Shame can arguably be said to be one of the worst emotions out there. Emotions like fear, grief and jealousy are strong contenders, and yet these feelings, strong as they are, don’t quite work in the same way that shame does. Dr Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist, positions shame as unique in that it “lead[s] you to feel as if your whole self is flawed”, eating away at your sense of self-worth until you can no longer bear to face public scrutiny, or indeed, yourself.
Given the deep-reaching effects of shame, it is not surprising, then, that it makes a remarkably effective tool for maintaining the patriarchal order. Women are shamed for a whole host of reasons— for being fat, being ugly, being hairy, being an airhead, being sexually promiscuous, being sexually conservative—the list goes on. Men are shamed when they behave too much like women—when they show emotional sensitivity, when they dress like women, or enjoy traditionally feminine activities, or when they (horror of horrors) allow themselves to be subservient to a woman. The result is a preservation of the status quo, where men act in dominant, assertive, stoic ways, and women walk the fine line of adhering to decorative ideals, but careful not to take it so far that they are labelled ‘sluts’.
It all seems pretty straightforward when laid out this way, but the waters are muddied by the invisibility of these forces. Indeed, it would make things far less complicated if we could identify a group who had nefariously and deliberately devised these rules for the purposes outlined above. When a man laughs at another for being “pussywhipped”, he (usually) isn’t consciously thinking, “My friend doesn’t have power over his girlfriend. This is a threat to the position of men and women in society! What should I do? I know- I’ll mock him and make him feel humiliated. Everyone must know that this is an unacceptable position for a man to be in!” Likewise, when a woman talks about how fat another woman is, she isn’t trying to make a statement about the female obligation to always maintain our sexual attractiveness. No—they’re doing it because this is what they’ve always known, because they’ve never lived in a society that gave them an alternative lens through which to view men and women. And from a societal point of view, it doesn’t matter that their statement was merely a throwaway remark; the effects are the same as if we’d all pulled together and orchestrated it.
Next time we hear a friend engage in a bout of casual shaming, let’s make sure they have a little think about what they’re really saying. Let’s ask them why they feel that a woman’s worth is bound up with her sexual activity. And why they gave their male friend a high-five for sleeping with loads of women. Let’s ask them why Hillary Clinton’s appearance is relevant to her role in politics. And if they continue to think it appropriate to criticize politicians for completely random and irrelevant traits, ask them why they never thought to judge Obama’s competence based on his pottery skills. Ask why no newspaper has ever run a feature on how ugly David Cameron is. Finally, let’s ask them why they’re telling their sons that ‘being a gi-rl’ is the worst thing he can be. And what message that sends to their daughters.
Then let us reserve shame for activities that actually deserve it. Let violence, rape, and the exploitation of women be shameful. Let the horrors of war and mass murder be a source of shame, not glory. Let the next generation of children grow up knowing that shame will never touch them for abandoning gender roles, and give them a world defined by love and harmony, and not by domination and power.