Shaming and Blaming

Shaming and blaming are, of course, practically American pastimes, and they play right into each other in a tangled morass of “morals” which are wrapped around women’s bodies and minds from a very early age. Indeed, so deeply embedded are these things that even women who think of themselves as progressive buy into them on occasion. We may live in a society in which women are theoretically allowed to dress as they please, but let’s not forget that every woman is wrapped in a tight web of social attitudes, even when she’s stark naked.

It starts early. How many women were told as little girls that they needed to cover up better? That they couldn’t wear that shirt/skirt/dress/etc because it “showed too much”? How many parents have been told to cover up their little girls more “appropriately” because people might “get ideas”? How many little girls come home with notes pinned to their shirts that say “Dear Parent, please tell your little girl to wear underwear when she wears skirts, or to stop using the swings”? How many little girls are told from a very early age that their “private parts” are dirty and disgusting?

It’s not about educating little girls about the fact that they have bodily autonomy and they have the right to control what happens to their bodies and when. No, it’s about shaming and terrifying little girls. This is done “for their own good,” because obviously telling little girls “you have bodily autonomy and no one has the right to touch you anywhere without your consent” will not do the trick. Much better to say “there’s a monster in your underpants and it makes people do bad things,” because, “it,” your genitals, is at fault when people do bad things. The bad people are not responsible for their actions. “It” is.

How many young girls get their periods for the first time and have no idea what is happening? How many young girls find a streak of blood and panic and think that they are dying, and are met with mockery and shame when they ask for help? For those lucky enough to know what’s going on, to have been educated, to know what to do, how many are reminded that they need to control their gross, yucky dirtiness so that no one will know that they are “bleeding” and how many remember the time that those controls weren’t enough and there was a patch of blood smeared on a pair of pants or a skirt? How many adult women have been humiliated by having the audacity to fail to control their menstrual blood on airplanes? In college classrooms? At work? In restaurants?

How many young women have access to sex education at all, let alone comprehensive, non-judgmental sex education? How many are told that they should simply keep their legs shut, that the burdens of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy rest solely on their shoulders? How many are so terrified of sex that they don’t even really understand how it works? How many get pregnant their first time because they don’t even know that they were having sex? How many young women understand that sex without consent is rape no matter who is doing it?

How many women have been told that they can assert their right to bodily autonomy? That they have the right to refuse medical examinations? That, if you are a virgin, a pelvic exam is an unnecessary brutality which serves no function? How many young women have been told that if they didn’t fight, it wasn’t rape?

How many women are reminded on a regular basis that their bodies are terrifying, frightening, disgusting, horrific? How many are told, repeatedly, that they should feel shame for their bodies? That their physical variations are gross, that the feelings they experience are invalid, that sexual excitement and the experience of pleasure are things which should be kept private and quiet, oh so quiet, because they are transgressive and wrong?

With all this shaming going around, is it any wonder that blaming follows right behind, the imprinted duckling which cannot help but attach itself because it has nowhere else to go? Because part of a culture of shaming involves trying to put yourself in the place where you cannot be shamed.

You’re not like those dirty, gross, ucky girls. You’re a clean nice girl. Bad things only happen to the gross girls, because if bad things happened to anyone, the world we live in would not be fair. That means that when you know that something bad has happened to someone, you need to figure out how she is to blame, and you need to make sure that she knows.

Shouldn’t have worn that. Shouldn’t have said that. Why’d you go to prom with him if you didn’t want to have sex. Maybe if you closed your legs you wouldn’t get pregnant. You must be a disease-ridden tramp because there’s no way he gave that to you. Can’t keep your hands to yourself, can you, you slut. You must have been coming on to him. There’s no way anyone gets pregnant while using birth control responsibly. You should have thought about that before you married him. You must have deserved that. You’re probably lying about what happened.

The blaming follows the shaming because the shaming is ingrained in us. All of us. When you’re shamed from an early age because of your body, you spend the rest of your life trying to get outside of your body and trying to draw lines between your body and other bodies. Who wants to be disgusting and gross and scary?

And thus, the cycle continues. The mother trying to do the right thing for her little girl unconsciously repeats the shaming and the girl learns the blaming and it



3 Replies to “Shaming and Blaming”

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post meloukhia. I was actually struggling with many of the issues you raise since reading your “Yes I can make an informed choice” posts. Even though I come from a progressive family, some open shaming did happen, and the main issue was really that the entire issue of body/sexuality was mostly ignored unless I or my sister asked questions. But since I due to my disabilities didn’t have access to sex ed materials, how was I supposed to know what questions to ask at all? I was pretty much entirely ignorant until a few years ago, and am still learning a lot. I am 23 and that means I also feel shame at my own ignorance. I am sure that wasn’t your intention with the posts, but I was planning on informing you that actually not all women are educated/enabled enought o make these choices, although I knew you were aware of that (or you should have). Again, thanks for writing this post.

  2. This being one of the key problems with prescriptive attitudes in feminism, in my opinion: Many people assume that women do have access to all of this kind of information, and that simply isn’t true, as your case and the cases of many others illustrate. (And I’m sorry to read that you got the impression that I thought that way from my post about informed choices, because that is definitely not the case!)

    It really infuriates me that people assume that everyone has access to the same level of information that they do. And that people use this to bludgeon people who lack access (and therefore aren’t able to make informed choices) as well as people who have access (and choose to use/interpret that information differently to make informed choices). The idea that it’s appropriate to shame people doesn’t really contribute in any sort of meaningful way to effecting change and certainly doesn’t help when it comes to have discussions about why people make the choices they do. When you’re starting from the ground of “well, that’s antifeminist,” it doesn’t leave much room for context.

  3. Also, Astrid, FYI, your comment sparked so many thinky thoughts, because it brings up some important issues, that my response turned into a whole post, which will (hopefully) go up tomorrow! So if my response here is a bit short/lacking in nuance, rest assured, there will be more on this tomorrow.

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