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Female Shame

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by Nicole Arzt

Nicole Arzt is a practicing psychotherapist in Southern California. Her clinical emphasis lies in treating substance use, eating disorders, and complex trauma. Nicole is a contributing writer for numerous mental health organizations and is the author of the book, Sometimes Therapy Is Awkward.

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Jul 5, 2021

From a young age, women are essentially conditioned to feel shame, embarrassment, and resentment towards themselves and their physical appearances. 

The statistics prove to be harrowing. Research shows that, compared to men, women have lower levels of self-esteem in all age groups. Throughout a woman’s lifespan, shame often accompanies standard human processes like childbirth, menopause, job stress, and retirement. Nearly half of women report at least one instance of period shaming, and, in one study, nearly half of participants considered menopause as a disease. 

Unfortunately, body image issues are closely associated with mental health distress. And unfortunately, the concerning trend doesn’t necessarily improve as women get older. Instead, women are significantly more likely to report body dissatisfaction than men, and the importance of appearance remains relatively stable over time. 

The Shame of Being a Woman 

Men and women have never been on equal playing fields, and these differences manifest from a young age.

Research on teacher biases shows that boys receive more instruction and adult attention than their girl counterparts. Boys are also less likely to be reprimanded for interrupting or dominating the class. Furthermore, they receive more specific praise for their skills and intelligence, whereas girls receive more recognition for their appearance or being well-mannered. 

From a young age, the message for women is clear: look good and act well-behaved

As girls mature into adolescents, they must undergo the complicated storm of puberty, a time characterized by rapid hormone swings, changing bodies, and growing peer pressure. This period can feel frenzied and chaotic- girls may not feel “ready” to adjust to their new bodies. At the same time, they may become interested in dating and intimacy, which often represents a new competition among their friends.

Shame persists throughout adulthood. In many cases, it can seem like a woman cannot win. Often she feels pressure to work in a successful career, raise a family, maintain a perfect career, spend time with family and friends, remain sensitive to the needs of others, and stay consistently attractive- all at the same time. It’s an exhaustive process, but many women consider this a necessary standard to achieve.

Deviating from this impossible goal can trigger the sensation of failure, and it can evoke immense feelings of fear and guilt. Moreover, many women struggle with burnout as a result of trying to “do it all.” 

This burnout can exacerbate even more shame, especially if the woman believes she needs to have things under control.  If left untreated, burnout can affect one’s relationships, work, and self-esteem. It can also worsen other mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. 

Finally, once a woman enters menopause, other shame complications can arise. For example, up to 87% of menopausal women report feeling overlooked or invisible in society. Many also feel they have been judged negatively because of their age and indicate that life is only geared towards young women. 

Where Does It Come From?

Shame doesn’t come from a single source. It’s multifaceted and often emerges from different life circumstances related to rejection, pressure, and the incessant need to “be a certain way.” Many times, shame starts in childhood, and it persists throughout the lifetime. 

Family Legacies

Many families subconsciously pass along shame messages to young girls. For example, mothers, knowing the challenges of being female, may hold their daughters to unrealistic standards because they want to shield them from being hurt. 

Other family members may simply adhere to deeply-rooted gender roles about how a girl should and should not behave. For instance, they may steer her towards more girlish activities and outfits because that’s assumed to be most appropriate. 

 

Negative Perceptions About Healthy Body Functions

While boys often engage in competitions about who can “be the grossest,” girls tend to conceal any evidence of natural body functions like passing gas, or menstruation. In fact, nearly half of women have reported ‘period shaming,’ and many women report making great efforts to hide the fact that they are actively menstruating.

But the concealing extends beyond these seemingly taboo functions. 

Women often suppress essential body cues like hunger or fatigue or cold and flu-like symptoms. Sometimes, this is in the attempt of being selfless- they may be conditioned to provide for others even if it means sacrificing their own needs. 

Other times, it becomes a form of self-punishment. A woman who “feels fat” might restrict her calories that day. Or, she might exercise late into the night (despite being tired) because she’s following a strict workout regimen. 

The “Perfect Body” Cult

Look no further than social media to observe the obsession with youth and perfect bodies. In 2013, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was selfie- since then, people have taken extreme measures to achieve the perfect picture. 

Unfortunately, with modern technology, it isn’t always possible to decipher fact from fiction. Apps like Facetune make it easy to reshape and edit any part of your body, from blurring normal facial texture to shrinking the size of your waist. While exact statistics remain unknown, 64% of people admit to editing photos before posting them online. This number likely skews higher for younger populations and women.

But social media isn’t the only driving force behind the perfect body cult. Centuries of sexual objection maintain this limiting status quo. Indeed, for years, magazines, television shows, and mainstream media have defined how women should look. 

And although trends may change over the years, one message remains the same: women should be attractive and have a strong sex appeal, and their bodies must reflect that. Straying away from this standard often feels uncomfortable or even downright unacceptable. 

Body Exploration Taboo

While men are often cheered for their sexual exploration, women tend to receive the opposite response. 

Women who show interest in sexual activity risk being labeled as “slutty” or “kinky.” Their partners or peers may ostracize them. At the same time, paradoxically, they are often expected to enjoy any sexual activities shared within an intimate relationship. If they don’t, they risk being called “prudish” or “boring.”

Finally, while it is expected that men have an orgasm during sex, the same agenda does not apply to women. 10-15% of women have never had an orgasm, and some research suggests that half of women are not satisfied with how often they achieve orgasm. 

While most women masturbate, it can often feel shameful, especially if they received messages about masturbation being dirty, sinful, or otherwise wrong. 

This shame can certainly extend into having sex with a partner- they may feel uncomfortable asking for what they want. Or, they may feel immense pressure to have an orgasm to satisfy their partner’s ego. This dynamic might explain why almost 70% of women report faking orgasms. 

A Twisted Sense of “Normal”

The beauty industry is projected to reach a staggering $463.5 billion by 2027. In every direction, women feel pressure to tighten, tone, lift, or laser parts of their bodies. 

Moreover, we live in a society that shames women for normal bodily functions, hygiene habits, and the natural processes of aging. There is little grace for everything from bowel movements to gray hair to pimples. 

Subsequently, the media portrays women as youthful and effortlessly beautiful. There are countless advertisements, books, and tutorials devoted to teaching women how to enhance themselves. From a young age, the message is loud and clear: conventional attractiveness is synonymous with worthiness. 

How Body Shame Takes a Toll on Health 

Shame doesn’t just feel uncomfortable and distracting. It can have a profound impact on your emotional and physical well-being, and it is closely linked with mental health diagnoses like body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Mental Disorders

Poor self-esteem is a risk factor in most mental health conditions. Similarly, many women with body dissatisfaction report higher rates of anxiety, depression, postpartum problems, and relationship distress.

Shame also has a tremendous impact on sexuality. When you don’t feel comfortable in your body, it’s hard to experience pleasure. As a result, you may avoid physical intimacy with others. Or, you may seek it out with the wrong people in an attempt to receive external validation.

Physical Disorders

Some women overlook concerning physical symptoms like abdominal pain, excess bleeding, or gastrointestinal distress due to shame. Medical stigma remains an ongoing problem, with many women reporting feeling mistreated or judged by their healthcare providers.

While ongoing healthcare screening is important, this stigma may prevent women from receiving the adequate care they need. For instance, they might feel uncomfortable discussing their sexual activity- however, such avoidance can trigger complications with sexually transmitted diseases, endometriosis, and cervical cancer. 

Why Body Shame Is Stealing Your Joy

When you feel preoccupied with your physical appearance, it can be challenging to enjoy your life. Therefore, you may feel overly self-conscious around others; you might avoid certain activities or deny yourself from taking necessary risks. In other words, obsessing over how you look can compromise how you live.

Learning how to harness more acceptance and self-love isn’t easy, but it is possible. This journey takes time and effort. It requires dismantling strong biases about women and femininity. But, it also entails choosing to embrace your inherent self-worth and goodness. 

 

What Can We Do

Combating shame can be challenging, mainly because shame-based messages are so pervasive in modern society. Here are some action-based steps we can all take to empower ourselves and harness a greater sense of confidence.

Normalize the Diversity of Real Bodies

It’s so important to find realistic role models and emphasize the benefits of diversity. Today, some social media campaigns are making strides in the right direction by featuring more women of different shapes and sizes. 

That said, we still have a long way to go, and it’s essential to focus on how we can embrace the inclusivity of all women.

Challenge Your Own Biases 

We are conditioned to have certain biases. After all, we’ve been inundated with messages about weight, beauty, and aging since childhood. 

Start thinking about how you implicitly judge others for how they look. Do you assume certain characteristics based on one’s physical appearance? Having such awareness is the first step towards necessary change. 

Spot & Reframe Critical Body Thoughts

Pay attention to the negative voice shaming how you act or look. When does it talk harshly to you? What kinds of messages does it say? How does it hold you back? Consider journaling these triggers as a starting point. Practice new mantras when you notice yourself being judgmental. Mantras can include:

  • I am okay the way I am.
  • I accept my body today.
  • I have so many excellent qualities.
  • I am choosing to accept myself.
  • These thoughts are not truths. 

Stand for Being Accepted In Your Exact Body

Try to work towards a place of acceptance for your body. If you find this challenging, consider learning more about body neutrality, a concept rooted in accepting your worth has nothing to do with your appearance. 

Body neutrality means you stop focusing so much on your body and learn to accept it is. You may have good days and bad days, but you learn to respect yourself and your body for all it can offer you. 

Seek A Supportive Environment

Part of self-respect means surrounding yourself with people who accept you for who you are. Aim to cultivate meaningful relationships with people who inspire you to honor your self-worth. These relationships should include anyone from friends to healthcare professionals. 

Subsequently, try to decrease or avoid spending time with people who make you feel poorly about yourself. These people may trigger more feelings of shame or embarrassment. 

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