I recently felt the body-shame of heavy-set gentlemen I had never met, who in my mind wanted nothing more than to be happy, be accepted and have fun. I felt the shame of “Dancing Man” A gentlemen apparently having a good time dancing at an event. When realizing he was being laughed at, he experienced the cruel, non-empathetic scourge of body shaming and ridicule. Photos of his body-shame went viral and he became known as “The Dancing Man” as the social media community rallied around with empathy, fighting back against anonymous internet trolls who seek to prop themselves up by bringing others down. I felt his shame as if I was standing in that spot on the dance floor staring at the floor as people laughed. I thought back to a unusually warm,spring evening in nineteen-seventy-seven in Mt Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
Decades Before 4-Chan, Reddit and Al Gore invented the internet (that’s a joke), I went to a high school dance. I was a brutally shy sixteen years old at Mt. Lebanon Sr. High School. Fat shamed at home, weight bullied/teased at school and even physically assaulted, having my pants ripped off me because a group of kids thoughts they looked too tight on my body. It took all the courage I could muster to go to that dance. I had no illusions of dancing however. The courage and self-confidence to speak to a girl or inject myself into a social situation un-enhanced by drugs, and alcohol would not be part of my life for decades. On that day I was, in my mind, fat, ugly, stupid and unworthy to dance. Words that had been spoken to me time and time again.
The dance was a scene right out of the movie Sixteen Candles, with me blending into the gym bleachers with the John Cusacks and Anthony Michael Halls of Mt. Lebanon Senior High. We stood there watching the kids with dates who were holding hands, dancing, laughing, and talking about where they were going to hang out after the dance. I scrutinized every guy with a girl I considered pretty and tried to analyze what it took to be that guy. What could I change? As I stood there wishing I were one of the kids dancing, one of the prettier girls made eye contact with me. She started walking towards me. I began to sweat. Someone was interested in me! By the time she came face to face with me I was a damp, heart-pounding mess. I remember her raven hair, and the sneer of disdain on her face as she looked me right in the eye and said,
“Do you always hold your brother’s hand when you walk with him? You’re pretty weird.”
She was referring to a couple days before, when I had walked my little brother Jeff home from school while holding his hand. I love my brothers. My father instilled a sense of loyalty between us when we were very young. Always comfort and protect each other in times of need. I certainly didn’t think holding my brother’s hand was weird. I just wanted him to feel safe. The dark-haired beauty and her friends giggled and walked away, and left me standing there with my raging self-doubt. I blended back into the bleachers of the gymnasium, and then set out into the night to walk home, back up that same hill I where I had held my brother’s hand. I never attended another high school social function. This young girl had not said anything exceptionally cruel but in the mind of an insecure teenager, the words were like daggers, dreading the shaming talk behind my back in the lunchroom the next day.
In nineteen-seventy seven, the bullies, insensitive and ignorant had to look you in the eye when they bullied you. No kids carried Polaroid Cameras around with them. Going viral was worrying whether everyone in my homeroom class or the lunchroom knew of my “dancing man” shame. Today we don’t know who is snapping, recording or laughing from across the globe as we are made famous in our shyness or the simple act of growing up. We laugh at, make fun of, and share the shame of those who we don’t know and feel no empathy for yet we all have the ability to be empathetic. To project ourselves to a person, time and place and at least try imagine what that shame feels like.
As was demonstrated by the incredible outpouring of pubic support, we can all be the dancing man and think about what he is feeling before we open our mouths or post that photo. We can all take a stand against body shaming. Not everyone is ready to dance like there is no tomorrow or no one is watching. When they finally are, don’t shame them. Embrace their love of life and love of themselves. We can all be that little boy, shamed by the girl and wanting that first kiss. Project that. Feel that. Come back to the present. Then act. That’s empathy. Use it.