(This week’s Gimbling in the Wabe is a retooling of an essay I wrote in 2013, one that has been on my mind a lot recently. It plays into a swirling miasma of thoughts I’ve been struggling with, that I hope to find a voice for in the weeks to come.)
Anyone who has eaten a ripe, juicy peach knows how messy they can be. No amount of slurping will keep the juice from running down your chin, if you eat it straight from the pit with no napkin to contain it. Oh, but eating a ripe, juicy peach – one where the fruit just falls into your mouth – has to be one of the most deliciously decadent pleasures known to mankind.
I think that may be why I remember so clearly something that happened almost a decade ago. It was September 1995, and I was watching late night talk show host David Letterman on television. I often enjoyed Letterman’s humor, although at times – like most late night talk show hosts and other comedians – he could be rather scathing and somewhat cruel, going for the easy mark, the joke based in ridicule. Most often, these jokes are at the expense of politicians and celebrities who are used to their every movement being scrutinized, or people who have shown ridiculously poor judgment. But as a running gag for a few weeks in September 1995, Letterman poked fun at a woman who was caught on camera in the stands at the US Open tennis tournament. She was not a good looking woman: older, larger and somewhat puckered; she was eating a peach, with the juice dribbling down her chin. The “Late Night” audience laughed and laughed each time Letterman showed the clip, and he showed it over and over. He even put the image up on the Jumbotron in Times Square, hoping to find the woman and have her on the show. He dubbed her the “seductive temptress”.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I chuckled at first, too. I mean, she was really kind of classically ugly, and her mouth was puckered like she had no teeth, giving the image of ignorance and lack of any kind of sophistication. But it didn’t take long for me to become uncomfortable with the jokes and the laughter. Here was a woman, believing herself to be in the anonymity of a crowd, enjoying a peach, enjoying some quality tennis, and she was singled out for ridicule because of a few unguarded moments and having the audacity to not be good looking. It seemed terribly unfair to me, and the continued assault of her image being used for cheap laughter left a very bad taste in my mouth. Yet the laughter rolled.
What if that had happened to me? It easily could have. I am not one of the physically beautiful people of the world. I’ve come to terms with that and try to not let it bother me. But admittedly, it’s hard, because society is not kind to folks who are incapable of or unwilling to go to great lengths to fit even an acceptable norm regarding physical appeal. While those of us who are beauty-challenged may have come to some sort of inner peace at being the best we can be for ourselves – or at least giving lip service to being true to ourselves and about how beauty is only skin deep and in the eye of the beholder and all that – it only takes one instance of being called a cow, a dog, or flat out ugly to send all those self-affirming messages to the psychological basement.
Let’s face it. Words hurt. We see that in bullying. We see that in kids taking their own lives rather than living with taunts and insults, even when they are assured that things will get better. When words become personal, they maim – they can kill. Most of us believe this use of words to be unconscionable.
But what about when the taunts and insults aren’t personal? When they are leveled at “anonymous” persons by anonymous people? Why are we so willing to not only accept, but also condone and even participate in this?
One only has to look at the proliferation of mean spirited pictures posted on social media, with their corresponding trashing of the subject, to give evidence to my concern. Photos abound on Facebook, or Tumblr, or reddit, with “clever” or scathing captions looking for “likes” or “karma” or some other popularity status ranking. One picture can spur thousands of words, hateful, hurtful words, or in 142 characters or less, attempting to be witty, heaping scorn on people – real people – the commenters don’t know. There are entire websites created for the sole reason of allowing the “rest of us” to poke fun at the “worst of them”. (C’mon, you know you’ve clicked on a link to “The People of WalMart” at least once, and marveled at the images there.) Perhaps the ridicule directed at a few of these people is warranted – perhaps – but for the vast majority, their only trespass is to appear in public.
Why is it so acceptable to condone all this sanctimonious contempt, especially when no one has to be held accountable for their words? Whatever happened to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” or “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye ?” and “do unto others what you would have them do unto you?”
A while ago, writer Valerie Alexander’s essay entitled “To Me, Mean Pictures Aren’t Funny (Even the Really Funny Ones)” was picked up by the Huffington Post. In it, she pointed out that while the internet has given us many amazing ways to connect and communicate, it also has allowed for a mean-spiritedness to become acceptable. She bemoans the thoughtless postings of and comments on a single moment, that fails to take into account the circumstances behind that single moment, or the thoughts and feelings of those who are caught in that moment. As an example, she muses:
Did you come up with the cleverest caption for the balding guy with glasses waiting for the bus? Congratulations! Yes, I’m sure he chose to lose his hair, be nearsighted and not own a car. You are so much bigger and better than he is, so by all means, make as nasty a comment as you can think of. He won’t mind, since his life is already so perfect.
You know what frightens me the most, though? Even though I’m not one of the “beautiful people”, even though sometimes when I walk out my front door I feel anxious that I may not be fit to be seen in public (honestly, I think that sometimes), even though I fear that someday I may see myself in an unguarded moment being the focus of public derision, I still find myself judging others on their appearance. Making snap judgments, holding conversations in my head that are not charitable, flirting with a horribly inappropriate “holier than thou” attitude towards my place on the sacred gauge of desirability in comparison with complete strangers who happen to cross my path.
I have to stop and remind myself that not only but for the grace of God go I, but in participating in these judgments, I perpetuate indignity on myself: fear on the receiving end and pettiness on the giving end. It is imperative – imperative – that I acknowledge this, that I actively buck the trend, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because what is beautiful about me is my spirit, my integrity. If I let that unphotographable yet oh, so important aspect of who I am slide, then I not only debase myself but also I turn my back on so many of the values with which I was raised. I am better than that – I will be better than that.
And if I can reject making these judgments, then I can have faith that others will, as well. And I can also celebrate that there are some people, braver than myself, who will not allow themselves or others to be subject of derision due to their appearance. Who refuse to be shamed, or to shame others.
That peach eating lady that David Letterman found so funny in 1995? Her name was Jane Bronstein. At the time that surreptitious footage was aired on the “Late Show”, Ms. Bronstein was 54 years old. A professional bridge player, she was suffering from a thyroid condition and had already endured childhood polio and two spinal fusions. She sued David Letterman and his production company for mental and physical pain and suffering because of the ridicule (after they refused to issue her a letter of apology), citing a New York state civil rights law prohibiting the use of someone’s name or picture for advertising or trade without first obtaining their written consent. The suit was settled in 1997 for undisclosed damages – and that footage and the image of the “peach lady” is no longer available for casual consumption.
Lucky for us, peaches still are available for casual consumption. They continue to be one of life’s most deliciously decadent pleasures. Just be sure to have a napkin handy – they’re juicy! You wouldn’t want to be caught doing anything embarrassing now, would you?