physical health, are lumped in with the offenders. What this reveals is that while the diagnosis may be accurate, the cure is not. Our cultural crusaders always rely on their lone panacea—“embracing your brokenness”—critical comments even when done in the spirit of fraternal charity have no place in their medicine cabinet. The solution they propose is to affirm our coping mechanisms and rationalizations with the hopes that we will all become shameless. As Catholics, especially those who have been schooled in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we can offer a more effective antidote to shame.
The Experience of Shame
During his Catechesis that became the Theology of the Body, the saintly Pontiff offered an extended discussion on the experience of shame. He starts, naturally enough, at the beginning with the first man and woman prior to the Fall. They are described as being “naked without shame.” In order to understand this primordial experience, we must first grasp that shame is a relational reality. A person has no reason to be ashamed of his nakedness when he is alone in the shower. Instead shame occurs in relation to another person. Our first parents felt no shame, not because they had no flaws in their bodies (even though this is true), but because their bodies fully revealed who they were to one another. Eve had no worry that Adam would see her as an object of pleasure, but instead as a subject to be loved. In short she had no reason to cover up. Likewise with Adam.
With the Fall came a change both within the man and woman and between them. This led to two different experiences of shame. No longer gifted with self-mastery, the body and spirit are at odds which JPII calls this immanent shame. It is best described, as we said at the beginning, as a constant awareness of discomfort in our skin. No matter how much we devote ourselves to beautifying our bodies, we never can quite be satisfied. The second dimension of shame is what the Pope calls relative shame. This sense of shame is essentially a fear that the other person will not recognize and affirm the truth of the person revealed in our bodies.
While shame is experienced as a negatively, it should not be viewed wholly as such. Even though it was an effect of the Fall, God left it there for our benefit. Immanent shame is a constant reminder that all is not yet right within us. Likewise relative shame is a form of protection against being used as an object for enjoyment. This is the most obvious in relation to sexual values, but it has bearing on the topic at hand. A person who is overweight may, because of shame, be driven towards dressing modestly, so that they do not get made fun of (i.e become an object of another person’s self-entertainment). Because of the negative experience of shame, they are driven towards a good thing which will in the long run help to restore them to genuine freedom. The modest person is always more free than the immodest, regardless of whether they are thin or fat.
The Benefit of Shame
Fat-shaming is so psychologically damaging because it fails to recognize the person as a subject that craves love and sets them up merely as an object to be used. This is why it must be seen for what it is—an attempt to exploit the universal experience of shame to somehow reduce its effects in the abuser. But the shame that the person experiences, even if it is agitated, is not caused by the abuser but part of his fallen experience. So even if it were eliminated completely within society, the shame would still be there. There can be no return to Eden to a shame-free life. The only remedy is found in mitigating the twofold effects of shame. To grow more comfortable in our own skin, we must cultivate virtue, especially temperance and its daughter, modesty. Self-mastery neutralizes many of the effects of shame. Modesty, especially in an immodest culture, empowers many of those who are held in the grips of shame. Plus-sized models who model immodest clothing like the petite ones only promote shamelessness and leave many women feeling trapped. One cannot both say that the beauty is more than skin deep while simultaneously bearing more skin.
In his book Love and Responsibility, then Fr. Wojtyla said that “shame is swallowed up by love, dissolved in it…” Only genuine love can alleviate the effects of relative shame. Genuine love sees the body as a person and thus has no desire to use that person. But only the person who has cultivated the virtue of purity has the capacity to receive that love. Purity not only protects us from experiencing lust, but also prepares us to receive true love. This message of purity is drowned out in a culture dedicated to shamelessness only making it all the more vital to living a life marked by true freedom. Fat-shaming is a real problem, but only by “looking through the veil of shame” can we hope to offer a real solution to those who are crippled by fear and shame.