The big to-do this week over an article in the New York Times about locker room privacy and “millennial body shame”reinforced something I have believed for a long time: We are turning into a supremely coddled and entitled culture. Of course, the fact that we in the U.S. enjoy so many freedoms and a bounty of luxuries compared to even many other developed areas of the world is not news to anyone, and we all get sick of hearing about our privilege when we’re having problems that are very real to us. Our struggles are so relative, and no one’s experience should be dismissed with the equivalent of the ’70s and ’80s ism, “There are starving children in China. Get over yourself and finish your peas.” In today’s lingo (minus the sarcasm),”the struggle is real.”
This response on the Slate site summed up the issue simply: “If you are not comfortable being naked around other people, you are not a real adult.” True, yes, but I think it’s about much more than that. And to be fair, that blogger admits he might be oversimplifying/not taking into account all the complex sociological reasons for this modern no-nudity-none-of-the-time attitude.
This phenomenon is also about more than body negativity/feeling shameful over your own naked form. (And I certainly have my own deep insecurities about certain aspects of my physique, but if I had truly ever been uncomfortable, I would not have done so much streaking and general being-nude-in-public in college. I would also probably not have a child. But I digress.)
Most articles you read about anything that involves a sense of entitlement and the need to be politically correct are quick to blame Millennials. Cue the relatively new conversation about the need to be respectful of “triggers” in the college classroom and beyond, often at the expense of the rich and beautiful higher education. With that in mind, I’ll say something harsh that might make some uncomfortable: Blaming one group for anything is lazy and marginalizes that group. (Think of what has happened in the past when we have blamed one group of people for a problem. Have we learned nothing?) This fear of offending and need to be respected, even when it infringes on someone else’s or one’s own need for respect is not good for anyone, yet we have all adopted it. And it is pervasive, whether we want to admit it or not.
I received a wonderful higher education at Carleton College and then Roosevelt University. I had some wonderful professors who encouraged us to engage in real, honest conversations about social mores, sexuality and everything beyond and in between. They didn’t insult us at the beginning of every class by patting us on the head and asking us if we could handle what was on the syllabus for that day: “Now, before we get started … was anyone involved in an inappropriate relationship with a parent? We’re about to discuss Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, and I just want to make sure no it’s not going to dredge up any painful memories or send you into a regressed state.” Counselors were not standing by. We knew we were responsible for ourselves. We were invited to debate with wide-open minds and eyes and respect others’ opinions, but not at the dangerous expense of self-censorship. And we didn’t need to receive extensive “training” on how to stay civil and think of other people’s feelings. Our professors and our peers assumed we were normal, intelligent humans who understood we were sharing the planet with other humans with opinions that might be different from ours. They assumed we had the common sense to know that even when we didn’t agree with someone else’s opinions, we still had to respect them. And we could share a meal with someone who didn’t like every single book we liked or agree that Star Wars was the best franchise ever to exist (even though Episode I almost ruined it all).
In fact, we were grateful that not everyone shared the same opinion about everything. We sought out people who would challenge us, because the many colors of life and humanity keep us energized and alive. As an artist, it is these clashing colors that keep my work flowing and keeps me excited and interested in going on. It is not something to complain about, even though responsibility is hard.
I know what you’re thinking: All this over locker room nudity? Yes! Absolutely! Our need to not be naked around others is just another symptom of a larger problem that continues to get worse. I would argue it is even why we continue to be outraged over something like gun violence or police brutality or racism or [insert incredibly incendiary social topic here] … or even how much sugar is in our soda (wait … now I’m expected to take responsibility for my own health? Who will I blame for eating too much if the government doesn’t regulate my caloric intake?), yet never really do anything about it.
We spend a majority of our days outraged that our opinions are different, trying to speak louder than everyone else until we are satisfied that we have been fairly heard, until we find ourselves surrounded by a majority that supports our beliefs fully. We feel satisfied when we find people who think just like we do. We delete friends on Facebook who express divergent opinions. (We even delete friends who post too many photos of their children, because, why should we be responsible for just not looking at what we don’t want to see when we could eliminate making that choice by just deleting it entirely?) If we can’t hear the voices of our dissenters, we feel our discomfort over differences melting away. We are tricked into believing the real conflict has been eliminated. And then we fall down in exhaustion without doing anything further. We are comfortable around our own kind, and we begin to believe that being around our own kind is the only way of life. We feel safe when we are not forced to deeply consider differences and analyze our place in the world.
Another uncomfortable truth: If you engage in this self-sheltering on the regular, you are not doing enough; you must revel in being uncomfortable. The best art, the best work is done by people who think differently and manage to incorporate their full spectrum of differences and create something gorgeous and meaningful. We blame other people for our shortcomings and our problems, and we devote our lives to making sure everyone always knows when we are blue or hurting and who was to blame for these feelings. We are so focused on this that we don’t stop to look around at what others are feeling. We often don’t even make time to soak in our surroundings. You don’t need to endure great hardship to be a great artist or struggle endlessly in order to be valid, but you do need to know what conflict is. You need to have put yourself out there in some way and felt yourself butting against a force that rocked you to your core and forced you to have to find a new way of being, to see a new perspective, if even for a minute.
Have you looked up from your phone lately? Have you taken yourself out to dinner, alone, without a book or your iPhone to keep you company? What did your food taste like? Who was at the restaurant? What did your dessert look like in the secret of your own memory, without the glowy warmth of an Instagram filter?
(Even now as I sit here with a sleeping baby on my lap, who will never be this size or age or shape again, I am aware that I am not fully soaking in all the “feels” of this moment. Instead, I am staring at a screen and typing this out for you to see.)
We willingly put our lives on display, then are outraged when we don’t get total privacy. Just look at any post you see on Facebook where someone is beside themselves about the fact that the “laws” of Facebook dictate we don’t get total control over all our own content and then threatens to leave the platform over it, and you will see what I mean. We live in a buttoned-up culture where everything is shameful, yet we are encouraged to over-share in order to join the masses of other over-sharers who are obsessed with controlling how they and their lives look to others peeking in their windows. We feel entitled to our own space and our own privacy even when we are in public. Then we blame other people for our shortcomings and our insecurities, and we devote our lives to making sure everyone always knows when we are blue or hurting and who was to blame for it.
Isn’t it exhausting to try to maintain this endless dichotomy of shame, outrage and blame? Do you even know what you are missing anymore?
I will admit I don’t know how to boil down everything I have said above to a neat conclusion, and I don’t know how to fix the overarching and ever-growing problem of disconnectedness. However, since I am an artist who also works with artists, I will say that as artists, I believe we cannot get complacent about deeply connecting and getting outside our comfort zone. Historically, we have been responsible for reminding people that they feel. And we cannot allow ourselves to feel shame over who we are; who we are is the soul of our work. We need to keep challenging ourselves to take new roads and shake off our own over-self-awareness so we can give something to the world that will be meaningful and remembered.
Here’s my challenge to you: Bask in your discomfort. Let it flow over you and through you. Seek out people who grate on your nerves and befriend them. Do not “unfriend” that person who refuses to stop posting about his/her lunches/children/dogs/job on Facebook. Let the differences drive you and inspire you. Refuse to shut down.
What if you could feel like you did when you first started creating — that you would never run out of ideas, and a fear and lovely sadness that life is too short to actually create everything that is inside you?