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For Shame

Debbie Ward was 7 years old when she survived a kitchen fire that left scars on 70% of her body. At the age of 9, she asked her mother if she could go to the local pool for a swim. Worried about the reaction of others, her mother tried to dissuade her from the idea, but the girl persisted. What happened next impacted her for the next 60 years of her life. Preparing to enter the water, she overheard hurtful comments and noticed parents gathering their children and exiting the pool. Others swam to the other side of the pool to distance themselves as much as they could from her. Feeling humiliated, hurt and ashamed, Debbie fled tearful, declaring that she would never again put on a bathing suit. She maintained that decision until June of 2023 when she donned a two-piece suit and tried again, this time not caring what people thought and feeling as entitled as anyone else to swim in the pool.


One would like to believe that the cruelty shown to young Debbie wouldn’t happen today. And in fact, much has changed over the past 60 years. Movements such as Body Positivity (which, believe it or not, first started in the late 1960’s, resurged in the 1990’s and is now morphing into Body Neutrality) and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty (which launched 20 years ago), both promote acceptance of bodies of all shapes, sizes, colours, abilities, etc. Popular culture has changed too. Plus-size models are gracing the runways and stores are stocking clothes to fit all sizes. Singers and rappers like Lizzo and D.J Khaled are challenging the stereotypical look.


And yet the cruelty still exists. There is a long list of current female singer-songwriters (Billie Eilish, RAYE, Charlie XCX, Lorde, Alessia Cara, Taylor Swift) all of whom have been the victims of body shaming. Their songs encourage greater self-acceptance, but they also express their hurt. And it’s not just the famous who are recipients of the vitriol that trolls, bots and regular people feel free to throw at them. There are still too many who judge, take distance, and condemn those who appear different or imperfect, leaving indelible marks on those they have shamed.


While we all feel shame at times in our lives, there are those within whom shame plants itself deeply. And as one can see from the very long impact that shame had on Debbie, it is not so easily defeated. It is not like low self-esteem, where people can challenge the negative belief and eventually see themselves in a better, more accurate light. No, for some, shame is a physiological reaction that gets buried deep inside.  It is a feeling of disconnection from others and the world. It comes with a sense of self-loathing and unworthiness for one’s very existence. When making a mistake, the thought is not, “I made a mistake.’ It is, instead, “I am a mistake.” Regardless of whether  there is  success or failure, they always feel shame. Trying to reason with people filled with deep shame falls on deaf ears. For many, their very identities and safety (if they have been victims of trauma) have come from continuing to believe that they are bad, worthless, defective, useless and often better off dead. The fear of being judged and criticized causes them to learn to hide their vulnerabilities and authentic selves to avoid feeling further shame.


According to Brene Brown (The Power of Vulnerability) (Listening to Shame), who began studying it 15 years ago, she found that those who were able to overcome their shame were those, like Debbie, who had the courage to be their imperfect selves, who practiced self-compassion and were able to risk being vulnerable in the face of possible rejection. She described vulnerability as “the birthplace of joy, creativity, innovation, change.' Without vulnerability, “we numb ourselves to everything around us.” She concludes, “Vulnerability is not weakness. It is the most accurate measurement of courage.”


This summer, let’s be vulnerable and courageous. Let's not worry about being seen in a bathing suit or revealing summer wear. Let's be compassionate with ourselves. And let's take back the power we may have given up years ago and enjoy being us.

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