The End of Shame

With talk these days about the decline of privacy, the disappearance of shame deserves attention. People have become less self-conscious—more willing to let the world into their intimate spaces without any sense of embarrassment. Webcams, whose operators actually invite voyeuristic strangers to observe their every move, are just one example.

The past few years have also seen a marked rise in the number of people who believe it is acceptable to take care of personal hygiene and grooming in public. Every morning I ride the subway, professional women in my car are busy applying makeup. I don’t mean making last minute touch-ups—with makeup kits perched on their knees, they’re painting a blank canvas.

I frequently also see otherwise normal looking subway riders filing and trimming their fingernails. I’ve seen eyelashes curled, eyebrows plucked, and nose hairs removed with little tweezers. (Where do these people suppose all their personal droppings end up?)

It’s not just the subway. Recently, on a flight from New York City to Washington, D.C., a man across the aisle from me politely asked the flight attendant for a cup of water, used it to brush his teeth, and then, with no sense of embarrassment, spat out in the air sickness bag, which he handed to the flight attendant on her next round.

In Central Park, I regularly see parents assisting their children urinate on trees. Last month, I witnessed a woman pull her Mercedes to the curb so her child could go to the bathroom in the street before the family headed back to Westchester.

I’ve seen men on the freeway shaving in the rear view mirror. I’ve watched people floss their teeth at the theater and while walking down the street, and comb gunk from their hair at the movies.

Ride Amtrak on a weekday morning and, in addition to the inane cell phone conversations (“I’m on the train. We’re slowing down…”), I guarantee you’ll be subjected to the fumes of nail polish remover. There is also a good chance you’ll encounter people using Q-Tips to clean their ears.

Oral-B recently released a product called Brush-Ups. “Now you don’t have to be at home to get that just-brushed feeling,” the company shamelessly says. “You can have clean teeth and fresh breath anytime, anywhere. No water required.”

No sense of decency either.

Are we really so busy that tasks once performed alone in bedrooms and in powder rooms must now be carried out together in trains, planes and automobiles? Is personal grooming really just like reading a magazine or doing a crossword to pass the time on the way into the office?

Surely, I’m not the only person ashamed by this behavior.

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11 Responses

  1. Kaimi says:

    I’ll partially dissent. Yes, there is an abundance of unnecessary outdoor hygiene and grooming.

    On the other hand, you mention seeing parents with their children, urinating on trees in the park. Well, I’m one of those parents.

    Many three- or four-year-olds are recently potty trained, and have developed very little bladder control. Thus, it may be the case that the time gap from “I’ve got to go” to wetting one’s pants is in the neighborhood of twenty seconds. In which case, the tree in the park is perfectly suitable.

    (Related true story: My wife walks in to a store in Broadway, dragging a very distressed child who is jumping up and down, clearly moments from bursting. “I’m sorry, but our bathroom is for employees only.” To which she replies “well, he’s about to wet his pants, so it’s your bathroom or your floor. You pick.”

    She was shown expeditiously to the bathroom, and tragedy was averted).

    Your mileage may vary, of course. Some four-year-olds or even three-year-olds are better than others, and develop control pretty early. Some, however, don’t really develop much bladder control till age five or six or so.

    Taking care of the needs of a child in the park is par for the course.

    (It should always be done in out of the way areas, of course. Also, this dissent should in no way be read as an endorsement of the practice past, say, age six. At that point, with time in kindergarten, every child should have some working degree of bladder control).

  2. Kaimi says:

    Additional notes —

    1. I’ll send my child to a tree rather than a bathroom full of drug paraphenalia, random pervert passers-by, or gang members, any day of the week.

    2. For the mother who is at the park with her two children — say, a two year old and a four year old — what exactly are her choices?

    a) Go in to the bathroom with the four year old, taking with them into the bathroom the two year old, the stroller, the bottle, the blanket, the graham crackers, and everything else. Highly gross and unsanitary.

    b) Send the four year old in by himself, into a bathroom that may be highly unsanitary, full of drug needles, child molesters, whatnot else. And then wait outside, wondering if he’s okay.

    c) Leave the two year old and the stroller out in the park completely unattended, and go in to the bathroom with the four year old.

    d) Take the kid to a tree.

    I hope that you picked (d). I did, many times.

  3. Dave Hoffman says:

    There is actually an interesting discussion of a variant of this issue by Jonathan Franzen in his essay collection “How to be Alone”. He talks about the loss of privacy that comes with the discussion of personal concerns in public spaces.

  4. Bruce says:

    The fact that some things once considered shameful are no longer considered shameful does not mean that shame is “ending,” just that norms are changing. As they do constantly. There have been similar complaints whenever, say, population shifts lead to rapid influxes of, e.g., rural or foreign people into metropolitan areas. See, for example, the complaints of middle-class blacks in Chicago about new arrivals from the South during the Great Migration of the 1920s-40s. (Which leads to the question — is some sort of population or status shift underway now that is producing the changes you note?)

    That doesn’t mean that norm changes are always of equal valence, just that it’s difficult to separate the identity-challenging changes (polite people don’t put on make-up on subways, and I’m a polite person) from the truly detrimental.

  5. PrawfsBlawg says:

    Shaming news from SCOTUS

    As part of my ongoing obligation to ride my shaming horse into posterity — see here for details — I bring sad, but expected, news: SCOTUS has denied cert in the Gementera (I stole mail. This is my punishment.) case, in which I briefed an amicus for a…

  6. Peter says:

    People are losing/have lost a sense of the boundaries between private and public space. Most annoying is cell-phone use, but personal hygiene deployment is another, although it, like the needy using public spaces as toilets, can be avoided by diverting the eyes.

    My limit was reached when I stood outside a bank on a public sidewalk waiting in line for an ATM and the anti-burglary recording of a car parked a couple of feet away from me on the street loudly declared: “Step away. You are too close. Back off.” When others in the line told me to move, I said I was on a public sidewalk where I had a right to be and did not take orders from machines of people who think everywhere is their private domain. It was a matter of principle for which I was willing to put up with some noise. But I rather think the others in line thought I was an ass, and perhaps I am out of tune with the times.

  7. Paul Gowder says:

    And back in my day, we used to crawl on our hands and knees over broken glass to get to the bathroom to brush our teeth. Uphill, both ways! And if we left a bit of toothpaste on our chins, our father would beat us with a steel flail!

    In all seriousness, though — it seems like a lot of this is related to my favorite gripe, overpopulation and bureaucratization. In a society where people are forced by circumstances to stand in line for hours, or to commute for hours, of course they’re going to try and make some time for themselves by compressing personal tasks into that time, by, e.g., talking on the cellphone or doing makeup.

    Put another way: as public obligations (and the public eye) increasingly intrude into private space and private time, it is only natural that people will start shifting private tasks into public time and space.

  8. Stephen says:

    Somewhat left undiscussed by this post is the manner in which the so-called decline of shame actually affects the importance of privacy jurisprudence. If bedroom acts are now “public,” should we be less concerned if the government listens in the bedroom? Or is there some dimension to the element of choice here: that people can broadcast their toilet and sex acts but still expect certain parts of their life to remain sacrosanct and taboo? And didn’t the rhetoric department feminists and the radical queer studies folks demolish this whole “public-private” thing years ago?

  9. Paul Gowder says:

    Stephen: “privacy” is, I believe, indeed centered in “the element of choice,” rather than in the element of concealment. That’s why there ought to be a conceptual difference between “privacy” and “secrecy.” “Secrecy,” we might use to refer just to the concealment of information.

    “Privacy,” on the other hand, is about autonomy, and about power (and specifically, bio-power in the Foucauldian sense) and who has it. The person who controls how others observe her has control over her own identity. She can choose how to represent and express her desires, view of the good life, contribution to the community, and social persona in the public sphere. She has a right of intersubjective self-actualization. By contrast, the person who has no privacy is subject to the informational/observational control of others, and, whether or not other people are actually spying on her at the time, she exists under the (panoptic) threat of such scrutiny. The potential for observation inherent in the absence of an individual right to control the display of one’s information is an exercise of power on the person of the object of potential observation. (I have an article coming out in probably spring 2006 discussing some of these things.)

    This is entirely consistent with a (correct) understanding of feminist, queer, etc. theory. While the “personal is the political,” it is equally true that power is in the hands of the person who can politicize the previously personal, and that’s the real meaning of this little slogan. Also, note the immense quantity of ink spilled in feminist theory about “objectification,” which demonstrates a recognition that the conversion of the body into an observational field for the exercise of power dispossesses the person whose body it is. This is also why “third wave” “sexy” feminism is still feminism: its adherents recognize that appearance-based sexuality can be empowering if it is in the control of the woman at issue.

    Sorry, that was a long digression, but the point is that the public-private thing is not dead. Just problematized.

  10. Moz says:

    One response to this that I use is the “if you do it in public, I’ll consider it public”. I take photos, respond to conversations, watch, make public observations about and so on. Sometimes it’s a great conversation starter, sometimes people get quite upset that their public behavior is being publicly recorded. If you don’t want photos it appearing on the internet, don’t wave it around in public, whether that’s your kid’s genitals or you picking your nose.

  11. Skruff says:

    What a discussion;

    Here in Maine urinating in public is not a crime, or that rare. The statuate reads; May not be done while facing another, nor in a sexualized fashion.

    In other words, here in the land of no-public-restrooms, we (all) use trees!