Invisible Shame

Don’t ever for a moment think that men don’t receive crazy body-image messages… and that both men and women don’t reinforce them.

Women watch a 15-minute show featuring elite entertainers and, in some cases, end up feeling bad about ourselves. Men, meanwhile, watch a three-hour game, played by elite athletes with single-digit body fat, and most won’t feel a single twinge of self-doubt, or miss a single chip from the nacho platter… I don’t even think it would occur to them to feel bad, or try to emulate what they saw.

Jennifer Weiner, New York Times, February 4 2020

You think? Really, you imagine that “most” of us won’t have even “a single twinge” of self-doubt? Well, that’s because we won’t show you. It’s because we don’t trust you to not use our weaknesses against us.

And our weaknesses have always been used against us.

Remember “tall, dark and handsome?” We all know who is and isn’t. And we all know which is and is not acceptable. We know the lack-of-height penalty in men’s wages and career advancement. We know who goes on the cover. We know why George Costanza was a buffoon—it’s because he had the hubris to imagine that he mattered. If he’d been six feet tall with those same mannerisms, he’d be Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock: a boor, not a buffoon.

We know the appropriate roles for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball; we know the appropriate roles for Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns; we know the appropriate roles for Mark Wahlberg and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights. We know what it means when the audience on Ellen all scream when she persuades Chris Hemsworth to take his shirt off. You think those things don’t hurt. You think we’re oblivious. And you’re wrong.

We were in gym class or neighborhood hockey with ten thousand Donald Trumps. “Liddle Adam Schiff.” “Crazy Bernie.” “Get Mikey a footstool.” And the other boys in the Senate, on the sidelines, laughing along with their alpha. We know we won’t be alphas. We pick a different field upon which to perform, because that one’s already been claimed.

We were raised by men who told us to get up and stop whining, who told us that visible weakness was the unforgivable flaw, who taught us to be stoic and silent, to “man up.” To doubt oneself is merely to fail a second time. To reveal fear is to have already lost. And to lose, for whatever reason, is unforgivable.

If you believe that a lot of men aren’t hurt, it’s because we’ve done our jobs right, at least as those jobs were explained to us. If you believe that we don’t see hipster guys in skinny jeans, or underwear models, or elite athletes as a dagger in the ribs, it’s because we don’t trust anyone enough to tell you.

I want to come back to a line from the book I mentioned a few days ago:

Shame is psychic extortion… Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.

Jill Alexander Essbaum

There is no reason to have any reference to gender in that passage. Shame does what shame does. We take our revenge on ourselves, in the dark, and you’ll never know.

And I will never write about this again.