Data released recently by the CDC showed that 78% of those who died, were hospitalized, or placed on a ventilator due to a COVID-19 infection were overweight or obese, making it among the most deadly risk factors. Health experts have always known that being overweight is unhealthy, but we’ve become scared to hold up a standard of weight in our culture because of something we are even more afraid of—shame.
Our fear of being shamed and of shaming others is a key component of the extreme individualism of American society, sometimes called “expressive individualism.” In this view, we are each the gods of our own tiny universes and have the right to define reality as we rule those universes. To invert John Donne, every man is an island. Asserting any kind of standard from one universe onto another is “shaming.” The science in the actual universe may assert something unequivocally, but in one’s individual universe that doesn’t matter.
In St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, a great place to turn whenever you need a dose of common sense and wisdom, the Angelic Doctor says “shamefacedness” is actually a requirement for one to grow in the virtue of temperance. Shamefacedness, he says, “is the fear of something base, namely of that which is disgraceful.” So, in order to avoid being ruled by the whims of our passions, we need the capacity for shame and the desire to avoid it.