It used to be illegitimacy. Or abortion. Or divorce. Stigma was attached to actions that were overtly or tacitly unacceptable. The consequence was banishment from the fold. Being shunned by those whose approval you wanted. Whose love you needed.
Some of the reasons may have shifted, but stigma remains a part of western culture.
Children out of wedlock in Hollywood? Nothing unusual. In small town America? Not the problem it was 30 years ago, but still not cool.
Homosexuality? We know that’s a tricky one. Only recently, we heard of the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a clear sign that stigma attached to expressions of sexuality, especially for the young, is well entrenched in our collective psyche.
What about other sorts of stigma? More subtle, but just as damaging? What about the stigma of depression or any other mental health condition?
Stigma, by definition
According to Dictionary.com, stigma is
a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.
That brief string of words hardly seems sufficient for the devastation of a breach in privacy when it comes to certain matters. We reel at the weight of “a mark of disgrace or infamy” that must have pressed on Tyler Clementi.
As for being on the receiving end of reproach, who wants to endure disapproval and derision, exclusion by family and friends, or “simple” invisibility?
While depression is less misunderstood than it once was, saying aloud that one suffers from depression is an act of bravery. Our culture expects a happy face, a positive spin, and we are the purveyors of Fake it until you make it – even when it comes to oppressive realities.
We ask How are you and anticipate Fine thanks, stunned if we receive something more authentic or more grave than “a little tired, but okay.”
This week, someone I admire enormously wrote of her depression. Openly, honestly, and with great eloquence. Her reluctance in saying she was depressed is clear. Equally so, in my book, the courage of her act, and the example in taking action. I find myself asking why depression continues to be a source of stigma.
In the same vein, another writer I admire speaks often of her sadness, as she did earlier this week. I understand this propensity for melancholy; it is part of my own nature, and I recognize it in hers. While less severe than depression per se, persistent sadness offers struggles of its own: a constancy of hiding your truest feelings, and the fatigue exacerbated by wearing the public face.
How ironic that in a culture where it’s become routine to search for “authenticity” – the need to be in touch with our here and now, or deeper selves, our spirituality – we continue to judge those who authentically express emotions we wish to deny, not to mention the complex causes that would require us to look at ourselves, our human relations, our morals, our politics.
Invisibility of all sorts
There are far more sources of stigma than homosexuality, depression, or sadness. What about homelessness, illness, or being poor? What about the invisibility of the elderly, the infirm, the overweight, or for that matter, the unattractive?
What about the stigma borne by women who are childless – either by choice or by circumstance?
What about the growing pressure to “be happy” – and the stigma in saying otherwise? Where is the authenticity in that?
We cluck our tongues and seek to assign fault so we may feel superior. We tell ourselves it will never happen to us. We pass by, marginalizing those who are right in our line of vision. How do we justify this behavior? When did moralizing replace morality?
The stigma of divorce, the woman alone, loneliness
Personally, I have known the stigma following divorce – what it is to be overwhelmed by it, and no longer welcome (however politely) where I once was. I know what it is to be a woman alone, and to be lonely. I know the stigma of job loss, the subtle shunning that follows a change in financial circumstances. The isolation that worsens everything.
As age lessens my marketability as a woman, certainly in the US, I understand yet another sort of invisibility, approaching with increasing speed.
I hope I will be brave enough to speak of it, despite the stigma in admitting to aging. To being a woman who is aging. I will do so with the fine examples of other women I read, and in the hope that we cease to judge so cruelly, to render others insignificant, or simply to walk away.
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