This book promises to unpick the relationship between shame and power because, apparently, ‘shaming has taken a new and dangerous turn’. Has it? Are we really living in the ‘new age of humiliation’? I mean, wasn’t religion quite good at that kind of thing? Wasn’t the issue with Adam and Eve that they were not ashamed of their nudity until they ate the forbidden fruit, whereupon everything went to pieces because they suddenly became aware that they were naked and felt shame? Religion is not something Cathy O’Neil deals with in this book, but clearly shame is not new. Possibly, though, it has become more secularised.
What interests O’Neil, a hugely successful mathematician and author, is who profits from shame. She covers a vast range of topics involving what she dubs the ‘shame machine’, from obesity, addiction and social media to poverty and the #MeToo movement. She contends that shame is manufactured and mined to make us all feel worse about ourselves. Body shame is used to sell diets, gym memberships and cosmetics. Sexual shame is exploited to sell things to women: our vaginas should smell better and now we can also have surgery to make them more acceptable. O’Neil charts how even new-fangled apps like Noom, which claims to offer ‘the most modern weight loss course known to man or woman’, rely ultimately on shame by exaggerating their success rates and making ‘failures’ look like outliers.
There is little O’Neil says that one can disagree with as she roves around explaining how people are made to feel personally responsible for what are clearly huge social problems. It is, however, when she talks about having been fat-shamed that she is at her most lucid and interesting.