We are socialized into being ashamed of our bodies, being ashamed about the abuse done to us, being ashamed about our desires, our aspirations, our dreams. This kind of shame is limiting and restricting, it prevents women from having the same level of autonomy, confidence, dignity and fulfilment that men grow up having.
The strong relation and association, historically and culturally, between women’s bodies, women’s sexualities and shame, both personally and politically, is a very serious issue with far-reaching consequences for women.
I hope that by talking about these things, we can collectively drop this shame because it is not ours to bear.
Many young girls are shamed for developing bodies by parents, relatives, teachers and peers. We are told that our waywardness and promiscuity is what caused this development. Cue the very Nigerian question “them don dey press you abi?”. Around the same time, we become subject to increased attention from perverted men and predators who stalk us, harass us, catcall us and even assault us. We are told that our developing bodies which we are not covering up well enough is what attracts these predators. We start to hide our bodies and feel ashamed of them, like they have exposed us, betrayed us. Puberty, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon, becomes our fault.
Isn’t it baffling that menstruation is one of the most natural functions in the world and yet women are made to feel ashamed of it? This, in particular, can be a source of anxiety for teenage girls. Girls who don’t get their first periods early are shamed for not maturing quick enough and called children, Yet, once you do get it, you are told that it is a dirty thing that must be hidden and not spoken about. We are taught to hide our hygiene products and even in adulthood, we find ourselves still hiding our pads and tampons like they are secret weapons. Period shame stems from both religious and cultural structures that have regarded women as unclean while they’re menstruating. Women are told that they cannot speak openly about menstruating, especially when there are men present. Periods are referred to negatively with phrases like ‘the monthly curse’, ‘the red demon’. Period shame can affect women’s hygiene, education, employment and wellbeing generally.
Beyond menstruation, shame also follows women throughout their sexual development. Having desire or a sexual appetite is seen as shameful and even taboo. Women are expected to be prude virgins until their wedding nights, and yet be sex experts on their wedding nights. Young men are encouraged to have girlfriends and sow their seeds while young women are locked at home and policed. Even in 2020, the topic of women masturbating is considered taboo. Many people believe women render their bodies impure if they pleasure themselves. Women are made to feel ashamed of seeking sexual pleasure, of telling their partners what makes them feel good and what doesn’t. They are told that sex is for men to enjoy, and women to endure.
This is a typical ‘damned if I do and damned if I don’t’ scenario. It’s almost as if no matter what you do as a woman, society will find a way to shame you. If a woman decides not to have children simply because she doesn’t want to, she will be jeered at, harassed and even outcasted. If a woman cannot have children because of a biological factor, she will also be harassed and told that her past acts are the reason. If a woman does bear children, she is told that even while her body is still sore and battered from bearing an entire child, she must start shedding weight in order to remain attractive, otherwise, she has failed as a woman. Women are frowned at for breastfeeding babies in public because our entire existence has been sexualized. When do we win?
This is definitely the most infuriating of all. Women go through physical, sexual and emotional abuse and are told to be quiet about it because it is embarrassing to speak about. Many parents cover up the rapes of their daughters because they are ‘ashamed’. They refuse to seek medical attention and legal action because they do not want others to know about it. Women who are getting battered and bruised by their husbands are told by their families and pastors not to speak of it because ‘what will people say?’. All of this puts the burden of shame on the victim; the woman. Abuse is never the fault of the victim, and it should never be the responsibility of the victim to feel shame or embarrassment.
There’s so much more that we are made to be ashamed of. We are taught to be ashamed of saying the word ‘vagina’, of our bra straps showing, of being alone, wanting more, knowing more, earning more, or loving ourselves. We need to remind ourselves to consciously start to unravel the shame around these things. All year long.