It was a picture of a lady’s feet getting a pedicure next to my friend. The towel under her feet was littered with dead skin hunks that had been sloughed off her feet.  It was pretty gross. My friend had snapped a picture of this woman’s feet, posted it to Facebook, and made a remark about all the dead skin.  Within moments, there were several comments about the condition of this woman’s feet and 1 share. I contemplated adding to the comments, but didn’t know what to say.  I wanted the acceptance of a “like” on my comment from my friends.  I didn’t like the picture or comment, but it has bothered me a lot, and I finally figured out why.  Public Shaming.

Public shaming isn’t anything new. People have been ridiculed for not fitting in, for being different, for not being “normal” (what ever that means) as long as people have been on Earth.  We might not keep a person in the town square in stocks. We don’t stone people in the public commons.  We don’t make women pin scarlet letters to their chests for adultery.  Children are not relegated to the the corner of the classrooms to wear dunce caps.  But, we still publicly shame people. Social media has created a platform to disseminate information rapidly, and has been increasingly used to shame, humiliate and degrade others, and often they aren’t even people we know.  Some people even post pictures of their pets with signs on social media platforms publicly shaming them for alleged misdeeds.

I have known this girl since high school.  I remember her as kind, and that’s why it surprised me so much.  It seemed out of character for her to point out something negative about a stranger. She is a lot like me, and it made me question my behavior.  As I thought about that woman’s feet,  throughout my day yesterday, my discomfort grew, because I became more aware.   I started thinking about the rest of the woman these feet were attached to, and how much her feet were like mine.  My heels and feet are worn and calloused… Something that I’ve become keenly aware of as my 20 year high school reunion approaches next week.  I want to look my best, even though I am older, and I want to feel acceptance from my peers. Read Why your 20 year High School Reunion is important

Renowned psychiatrist, William Glasser focused a lot of his studies on our 5 basic needs.  One of them is a sense of belonging, love and acceptance.  We want to feel like we are part of something.  We want to feel included, liked and admired.  We want to fit in. Well, most of us do.  There are those that take pride in their differences, and stand out from the crowd based on their appearance, occupation, lifestyle, and how they spend their time. Most of those people still hang out with others who share their differences…. It’s that whole birds of a feather stick together colloquialism that my grandmother often used.  Publicly Shaming others can create a false sense of belonging, and acceptance with our peers.  That’s part of why we do it.

I can think of at least 10 movies about high school, its drama and social hierarchy without a search engine.  (Maybe, it’s because I’ve re-watched so many preparing for my reunion).  The movies continue to resonate with past and present generations, because high school is a microcosm for the rest of your life.  I didn’t believe that during high school.  Hope that life in “the real world” would be different or better is part of what helped me survive those four years. People want to fit in.  They want to be included, and they will sometimes do things out of character to feel that sense of belonging.

Most of the popular people at my high school were athletes.  We had several state champion teams in a variety of sports. Some of the popular athletes were kind, and others were masters of public shaming.  There were usually one or 2 leaders of the group, and the others who would contribute to the humiliation or would condone it through their silence or lack of defense for the persecuted.  We didn’t have bullying rules when I was in high school, but I don’t know if that would have made a difference.  Most of the time it wasn’t a dramatic, direct attack on the individual like memorable scenes from high school movies. (I’m not aware of hazing that occurred.) It was more often sarcasm, and indirect ridicule.  It was subtle whispers and gossip. It was painful. It was public shaming, and I had a problem with it twenty years ago too.

During high school, Maria* was known by many for being mean.  She was smart, and had an ability to hone in on a person’s vulnerabilities to shame them.  I’d been on the receiving end of her remarks and experienced humiliation more than once. I had also defended several people she and her friends had attacked, both publicly and privately.   I was glad when I didn’t have to interact with her everyday.  I saw her when she was at college once, in 1997, and she had changed.  I was apprehensive about what she would say to me.  I was guarded, and didn’t understand why my high school friends would be associating with her in college, when they hadn’t been close friends.

She hugged me.

She told me that I looked good.  I was waiting for the but… or the cutting sarcasm, but it never came.  What came instead, to my disbelief, was an apology for how she had treated me and so many other people.  She told me that she admired that I stood up for people, and I was generally kind to everyone.  I saw compassion and vulnerability in a person I thought lacked either one. That was the Maria my friends who went to college and high school with knew.

She was kind.

I am grateful that is my final memory of her. She died from a heart attack about 6 months later. I wish that more people were able to see who she had become, and her compassion. We don’t always know our lasting impact on the lives of others- both positively and negatively.

I spent a couple of hours this morning physically preparing for my reunion.  I gave myself a pedicure, and thought of the picture of the lady’s feet.

I rarely take time or spend money on “pampering myself”.  I believe self-care is important, but typically spend my resources on other things.  What if the woman in my friend’s picture is like me?  Perhaps, she got a pedicure certificate for Mother’s Day, she’s finally getting to use at the end of June.  Or,  looked at her feet, as she slipped them in her sandals, and saw how the hours she’d spent on them, working and tending to the needs of others had taken their toll.  Maybe, she had to call 4 people before finding someone who could watch her kids for her to take time to care for herself.  Maybe, she is preparing for her reunion, and wants to feel young and beautiful in high heeled peep toed shoes she saves for special occasions that don’t come very often.  Really, the reason why doesn’t matter. I don’t think less of my friend for posting the picture. I still think that she is kind and compassionate.

It’s not about a picture of a woman’s feet.  It is how we perceive the vulnerabilities in others, and what we do with those vulnerabilities.

We are all like Maria at both points in her life. Sometimes, we are leading the public shaming, and sometimes we realize that what we ridicule in others may be what we feel most vulnerable about.  May we all show more kindness, compassion and caring before we shame and judge.  The truth is, it’s not just the person who leads the attack on another person who is guilty.  It is each of us who allow public shaming to continue through our actions or lack thereof .

*name changed

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