by Jackson Rainer, PhD
Stigma. What an ugly word. The very sound of it reflects its hateful meaning. Stigma is an unfavorable assessment of a person that is based on a particular attribute, usually one that marks the person as different from others. This article discusses stigma as the negative perception or judgment someone without arthritis might have about someone with arthritis.
Stigma has its roots in stereotypes and in cultural ideas of what is “normal.” When faced with someone or something different from that norm, people may become alarmed and challenged instead of curious and empathetic. They may feel a sense of repulsion and may reject the person whom they perceive as different. Rejection may take the form of acts of discrimination, such as deliberately barring the stigmatized person from a group or activity, or it may take subtler forms, such as insensitive comments. Whatever form stigma takes, it typically arises from misperceptions, fears, biases, and attitudes arising from that sense of difference.
To the person with the stigmatized attribute, stigma can certainly be distressing and even damaging. People who experience acts of stigma often feel abnormal, ashamed, and excluded. Janet, who has rheumatoid arthritis and lives in an assisted living facility, described her experience with stigma. “My arthritis has now advanced to the point that the joints in my hands are deformed. I have difficulty using utensils at meals and have to pick up a glass with both hands. I’ve often been embarrassed, but most of my friends know to help me. Not long ago, a resident’s teenage granddaughter came to visit. I was within hearing distance when she said, ‘Where’s the lobster lady? You know, the one with claws.’ I felt my face flush with humiliation and shame. I know I should have been able to rise above the girl’s immaturity, but I was emotionally cut to the quick.” Janet wound up retreating to her apartment in tears.
As Janet’s experience shows, stigma can take away your dignity and affect your involvement in society. Originally a Greek word, stigma came to mean a cut or burn mark on the body indicating that a person’s morality was abnormal or corrupt. It showed that the person was a criminal, slave, or traitor who should be avoided. Today, the word refers to a mark (which may or may not be visible) that allows people within a group to identify “outsiders.” This mark permits the group to define who belongs in the group and who does not — in other words, who is “normal” and who is not. Stigma is punishing because it implies that being different from the group is something to be ashamed of.
Social scientists classify stigma into a few basic types. One type has to do with “tribal stigma” that a culture may attach to minority religions or ethnic groups. Another has to do with behavioral attributes, such as mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, or criminal behavior. A third type is based on physical differences, such as scars, deformities, or other visible signs of illness. Stigma related to arthritis or physical disability falls within the latter category.
It is a natural tendency to define ourselves by how we are different from others and label those differences in a variety of ways. You probably tend to make distinctions about yourself, saying things like, “There aren’t many of us redheads in the world,” “I’m taller than most folks,” or “I’m an Episcopalian.” Stigma comes into play when prevailing cultural beliefs tie people labeled as different to something negative, in effect saying, “There’s something wrong with him because he is a redhead [or tall, or an Episcopalian].”
Some people place these labeled individuals into groups that they consider less worthy than their own group, which draws a nasty line between “us” and “them.” Rather than simply being different, the stigmatized group is defined as abhorrent. If the stigma sticks to this group, people who are a part of it may experience discrimination and a loss of status. They may also be placed in unfair circumstances in relation to others.
Marie, who has arthritis and uses a power chair to get around, related an incident in which she encountered this us-versus-them mentality. One evening, she attended a social event in her rural community. As Marie’s home health aide was helping her move from her car to her chair, another guest strolled by and commented to the aide, “Seems like she would be better off using a walker to get inside. Does she have to use that chair?” Marie was nonplussed. “She talked to my aide like I wasn’t even there. I guess I was invisible to her. Here I sat, gussied up and dressed to the nines, and I felt so very pretty. What the other guest said took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t even want to go inside, and it had been a party I had been looking forward to for weeks.” Stigma left Marie wanting to hide. She felt discredited, depersonalized, and thoroughly bad.
Last Reviewed on November 29, 2012
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