I grew up in a body-shaming religion so I’m used to it; it’s in my cells to be ashamed when my body breaks down, or gets ill, or has needs. My father raised us in the Christian Science religion, which is based on the belief that since God is perfect, and He created us in His image, we, too, are perfect. If one exhibits signs of illness, injury, or other dysfunction – something God would not have, of course – it is because they have allowed themselves to be influenced by some negative thought (not because germs exist and bodies get sick.) One must pray to be released from the negative idea of one’s imperfection. I learned that it was shameful to be ill or injured, tired or uncomfortable, or really to feel anything, and so I felt shame when I did.
Having to admit that there was anything wrong with me – or that I had any bodily needs whatsoever – was terrible. If I did admit to anything being wrong, and sometimes I had no real choice, I felt my father’s disappointment. Imagine being told not to feel – or talk about – your pain, discomfort, fear, fatigue, hunger, or, for that matter, your emotions. Imagine being made to feel at fault for something you have no control over. Shame – at having a leaky, malfunctioning, needy body entered into me – saturating my tissues and fluids, layered between fascia and muscle, muscle and bone; almost as much a part of my structure as my DNA.
When I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis as a young woman I got the proper medical attention, although it took me a while since I didn’t know how the medical system worked, and a part of me suffered the agony of shame at being ill – having needs. I could barely admit to the doctors that I was in pain, that I was having problems. It took me years, and a lot of therapy, to be able to ask for pain medication for my pain – so sure was I that the doctor would act like my father, and look at me with suspicion and disdain, denying there was enough wrong with me to warrant them. It took a long time to register that most of my doctors were very willing to believe there was something wrong with me, and try to fix it, and prescribe me medication to help.
I’m used to people gasping in horror when I tell them about my upbringing and continuing challenges with medical issues. We live in a medicalized society – people are accustomed to going to doctors, and taking medication, and getting help for health problems. I see at least three drug ads per commercial break when I watch TV, encouraging people to request certain medications from their doctors for medical problems.(Luckily, people aren’t being told to just pray about them.) It is acknowledged that cancers, viruses, and bacteria exist and that the body can contract illnesses, and it is fairly common for people to have medical issues. That’s why I was so surprised when I started to notice a subtle shaming around the body happening in the general population, and I’m not talking about the almost-institutionalized shame we have around weight – I’m talking about sick-shaming!
News outlets run stories about the over-prescription and over-use of pain meds, which has lead to a rise in overdoses and heroin use (I’ll write more about this later); “forgetting” to mention the millions of suffering individuals who use their pain meds responsibly and are under a doctor’s care. (Chronic pain sufferers are often shamed for even needing pain meds.) Commercials appear to “blame” people for contracting the flu or a cold, spreading the message that it is somehow shameful to contract these illnesses and it wouldn’t have happened if you had done something different. Just listen to an ad on the radio urging us all to get the flu shot. God help you if you don’t get immunized! Well then you’re either killing yourself – or the person next to you – or dooming yourself to shingles or something else horrible. The normal response to seeing a friend with a cold is to ask how it happened, or what did that person do to get it. (Stood too close to a naturally-occurring-germ-that-could-infect-anyone?)
The message I’m still hearing is that the body has so many needs and demands and things that can go wrong, and it is your “fault” if you get sick. It sometimes sounds like I’m back in the Church! These kinds of attitudes – and media stories – can be so harmful. Here’s a news flash from me: the body is messy and physical, and germs, viruses and other organisms are a part of this whole thing we call biological life on this planet, and illness isn’t a result of in error in thinking or belief. We’ve come so far, medically speaking, with the ability to create life-saving medications, and machines that cure cancer and enable the paralyzed to walk, and just better health, in general. With all we know about illness, haven’t we moved past the shame and blame, which can be insidious and harmful and demoralizing, which, let’s face it, is the last thing you need to feel when you’re sick? Where’s the compassion and empathy, the acknowledgment that illness is a part of having a body? If only we could serve up our health care without a side of leftover shame!