Protecting Our Society from Shame Culture
Last week was the final week of our school holidays and we had deliberately planned to leave an empty schedule so that we could rest from a couple of crazy weeks of travel, Christmas, New Year and all of the socialising that comes with it. It was Monday morning and I decided to step on the bathroom scales to see what damage I needed to fix after the Christmas season. What I saw was a shock. I was 3kg heavier than I have ever been and about 5kg heavier than the last time I had checked - back in August. The truth is, it wasn't just the Christmas period that added 5 kilos - it was the past few months of heavy work load and binge snacking for energy. So I decided that I would spend the week getting as on top of my health as I could - I made a video of it on our YouTube channel, if you're interested to see it, and I managed to drop 2kg in 7 days - a good start, but a long way to go.
I tell you this because one morning I was complaining about my excess wobble around my stomach and didn't realise I was putting myself down - shaming myself. "I need to get rid of this - it's horrible", I said. Internally, I know that my priority is health, rather than aesthetics, but that's not what my daughter picked up from my comments and my intense week of exercise. That evening, my wife, Millie, spotted our daughter in front of the mirror in the bathroom, wobbling her tummy (she is a slim and healthy kid - very active and even ran her first 3.2km last week at age 7!)... she said "Mummy, I wish I was slimmer - I don't like this bit", as she pulled together as much skin as she could to form a belly. We were mortified. My self-talk had devalued my daughter's self-image. Before I continue this blog, I want to acknowledge and let you know that I am now doing my very best to use more intentional language about health, rather than aesthetics. We have already had conversations with our daughter about it too and we are working hard to re-teach her and to show her what is healthy - both in physical health and mental health.
I was in shock that my comment and action about myself would impact her so deeply. We took before and after photos of my week that we didn't use on the channel, because we didn't want to promote image - health being the focus.
But we live in a society that increasingly shames. Living in Singapore, I have noticed that shaming is not so prominent, but I can see it starting to seep into society. In the UK, shaming is everywhere. Newspaper headlines, magazines, television - you can't escape it. Celebrity gains weight after break-up; fashion faux-pas will surely end his career; sportsperson has lost their edge - time to get the sack! These headlines are common, but feed into society in the way that my self-talk fed into my daughter. It's subtle, it seems normal and it changes the way we talk about ourselves and each other. Shaming has snuck into every area of society in the UK - have you ever watched Prime Minister's questions? Government leaders begin by talking about policies and things that impact a nation and end up in mud-slinging, finger pointing and personal put-downs. Stadium stands are filled with abuse and insults for the players and referees on the pitch. I remember being shocked by the language used when I took my nephew to his first Premier League football match - we were even sat in the family section!
As I mentioned, shaming has not yet polluted Singapore's society - and I believe we need to protect it from happening. We are helped by the typically Asian culture trait of honour and respect, but I can see this being overthrown if we are not careful. Prominent social media accounts such as Wake Up Singapore and others look for every opportunity to bring down the government and key figures in society. They shame the system - the structural walls that hold up this society. There is an intentional desire to pull down, rather than to build up. Let me be clear - there are faults and mistakes, issues and problems that need to be addressed. But there is a way to address and to highlight - I do not believe that shaming is the solution. It creates an uncomfortable, festering feeling that does not go away. After reading this, I hope that you will see the headlines or reports that are aiming to shame, and that you will be able to protect yourself from adopting those feelings - for our society or for yourself.
Body shaming has begun to get out of control in the UK. BullyingStatistics.org reports that 94% of teenage girls and 65% of teenage boys have experienced body shaming. Lifestyle magazine, Men's Health, reported that 60% of adults have experienced the same. I have drawn attention to body shaming specifically as I see strong parallels to it and the way we treat society. Body shaming is the act of taunting and harassing because of someone's appearance, the highlighting of faults to cause feelings of shame, degradation and lack of worth and value. This lack of self-worth has resulted in a self-feeding machine of embarrassment, shame and hate. No surprise that suicide and depression is increasing at an uncontrollable pace.
Like our bodies, society is full of faults. But there are ways to address and bring health. If a body shames its arm into disfunction, the whole body suffers. I have noticed that many posts from those influential social media accounts are laced in hate, unaware they are cutting off their nose to spite their face.
It is easy to accidentally shame our society too - and we must be careful so that we don't have a negative impact on others, as I did with my daughter. These social media accounts that are designed to pull down and undermine need to be careful and uphold the responsibility that comes with prominence - they carry weight in society - unfortunately, they are becoming an authority on responses to a generation who are most susceptible to negative self-talk and self-degradation... do we want this to be the future? Society's faults and needed corrections will only be made worse if they are highlighted with shame, but they can be made right with a healthy approach. A focus on health, not shame. Let us remove negative self-talk and place focus on the health. Let's take responsibility to share the positivity. Focus on how things can or could be right, instead of how they are wrong. Begin to do the things that will bring positive change. Perhaps we can influence a mindset here or there to help protect society and prevent a culture of shaming.
I have become incredibly aware of my words and actions, to place more value on the goal than the problem. If the problem is shaming, the opposite of this is encouragement. This promotes the goal - giving it gravitas and helps it to carry weight. The problems are there, but they begin to diminish in the presence of a strong goal or vision. For example, as a teacher I often use a technique that we refer to as proximity praise. This is where, in a classroom setting, I would celebrate the small positive behaviours of a child who is positioned near a child who is not demonstrating desired behaviours. "Jimmy, thank you so much for sitting nicely and paying attention to what I am sharing", I would say to Jimmy. Immediately the student next to him who has been distracting others and not paying attention will hear what the expectations are, and understand that good behaviours are celebrated. He will then change his behaviour to match that of Jimmy's. It works with adults, too. Just this week I was delivering a session on a hot topic of DEIJ, Intersectionality, to a large group of over 100 adults. They were a harder group to speak to, less engaged in what I was sharing than others I had experienced and so I thanked an exemplary table. "Thank you so much to this table here, who are engaging so well with what I'm sharing. It means a lot and I know this is going to be a significant session for you." Open laptops on other tables closed and a few more sat up and paid closer attention to the session.
While these examples are from a classroom or in an interactive professional development session, I believe that a focus on encouragement, gratitude and the good is the healthiest way forward for society. The UK needs to claw back some of this encouragement, but it will take a bold leader or a bold media outlet to lead the way, addressing the issue and giving society the tools to move in a healthier direction. Here in Singapore, we must be careful to not let ourselves succumb to shaming and embarrassment. We must not allow negative talk to influence us. Let's continue to honour, respect, encourage and edify each other and to protect our wonderful society.