Let’s Go Kiss a Cow!

brown cowThe cost stigma extracts from those who are disqualified from full social acceptance never ceases to amaze me.  A huge part of the costs that  surround stigma management is the effort put into passing, the term used by Dr. Goffman to describe the behavior of individuals who have a stigmatized health condition or disability which they can (although only with substantial effort) keep hidden.  Goffman states that: “Because of the great rewards in being considered normal, almost all persons who are in a position to pass will do so on some occasion by intent.”    There seem to be many creative ways that people discover to pass, probably many more then there are health conditions people are trying to cover up.  Following are examples of these efforts to pass from the book Stigma: Notes On The Management of Spoiled Identity.

“We who stutter speak only when we must.  We hide our defect, often so successfully that our intimates are surprised when in an unguarded moment, a word suddenly runs away with our tongues and we blurt and blat and grimace and choke until finally the spasm is over and we open our eyes to view the wreckage.”

“…and suppose after George gets out everything is going well and somebody throws it up in his face.  That would ruin everything.  I live in terror of that – a complete terror of that.”  This fear is being expressed by George’s wife.  The poor woman has spent the time  he has been hospitalized for a mental illness preparing for him to be able to pass upon being discharged…she has done so by lying to her co-workers about where he is, distancing  herself  from her friends and family to keep his secret, and hurrying home between work and evening hospital visits to prevent the possibility of a helpful neighbor picking up her mail and spotting a bill from George’s hospital.

“I managed to keep Mary from knowing my eyes were bad through two dozen sodas and three movies.  I used every trick I had ever learned.  I paid special attention to the color of her dress each morning, and then I would keep my eyes and ears and my sixth sense alert for anyone that might be Mary.  I didn’t take any chances.  If I wasn’t sure, I would greet whoever it was with familiarity.  They probably thought I was nuts, but I didn’t care.  I always held her hand on the way to and from the movies at night, and she led me, without knowing it, so I didn’t have to feel for curbs and steps.”

“I never go to local movies.  If I do go to a movie I select a large house like Radio City where I have greater choice of seats and can pick an end seat where I can rush to the bathroom if I have gas.  When I go on a bus I pick my seat just in case.  I sit on an end seat or near the door.” – reported by a person with a colostomy.

Individuals who are managing stigma by trying to pass often face special timing issues and therefore live “on a leash” so to speak, a phrase which refers to the fact that people stay close to the place (usually home) where they can refurbish their disguise or simply rest up from having to wear it.  Therefore they can only move a certain distance from this sanctuary without losing control over the information that they are trying to keep hidden.  An example of living on a leash is someone with a colostomy who may schedule time away from home for travel and social contacts in relation to when they schedule their daily irrigation.

Another passing strategy is to either conceal or reject the signs that have come to be stigma symbols.  For instance an individual with declining eyesight who avoids using bifocals; or someone with hearing loss who refuses a hearing aid because these “tools” might suggest old age and the accompanying stigma of aging.  In another effort to pass some people may chose what they consider the lesser of two evils, or in this case the lesser of two stigmas.  For instance, a hearing impaired person might purposely give others the impression she is a daydreamer, absent minded, or simply easily bored – more content to be stigmatized for this attribute than to have to “confess” to deafness.

As if these costs aren’t high enough, avoiding stigma by passing often drags another person into the challenge, using up their time, energy, and when you get right down to it, often a large part of their life.   A wife of a person with a colostomy may be asked to remain home and “on call” to answer the telephone or the door bell so that irrigation might continue uninterrupted; or the husband of a woman who wishes to pass as someone with normal hearing might be asked to stay glued to her side at a party in order to unobtrusively give her clues in order to keep the conversation ball aloft and her hearing difficulties hidden.   Thus passing is not always just between the person trying to manage stigma and strangers, but unfortunately may draw others into the endeavor.

In just this brief overview, it seems obvious that the cost of passing is tremendously high – it sure does make one wonder at the compulsive need all of us seem to have, whether stigmatized or not, to be considered “normal”.  The subject of passing and appearing normal makes me think back to the small central Illinois farming community I grew up in. The people were salt of the earth types; however it was a place from which, like most teenagers, I was dying to escape. Now I’m beginning to have a new respect for the people and one of the local favorite expressions, which I considered rather lame at the time when my father used it constantly:  “To each his own said the farmer as he kissed the cow.”  Can anyone tell me, why can’t we say “hurray for the differences” like this quaint expression implies and mean it rather than stigmatize it?  Maybe we should all go kiss a cow and give the idea of celebrating the differences some serious thought – in addition to puzzling a heck of a lot of cows.

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