This past week, I was talking with some of the women I work with about periods, and about the larger issue of shame around things that aren’t shameful even if they can cause revulsion. One of my friends, Rachel, mentioned Crohns and other “invisible” diseases as an example of something that can be incredibly uncomfortable to discuss (because: poop); she phrased this really well, so I need to lift it wholesale here (with her permission): “I think that distinction between discomfort with the process and discomfort with the person and their experiences is important.”
Disgust and revulsion are natural (if you’d like to go see the scientific documentary Inside Out, I will wait); they are ingrained into our biology so that our ancestors wouldn’t poop where they ate, and would therefore be able to grow big enough to reproduce.
Being confronted with something that is uncomfortable can cause any number of reactions – you can imagine some yourself, I’m sure. Being cut in line; a kid throwing a tantrum; someone crying on the sidewalk. I think a fairly conventional reaction to each of these is to turn away. Another is a gentle interruption (“excuse me, I was in line;” “don’t worry, this happens to every parent;” “are you ok? Do you need help?”). Another is anger. There are more. Each pull you out of what you were feeling and thinking before, and therefore catch in your mind, which can cause you to form a reaction later, as well (and I’d guess that often, it’s irritation or scorn, or something similarly negative – with the possible exception of seeing someone crying).
Let’s go back to the turning away reaction. If I think carefully, I believe that I would turn away from embarrassment, the kissing cousin to shame. I’d be embarrassed to be witness, embarrassed for the other.
Let’s go back to revulsion and disgust. We all have different thresholds for these. When my college roommate and I lived in Ithaca, and she was working in the necropsy lab at the vet school at Cornell, I would attend some of the show-and-tell sessions (which was basically just the most interesting things to come through the lab). One session that stands out in my mind was the contents of a horse’s digestive tract that was filled with bot fly larve. It was pretty, pretty, pretty gross. But it didn’t really bother me. Fast forward 12 or 13 years, and when Eleanor broke her arm I thought I was going to throw up looking at it. Our personal thresholds can be unpredictable; illogical.
Life has taught us, however, that there are many things in life that are shameful, across the board, at the same level. That to engage in these things, is to be an embarrassment, and to expect people to back away. Whether it’s periods (so taboo, the only way to demonstrate how pads and tampons work in commercials is to use blue liquid), a chronic illness, or looking differently than mass media shows us is ok (whether it’s being larger than a size whatever, being a person of color, having hearing aids, being homeless, or a hundred thousand different permutations of humanity), there are a lot of things that we have been trained to find uncomfortable, to the point of embarrassment. And unfortunately, so many of us have therefore accepted that someone who embodies this is what is embarrassing, shameful, disgusting. This is not so.
How damaging it is, to strong arm into silence someone’s personhood, because what they have experienced is uncomfortable. Every human is more than the sum of their experiences, but those experiences are what builds them, as well. There are more things in their minds and souls that are dreamt of, to mangle and paraphrase Shakespeare.
How selfish it is, to acquiesce to these circumstances – to shut away someone’s life experience, and therefore, their very selves – in order to make ourselves more comfortable.
Morally, we have an obligation to remember to separate our reaction to the experience, from our reaction to the person. It’s a hard thing to unlearn. We learn it young, as kids in school, when someone farts, or pees their pants, or a boy wears nail polish. We learn to associate strongly with the pack’s definition of normal, and to shun the one that doesn’t fit (this is a biological thing again, so that a sick member of the colony wouldn’t kill the rest). Over time, we’ve come to accept a wider and wider array of normal humanity as abnormal, as bad for us. It takes a very conscious stepping back and recalling that we get to decide what is or is not uncomfortable for us. If it’s uncomfortable, we can choose how to react. We can practice over time to keep separate the thing and the human experiencing it. If it’s not uncomfortable, we don’t need to pretend it is – we don’t have to nod and say “eww!” or avert our gaze, or otherwise push back down that other human.