Several weeks ago I read this article Liz Riggs wrote for Relevant about the way it feels for a woman to be called out by a man in public for her looks. Few women can forget the way their stomach turns the first time they experience this.
For me, I was 13 and on a family trip in Rio de Janeiro. I was tall, a size two and had braces. I had packed a tankini swimsuit and flip flops that had plastic flowers glued to the tops of them. They were from the Gap.
Tall, lanky with braces, I did not think of myself as especially attractive. So it took me by surprise when walking the streets that a couple of speedo-sporting strangers passed by us, checked me out and said something to each other in Portuguese, a language I don’t know.
I assumed they were commenting on the fact I was American, people were pretty fascinated by my light hair there. But when I saw my dad’s reaction, who is fluent in Portuguese, I realized my nationality was not the subject of their comments; my body was. My dad confronted the Brazilians using a tone he rarely resorts to, let’s call it protective, and that took care of that.
I don’t remember my dad’s words, but I do remember how I felt: hot from head to toe. Hot and squirmy. I had no control over this reaction. The feeling was very foreign to me, a feeling I can now identify as shame, but then it just felt “funny.” The funny feeling lasted through the day if not into the next. My thoughts were clouded by it and my body heavy with it.
Though I couldn’t pinpoint my emotion then, I did register this truth: That as long as I put myself in public, I am offering my body to be commented on aloud, in the way one would comment on a couch at Restoration Hardware.
When I read Liz’s article and re-felt that shame, I began to wonder why that was my emotion of choice. According to Dr. Brené Brown the “shame expert,” empathy kills shame. When men and women can be vulnerable with each other and work hard to understand one another, empathy happens and shame fades.
So is it the lack of empathy in those embarrassing called-out-in-public moments that is birthing the shame? If men felt enough empathy to not say anything in the first place, would it prevent shame? Or is it more a matter of the woman feeling empathy? There is culture and context to consider, after all. And we had empathy in those moments, would it squash the shame before it set in? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: Women have felt shamed by men and have in turn hated them for a long time. Too long. And as the hate increases, as we become more outspoken about the hate, the shame does not, I repeat, does not decrease.
We are doing something wrong. While the hate feels good and pity is comfy to wallow in; it only leads down the familiar path, a path so worn it is sinking us both into the ground, men and women. I know Dr. Brown is onto something. A different path. One of empathy that is not worn, little used, needs clearing.
Maybe it will be us that choses it. I hope it will be us. Regardless, it will be a long road.