The Shame about Shame

There was a post recently on the Huffington Post website by Alexis Jane Torre titled “I’m ‘Not Like Most Girls’.”

You probably know those movies and books where there’s a female protagonist who is apparently “not like most girls.” She actually likes sports and isn’t catty. She doesn’t cause drama or stress over her appearance. She is unlike every other female character, and she is unable to befriend most girls.

Her basic point, that this trope serves to discourage women from female friendships and encourages them to not trust one another seems to be valid enough. However, I’m not so sure that many women, at least women I know, actually believe that most girls conform to those negative stereotypes.

And, this then teaches young women that they should strive to be “not like most girls.”

Trying to avoid being like the negative stereotype has inhibiting effects. I had one friend who had no problem asking men out on dates and initiating sexual contact, but once a relationship became serious she couldn’t discuss the future because she was afraid of acting like a “typical” woman who was just angling for a wedding ring. I’ve felt similar pressures. You want to ask a man, “Where do you think this is going,” but you don’t dare because you’re afraid of it being misinterpreted.

For me, talking about my appearance has always been a forbidden topic. People whose main way of knowing me is off-line would probably be shocked by the things I wrote yesterday. I almost never discuss clothes or hair and I’m known for actually scolding other women if they start saying negative things about their bodies. One of the biggest fights I’ve gotten into with my mother occurred following a dance performance. The entire time my mother whispered in my ear about my sister’s roommate, someone we both knew, “She’s gained so much weight. How could she wear those tights. I wouldn’t get on stage if I looked like that.” This was about a dancer! She was energetically jumping about on stage. We’re not talking about weight as health, we’re talking about weight as part of society’s standards of beauty.

I started this blog in part to express things that I normally don’t express, and I’ve never sat around with other women and talked about how I hate my thighs or my neck or whatever. Of course, I don’t actually hate my thighs. The truth of the matter is that I’m painfully aware that my thighs do not conform to current ideal of female beauty, but it’s no less painful for that. I’m not ashamed of my body so much as I am ashamed of my inability to live up to society’s standards. Intellectually, I understand that those standards and the pressure to conform to them are not healthy, but that only leaves me feeling ashamed of my shame. I’ve never really discussed this, not even with my therapists. It seems so superficial, so trivial. How ridiculous that some days I don’t want to leave the house because I don’t look the way society tells me I should look. Does it interfere with my life? Well, I’ve never missed anything like school or work for that reason. On the other hand, I’ve avoided social events. Maybe it’s one of the things that makes it difficult for me to make new friends when I move to a new town. It adds to my social anxiety.

Then I say to myself, “There are so many more important things in the world than this. Starving children, real injustices.” Then I feel like a self-absorbed vain asshole and I shove it all down. However, it doesn’t solve the problem and I still won’t go to that meeting to practice French or join that organization for artists. Telling myself it’s foolish solves nothing and makes me feel like a fool.

This feeling has gotten worse over the years, and I don’t think it’s simply weight and age. It seems to me that there is more pressure for women to be beautiful than there was when I was younger. We used to have pubic hair! We didn’t even know to feel funny about it. It was as normal as having hair on your head. Vagina facials? May I say that that’s just fucking nuts? (May I also so say that vagina is not the correct term, unless they’re stuffing the exfoliating cream inside you. And who the hell has enough money for this crap? Who are you? I would love just to get my gray hair professionally dyed to its old color so I don’t have to make a mess in my bathroom, but I have a hard time swallowing the cost. A facial for my vulva? P. T. Barnum would be proud.) These currents are so strong in the society that they have made their way into my subconscious despite the fact that I don’t own a television, read neither celebrity nor fashion magazines and am generally a high brow snob. Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself how I even know about them. In fact, it’s part of the reason I’ve stopped reading garbage like Salon, the Huffington Post and Alternet. I became tired of getting a dose of body shaming in with my politics.

I’ve said it before, and here I am saying it again, I feel very fortunate to have come of age in the wake of two things, second wave feminism and punk. In terms of fashion, the new wave era was great for young women because there was really no pressure whatsoever to look pretty. In fact, I would say it was quite the opposite. There was an impulse to thumb one’s nose at society’s expectations, and that most certainly included society’s expectations of beauty.

When I told my parents I wanted to attend a different college, I considered myself a radical feminist, was openly dating a woman, wore repurposed thrift store clothes and had my hair cut to the length of a crew cut on one side and shoulder length on the other. They sent me to a psychiatrist. I walked into the office to see a painfully thin woman with carefully highlighted hair and an obvious nose job. She wanted to send me to a residential drug rehab program despite the fact that I told her repeatedly that I didn’t even smoke pot. Ironically, in terms of drugs I was one of the straightest people I knew. I didn’t even drink that much.

At that time, I actually needed a lot of guidance in terms of a career and academic programs, but I wasn’t getting any because everyone was focused on my hair and my clothes. Around that time, some of the styles associated with new wave were rapidly being absorbed into mainstream fashion and women started worrying about being pretty again. I dropped out of school, went to work and started conforming.

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