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Shame and Embarrassment

Although I'm an old man I can still be aware of what I see on the street and in coffee shops and elsewhere. And I have become more and more aware of young people, especially young girls, and the way they behave and dress and leave very little to the imagination! The word 'shame' no longer appears to mean anything to them. It makes me ask myself what good is shame?

To me shame safeguards a person's very intimate space: one's mystery, one's most personal and inmost being, one's dignity, but especially one's capacity for love. It relates to that which only love may see.

Many young people today seem to live in an environment where it is taken for granted that everything should be on display and people are systematically trained to ignore feelings of shame. But shamelessness is inhuman. Animals experience no shame. In human beings, however, it is an essential feature. It does not hide something inferior but rather protects something valuable, namely, the dignity of the person. It has nothing to do with prudery or a repressive upbringing. Someone who offends another person's natural feeling of shame by words, glances, gestures, or actions robs him of his dignity.


*amused* having read history, this seems to come up every single generation.

i like to think that young people realize that their privacy is essentially between their ears. a glimpse of stocking or whatever isn't shameful or shameless; it is after all just the physical meat of the person, not their inmost being, their dignity, or their capacity for love. a gentleman in a speedo is well-suited to enjoy the water; he is not undignified, because his dress and behavior reveal nothing of his inmost being or his heart -- only that he's going swimming. imposing deeper meaning on that is an act of the imagination of the viewer, and says nothing about the swimmer at all.

(i find it interesting that you focus on young women, who generally wear more at say the beach than men do. do you think they have more to be ashamed of?)
I always thought feeling shame was meant to be sinful: as in the Bible Adam and Eve never felt shame until after they ate the apple. They covered themselves because they realised they were naked, not because being naked was bad—everything they did was pure and good prior to eating the fruit—but because they were ashamed of themselves for the sin they committed.

Like when a child hides their hands, it's not because they are dirty—often times they aren't—but because they are ashamed of what the hands have done.
Male and female both seem to have lost something, don't they? Both the fashions and also any sense of self-respect are against it. Although as a historian, I do have to say that so much of what we see today is just history repeating itself. I just finished an excellent book, "The Lives of the English Rakes", and you could have taken that behaviour from the late 1600s-early 1700s and put in on one of these reality TV shows with no changes whatsoever - exposing one's private parts to the general public while so drunk you can barely stand up, etc.
You are the only other person I've ever run across who has read that!
Odd, because it's really a gripping read - much better than Krantz and Steele.
This post made me quite thoughtful. I feel that you are using the words in a different way than I do. In my thoughts, the idea that you are keeping parts of your physical self, (and presumably your inner thoughts,) covered, is more like 'modesty.' Modesty perhaps differs depending on where we are. What is modest at the beach is not the same as what is modest at work. What I consider modest as a mom in her late 40's, is different again from what my Muslim neighbor mom feels comfortable with. Modesty is related to dignity I think. Dignity in the best sense, of happily showing your best self to others so that you can participate in things.

Shame, to my mind, is different.

It comes from the feeling that you are not good enough, not for other people, maybe not even for God. Shame is corrosive. It isolates.

Maybe I am overthinking here. I am interested to know what you all think.
That's it exactly. Shame, to me, is a consciousness that you have done something wrong. Modesty would be a better word in the situation athgarvan describes, and as you say, what is modest varies according to the situation.
As I see it, modesty is a mode of dress and deportment intended not to encourage sexual attraction in others and varies in different cultures. Shame is found in all cultures and is an awareness of one's sins, failings and other things that would demean one if they were made generally known. It recognises one's own dignity as a human being.
This is a very interesting post, and I thank you for sharing it. It brings up a very important point about language, and how different words can mean different things to different people. You see, in my particular culture (that is, my particular sub-altern counter sphere of American culture) the word "shame" is something that is considered a very bad, very damaging thing. "Shame" means that we have learned to attach "badness" or "dirtyness" to things about ourselves that are natural, and really ok. Like, for example, I lived in "shame" for years over my sexuality. That, in my view, was not healthy or positive in any way. My sexuality just IS... I didn't choose it, and there is no reason to be ashamed of it. Shame, in my worldview, leads to self-hatred, not self-love. Shame is an injury from which one must heal in order to be a whole person.

Now, perhaps, for you, shame DOES safeguard your personal intimate space. Feeling safe is also important. But the word itself has the opposite meaning for me. You see, if I were to put on a dress, makeup, nylons, high heels... traditionally female attire, even in a business setting, I would feel nothing but SHAME. That would be the emotion that would be most prevalent. And, that is not a good feeling... it is a feeling that I avoid whenever possible. You, on the other hand, might think that I HAVE no shame, because I continuously persist in wearing men's clothes. Right. In men's clothes, I do not feel ashamed. Exactly. But we are using the language in completely different ways.

As I understand it, in the Catholic world view, women should cover themselves because all women bear the shame of Eve's original sin. I would suggest that the women that you are referring to are causing YOU shame, as in they are making you feel uncomfortable by their lack of modesty. They are not feeling shame, and do not want to. It is you that is uncomfortable, not them.

The girls that you are referring are sending a message, and that message is "This is MY body, not YOURS, and, no matter HOW I dress, it still belongs to ME, not you."

Of course, that leaves people like you and I wondering how we can act appropriately while talking to them, and not just stare at their chests the whole time. But this places the responsibility on us... you and I... to respect the personal space of others. This means that you and I ALSO take responsibility and ownership of our OWN personal space, and not rely on other people to protect us from ourselves.
I wrote an issue of the Post-Traumatic Gazette on Shame. It's #39 at http://www.patiencepress.com/patience_press/PTSD_Help-Gazettes.html. I also think that dressing in skin tight or scanty clothes is one end of a continuum (the other end being huge loose clothes) which tells abusers, "I have no boundaries." This is one of the reasons trauma survivors are often re-victimized. They are numb, not dumb, being so numb you don't catch the implications of how someone is acting. What sets off warning signals in regular people isn't even noticed. It is sad, not bad.
Thank you for that extensive analysis of shame and how it affects us. Much appreciated.

I was particularly interested in the paragraphs on Healthy Shame. I feel that our generation in general has lost this positive feeling/emotion that strengthens respect for our own dignity as persons and the dignity of others.
I am late to the discussion.
I will add to those who think shame is a negative word.
In my culture it is. To shame someone is to berate them. To make them feel inferior. Ultimately to make them dislike themselves. It has little to do with their actions and much to do with their sense of self.
Shame is most certainly not protective.

As to what people wear - it is in the eye of the beholder. And the attitude of the wearer.
Clothing says what we want it to say. But the message can change - and be misunderstood. Words can have the same effect.
very late to this subject. I agree that fashions can be confronting, but it's been said that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept - and in this case it is very, very true. Sure, you might be seeing girls wearing clothes you associate with prostitutes - but where are they buying these items? Chances are it's in the children's wear at your local variety chain store. So have you been protesting against the lack of shame of the buyers that supply those stores?

Have a look at the reality tv shows Toddlers and Tiaras (actually I don't seriously recommend this) what values of modesty and decency are being displayed to these toddlers, who are being taught to sexualise themselves for the judges? Are you protesting these sorts of contests?

Are you protesting the increasing sexualisation of the advertising industry, and the associated mental and health costs it is causing? http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/sex-sells-but-were-selling-out-our-children-20120408-1wj7e.html

Or are you simply condemning children for wearing clothes that offend you?