shameful dis-ease: over the counter cold meds and covid

Body shaming and its ills are familiar: eating disorders in the pursuit of an ideal body-type; feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem caused by fat-phobic, misogynistic, racist and anti-trans bullying; and the intense pain and despair that come from being isolated from those around us simply because of who we are. Indeed, shame is an important component of social control precisely because it shifts responsibility for indifferent and cruel treatment of others from the shamer to the shamed. The logic is insidious, direct and more often than not internalized before we finish elementary school: I am treated like shit because this body is fat/ ugly/ female/ trans/ black/ old…

Recently, I’ve realized that mandatory covid testing manipulates body shame to achieve political and social goals. It has also changed previous expressions of care for family and friends.

Inquiring minds want to know: How does zero-covid play upon extant forms of body shame in Shenzhen? Well, if you lived through the US AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, you have (because you read Susan Sontag) a pretty good understanding of how illness and shame work to prevent the ill from receiving necessary care, while allowing the healthy and the powerful to justify their indifference to the pain of others. Below, I track how regulation of over the counter cold medicines is part of a bio-governance regime that has made it shameful to catch a cold.

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national shame…

egyptApparently a Chinese tourist wrote the characters ” 丁锦昊到此一游 (Ding Jinhao arrived here)” on one of the bas-relief sculptures at the Luxor Temple in Amun, Egypt. In turn, another Chinese tourist discovered the defacement and uploaded a picture to weibo, where it was picked up by the weixin and other news outlets. Today, Epoch Times has reported that the parents of Ding Jinhao have appologized for their son’s behavior.

Unfortunately, a few clicks around the web suggest that vandalism of cultural heritage and sacred sites is common. What seems notable in this case has been the outrage of the Chinese netizens and the consensus around “national shame”. Moreover, the use of social media to bring about this public shaming reminds us of the ongoing debate about the public face of Chinese tourists. It may also be that this vandalism shocked my friends because they believe that no matter how much Chinese people disregard the law at home, once abroad they become law-abiding citizens.

Advertizing and the Shenzhen Soul


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

The elevators in my building have three walls dedicated to advertizing; the fourth wall, so to speak, is a door. These advertisements change every week. What’s more, the advertisements in each of the three elevators are different. This means that every week, I encountered nine different sales pitches for appliances, cars, cultural events, family phone plans, and beauty makeovers. In short, the walls of my elevator promote a constantly changing version of the good home life, which is presumably affordable to those who live here – the catch is to make these life purchases desirable.

One of the latest advertisements for a beauty makeover claims to be able to remove all traces of acne and pimples. This advertisement disturbs me because its intended audience is Generation 90, teenagers who in addition are under the stress of the gaokao are being told they have no place to hide themselves and feel safe from prying eyes. Given the fact that most adults only notice a teenager when said teenager has blundered, the feeling of an ostrich unable to safely hide its head in the sand is probably spot on, if you’ll forgive the pun.

In English, I have understood the expression “to hide one’s head in the sand” to mean something like “avoid reality” or “avoid the consequences of my actions”. For me, being an ostrich has implied a kind of cowardice and a reluctance to take responsibility. In contrast, this advertisement focuses on being exposed – warts and all – to the gaze of others. In other words, the Mandarin interpretation of “to hide one’s head in the sand” focuses on a response to feeling ashamed – hide one’s face.

In other posts, I have spoken of the difference between lian (face as a metaphor for ethical sensibility) and mianzi (face as a metaphor for prestige and social power), what I hadn’t seen at the time was the way in which the emotional impact of these metaphors is cultivated through reference to actual faces. We effectively use shame to control the behaviors of others not only because we care about ethics, power, and other abstract values, but also because we have been taught to value some faces more than others and in the process become ashamed of our own.

Such is the cruelty of advertizing; it exploits cultural tropes for profit. More lamentably, when successful, the creative minds behind such symbolic manipulation are rewarded for their lack of lian by increased mianzi.