excerpt from
“Resisting Shame, Making Our Bodies Home”

(adapted from a keynote first given at the Trans Health Conference, 2008; this version was written with a broad LGBTQ audience in mind)

small square of portrait of Eli by Riva Lehrer, a hand grasping at a shirt

II come to this gathering thinking about shame--that chasm of loathing lodged in our bodies, a seemingly impenetrable fog, an unspeakable and unspoken fist. Shame all too often becomes our home. This is what I want to talk about, even though it’s one of those topics that make us restless, uncomfortable, off balance. I could start with the politics of where shame comes from, how violence and media images, stereotypes and lies, weave together to become shame’s fertile ground. I could start with what we tell ourselves about pride, how we pair shame and pride as opposites and act as if there's a single distinct passage between the two. I could start with the ways in which LGBTQ communities talk around the edges of shame.

But today I want to strike at the center, to talk directly about the raw, overwhelming mess that shame is: how it wakes us up in the morning, puts us to bed at night, whispers to us as we’re having sex, tracking our every move as we dress to go out, telling us lies as we sit in job interviews or stand in line for welfare. Shame visits us in the bedroom and at the beach, in the medical exam room and at the therapist’s office. Shame lives in the mirror and the camera, and its impact is huge, ranging from low self-esteem to addiction, from ignoring our health care needs to suicide. This evening I want to talk about the ways in which shame inhabits our bodies and how we can resist that habitation....

As lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer peoples, how do we foster resistance? Let me begin an answer by talking about how the flames of shame get fanned within queer and trans communities. I’m thinking of the LGBT personal ads that declare “no-femmes” or “no butches,” that seek “straight acting” men or, my personal favorite, folks who are “height and weight proportional.” To start, I want to ask, “What in the world does that really mean, proportional to what?” But in truth we all know what it means: no fat people need respond. It means that many of us look in the mirror and see our bodies as ugly and unloveable, too big, too unruly. It means we’re fat and dislike our size, struggle with dieting, bulemia, simple body hatred. Or we’re not fat but fear that we will become that way. It means that we believe certain body sizes and shapes are bad, wrong, undesirable. I’m not suggesting that queer personal ads create fatphobia and body hatred; there’s plenty else doing that--magazines, TV commercials, doctors who measure health by weight, stereotypes of fat people as lazy and immoral, and on and on. But the many queer personals declaring only slender, muscular, non-disabled bodies as sexy certainly do reinforce those dominant cultural attitudes. They make it harder to be a fat person and walk down the street, go to work, run a marathon or work out for the first time, ask that cutie across the dance floor for a date. They encourage self-doubt and body discomfort. They fan the flames of shame. And to be blunt, we can’t afford it, not in this world that also tries to shame us for our sexualities and genders....



copyright 2010, Eli Clare