Shame is often an emotion we are never able to fully understand or come to terms with because we have been told time and time again, to accept and even submit to it. We are often told that certain things are labeled shameful if we are unable to live up to societal norms and expectations.
I was confronted with this emotion myself for the first time a few years ago while watching Game of Thrones. When Cersei Lannister was made to do the Walk of Atonement in, Season 5, she was stripped bare, shaved, and made to endure the ire of the citizenry of King’s Landing for her sins and sexual history, a knot of unease at the pit of my stomach began to tighten. She was made to walk around the streets as people catcalled and groped her and yelled, “Shame, Shame, Shame.“
Of course, Cersei had made her fair share of mistakes especially to protect her children, yet, would her fate have been so if she were a man? There are no shortages of male characters in the show who do the same thing and are never looked down upon. We see them oppress and viciously treat women in the show and witness the inhumane treatment of sex workers in the brothels.
Why was Cersei Lannister held to a different standard in the show?
How Shame Persists
As women, shame is something we continue to feel in most areas of our life, be it work, discussions around mental health issues, our sex lives, our bodies, as well as relationships. Even though shame is highly individualised and personal, conversations about shame seem to be oriented specifically around gender, where women, unfortunately, come out worse on the receiving end. We do not ever speak about how and why internalised shame and toxic misogyny remain so ingrained even among women today.
We are conditioned to believe and internalise many of society’s toxic and misogynistic gender norms simply because we are held to supposedly ‘’higher’’ standards where we need to do more and have more roles and responsibilities. These manifest and often times lead to a toxic self-depreciation and belittling that make us even more vulnerable to societal expectations and standards.
Contemplating Shame and Guilt
Shame is what often hides and masks the complex struggles and personal issues that so many women continue to face today. Even when we focus on our careers, we bear the brunt of also being good mothers and taking care of our families to the best of our abilities. Somehow, ‘doing’ and ‘having it all’ is a social contract that women are pressured to commit even when we never signed our names. Unfortunately, anything ‘less than perfect’ is deemed a misstep and something to feel guilty about when women are already doing so much at home as well as their work environments.
It takes a lot for us to come clean about our vulnerabilities as they remain stigmatised. Our ambiguous relationship with shame continues to result in us internalising these toxic norms of ‘never being good enough’ and constantly having to exercise caution in whatever we do.
The omnipresence of slut-shaming
Despite being a proud feminist myself, I can unequivocally say that I myself continue to grapple with internalised gender norms simply due to the way I was brought up and socialised. A large part of that is represented with the way most people with similar backgrounds continue to view sex and relationships in particular. Our own households and social circles can often contribute to this. Societal expectations and norms are built around making young women feel this overwhelming sense of shame and powerlessness even in the face of freedom and independence.
Even today, in spite of more accepting and growing sex-positive society, we still continue to have warped and distorted representations and notions about women, especially when we think women have ‘loose morals’, are ‘easy’ and are ‘those types of girls.’ The entrenched and vicious cycle of both today’s toxic victim-blaming culture remains an impediment to our conversations about sex and consent. Women are still hypersexualised, fall prey to labels like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and are shamed for engaging in casual relationships with no strings attached.
Hook up culture continues to be a good example of this toxic and patriarchal double standard today and best represents how so many young women like myself feel the intersectional polarisation. Sex continues to be used as a lethal weapon to shame as well as gaslight women, especially given the way we continue to frame narratives about sexual assault, abuse and rape.
Overall, I believe that shame is a delicate and fragile disposition that will often warp and shift as we evolve and grow more into ourselves and recognise the everyday double standards and societal expectations that continue to define us. It is necessary that we continue to set ourselves apart from them.
Also read: Why Do Mothers Body Shame Their Daughters?
Hopefully, honest and open conversations about the beauty as well as the difficulty and discomfort about these complex emotions may even help us understand the crippling and festering issues surrounding abuse and mental health, among others. We need to understand why we continue to internalise shame and re-assess why we situate ourselves with this emotion.