The History of Shame, its Nasty Effects on Women, and How To Escape It

The History of Shame, its Nasty Effects on Women, and How To Escape It

The History of Shame, its Nasty Effects on Women, and How To Escape It

You’ve heard it all before:

“Girls don’t poop.” 

“She’s easy.” “Don’t be a prude.” “Slut.” 

“You’re such a pick-me.” 

“She’s a high-value woman.”

Shaming and misogyny run deep in the current social climate, whether we believe we’ve come a long way or not.

In order for us to change our ways, explore why our society is so quick to shame women, and what the impact is on a personal and mass scale, we have to understand where it comes from.

This is a complex, multi-faceted issue, and this article only begins to scratch the surface of our culture’s fascination with shame, so we always encourage you to follow the research rabbit hole after reading. 

Let’s start with the basics.

What is shame?

Shame is a complex emotion that can be difficult to pinpoint. 

Oxford Dictionary has defined it as, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”

Shame can often be confused with the feeling of guilt. However, according to Brene Brown, it’s important to distinguish the two. 

In Ms. Brown’s words:

Guilt: “Adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort”

Shame: “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

This difference is crucial in understanding how the act of shaming is processed differently between genders. Patriarchal structures and traditional gender roles have played a significant role in shaping notions of shame, particularly in relation to women. 

In her book Women’s Growth in Diversity, Dr. Judith Jordan reports that men tend to experience more feelings of guilt, whereas women tend to moreover internalize shame, which results in negative self-image.

Dr. Jordan believes that women experience more shame for three reasons:

  1. Patriarchal systems target shame in women and then seek to silence/gaslight those realities
  2. Women are more open about their desire for connection and are more vulnerable to a broken connection.
  3. Women more frequently experience and internalize feelings of letting others down in interpersonal relationships.

Where did shame come from?

Tracing the roots of shaming is no simple feat. However, the origins of shame are indicated to have stemmed from the very beginnings of human civilization and have evolved with social, religious, and philosophical developments within each culture.

The world’s largest monotheistic religions provide some of the earliest examples of shaming as a means to enforce moral, behavioral, and social codes within a community.

Consider the story of Adam and Eve—the biblical explanation of humankind’s creation.

Adam and Eve (more so Eve) are blamed for eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. For being persuaded by his wife and eating from the tree, God punishes Adam to toil a cursed land for the rest of his days, and dooms Eve to an excruciating childbirth, and a life of subservience to man, not just for herself, but for all of her descendants.

Since the beginning of civilization, stories like these have been told to assert gender role expectations and also serve as daunting precautionary tales, threatening the members of society—especially women—with severe punishment for stepping outside the boundaries of social guidelines.

The witch hunts of the 15th and 18th centuries were also a continuing reflection and perpetuation of these societal fears and anxieties. Innocent women were tortured, killed, and made an example of in the name of protecting “sacred” order around sexuality, self-expression, and marriage.

These historical events sent violent messages about what a socially acceptable woman looked like, how she behaved, and how she needed to be perceived in public. To be not only accepted, but to be physically protected, women needed to adhere to standards of “femininity.” Behaviors deemed "ugly" “grotesque” “subversive” or outside conventional expectations were considered unacceptable and sometimes punishable by death.

Seeing women as “gross” or unworthy of social acceptance is manifested in our everyday environments to this day. From beauty and hygiene products to slut-shaming to gender-based income disparities, our current cultural climate is still steeped in the paradigms of yesteryear, no matter how much we think we’ve progressed.

For example, the designs of “feminine hygiene products” like tampons and pads are a direct reflection of the culture’s discomfort around menstruation—that it should be hidden at all costs. To many American women, hygiene products are seen as an essential expense that allows them to continue operating professionally and socially which is why it’s within economic interest of corporations who manufacture these products to perpetuate beliefs that menstruation is disgusting.

What happens when we internalize shame?

Shame can have some serious implications on physical and mental health.

Referring once again to our favorite shame researcher, Brene Brown says shame is present in mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, and substance abuse.

When shame is internalized, there is a tendency to isolate ourselves from our surroundings, turning to an alienating sense of self-consciousness and self-absorption which disconnects us from the healthy aspects of ourselves. Shame’s ability to impact self-esteem and self-conceptualization can mutate how you believe the public perceives you, how you see your current self and the self you aspire to be.

“Shame can also be described as a sense of unworthiness to be in connection and an awareness of wanting to connect with another” 
- Dr. Judith V. Jordan, 1997

That belief of unworthiness is what can be so dangerous to ourselves and to those around us. When we feel unworthy, we may feel less empowered to express our needs, we self-sabotage, we shut down, we doubt our choices, we settle for less, and in more severe cases, unworthiness can force us to turn to addictive behaviors like substance abuse and other forms of self-harm. The list goes on.

Brene Brown believes women in particular can experience this kind of shame in 12 areas:

  • Appearance
  • Body image
  • Motherhood
  • Family
  • Parenting
  • Money and work
  • Mental and physical health
  • Sex
  • Aging
  • Religion
  • Being stereotyped and labeled
  • Speaking out about and surviving trauma

How to move past shame

Overcoming shame can be a difficult, yet powerfully transformative experience, and there is no one way to do it. Equipping ourselves with education, self-knowledge, and compassion is one of the best first steps we can take.

Understanding the histories of shaming and its original intentions offers perspective on how it’s been used by ruling classes to control behavior since the beginnings of civilization. When we stop to consider the sociological and psychological powers shame grants its users, it can allow us to tap into self-awareness, question our feelings of shame, and begin deconstructing why we allow these “rules” to influence how we feel about ourselves.

Self-knowledge and being able to identify when we’ve been triggered by shame is another important step in the process. If we can catch ourselves in the exact moment we’re experiencing the shame cycle, we also have the ability to pull ourselves out of it and begin to actively reject the inherited beliefs about ourselves and the people around us that keep us divided.

Lastly, practicing self-compassion and self-love teaches ourselves and others that we are always, at all times, lovable and worthy of care, freedom, self-fulfillment, expression, and success. Read that sentence again. 

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