Sunday 25 February 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: It's time to shame the fat-shamers

When did harassing women on our streets become acceptable?

Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Ciara Kelly

I only recently discovered who Alison Spittle is.

 For any of you who don't know, she's a young Irish comedian and all-round good egg. She came to my attention though, over something that's not funny. She wrote a blog about fat-shaming, street harassment and the fact that when she is on her own, people - usually, but not exclusively, young men - regularly think it's okay to pass remarks about her appearance. These are generally insulting because Alison, who I've never met so am only going on what she herself says, is overweight.

She describes walking around town and people ­saying things like "Fat bitch!" and "State of her!"

On one occasion she describes a young man coming over and taking her face in his hands as if to kiss her - and then laughingly pushing her away, dismissing her to the amusement of his loser friends and her personal upset.

What's happened? When did this all start? I know I'm older than Alison - so I may be excluded from the group these people like to harass - but even when I was younger I don't remember this being a thing. So when did it become okay to harass random strangers - usually, but not exclusively, young women - in the street?

Fat-shaming, the slagging off of people because they're overweight, is a disgusting thing. As is slut-shaming, victim-shaming and, to be honest, any other form of shaming, because - think about it - shame is one of the most corrosive emotions we can experience.

Verbally abused: Comedian Alison Spittle has written about being fat- shamed in public.
Verbally abused: Comedian Alison Spittle has written about being fat- shamed in public.

Shame makes us feel diminished, worthless, humiliated. It fills us with self-loathing. Shame eats away at us, at the very core of our being. Which is why sexual violence - which evokes a deep sense of shame - is so damaging to the victim, something our justice system still hasn't got its head around.

But when did this culture of harassment become established? In a recent letter to a national newspaper, a young woman from Portmarnock describes standing at a bus stop in Dublin and "packs" of young men passing her by. She says one man stopped and stared directly into her face and said, "I fancy that one." Then he and his friend proceeded to discuss in graphic detail what they would like to do her, right in front of her, as if she wasn't there - or if she was there it didn't really matter. This young woman, like young women everywhere, didn't react, but tried to keep her head down and not provoke these guys in case it escalated the situation. Later on when she got off the bus, a separate group of young men pressed themselves against the bus windows shouting and making lewd gestures. She went inside her house and cried.

Now I don't know if the people who do this kind of stuff know the effect it has on the people they're doing it to. But I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say it's thoughtless rather than malicious. Although, truth be told, I think our simple animal instincts tell us when we are part of a group and are tormenting someone alone and weaker that it's an act of aggression and supremacy. But let's still say it's thoughtless in that perhaps they've never considered the impact of their actions. Well, that has to change.

This has got to become unacceptable, as those on the receiving end of this are humiliated. This is a pernicious aspect of our society and, though much of it is drink-fuelled, some of it occurs without alcohol in broad daylight. It's at best bullying and at worst a form of insidious sexual harassment that makes young women think twice about whether or not they're safe on our streets.


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