The War on Shame.


For some, it begins with the circled vulva on an ultrasound, a slow dawning in the doctor’s office. It isn’t just a girl; it’s a lifetime of guerrilla warfare, a draft that cannot be dodged, an avowal to safeguard her from the predators who could make them grandparents in as a few as 9-12 years.

Somewhere far deeper, it is a tacit admission that, despite their most valiant efforts, this insular protection may not be possible.

For some, it is an incremental unease, deepening with every diaper’s denuding. Even as these parents powder and wipe with precision, they are averting their eyes. When the baby reaches down, curious as to which organ or appendage is so difficult for her parents to face full-on, they swat her hand away, awakening her awareness that a part of her, some intrinsic part, can elicit an admonition, a sudden rebuke.

She cannot know that it isn’t the reaching that’s wrong; it is the world she’s inheriting. It isn’t her hand being roughly pushed aside; it is an idea, a recollection of a story, wherein a girl, not much older than she—a ten-month-old in Lesotho—was raped by a man who believed her virginity would cure his disease. It is the abhorrent day care facility, the abusive relative, the cracked-but-licensed caregiver that crops up ever so often on the evening news, alerting us that our girls and their bodies aren’t as safe as we’d hoped.

We parents are afraid, palpably afraid, not of our girlchildren but of the people they’ll pass in this life–on buses, in schools, in babysitters’ basements–apparitions we will not see, every friend of a friend of a friend we will never have occasion to meet, every stranger who may mean them harm, every forced and pressured child whose only mechanism for managing emotion is to apply equal force.

But none of this is clear to the baby. As she lies, freshly-diapered, on her changing table, she is not apprehending our fear. She’s understanding our gesture of rejection.


Then there will be school; there will be boys and blood. This will be soon, so much sooner than we are prepared to accept. For some, it will begin in clothing stores, where every item seems a machination designed to hyper-sexualize their preteens. In their heads, the mothers will scrawl angry screeds to Justice and Delia’s. But aloud, before they can stop themselves, they’ll snap at their gangly girls, as they longingly pore over leopard print training bras: Don’t you have all these nasty little boys sniffin’ around you.


For those who attend churches, it may begin in late adolescence, when a youth group decides it must say more to its members than, “True love waits.” and “Flee fornication.” The girls will be ushered into alcoves, the boys into back rooms and basements. There will be no overhearing. But this is what the daughters will be told: Be Esthers, Ruths, be Virgin Marys. Do not not be Jezebels. Do not be Hagars.

They will be told that men are weakened by their widening hips, their waists, their urges, that unsavory women–Salome, Delilah, the wife of Potiphar–have been beguiling them since the Beginning. They will be told that they are temptresses, even if they don’t intend to be, so they must be mindful of Lycra percentages and heel heights. They must blot their lip gloss, reduce the dips and rhythms in their walks, only speak to grown men at length when necessary or when spoken to, and even then, this should be done when their wives or another older woman is near.

They are told that if they get pregnant, they will owe the church an apology, that their bodies will become a permanent penance. If their mothers were unmarried when they were born, they will also be told their pregnancies are generational curses.

They are told that when they sleep with men, they ensnare their souls. It will take years, perhaps decades, to untangle themselves. They are advised that it is rarely okay to say yes or to confess aloud the palpable desires they should always pretend–even to themselves–not to have. If their yeses and confessions are followed by an abuse, it may be an unfortunate consequence of their own lusts. They can be healed and must forgive, in order to be forgiven.
They are only to be lauded and are easier to respect and love when their legs are closed. And on their wedding nights, if they’ve managed to retain their chastity, they are told that their grooms will instruct us in the fine arts of marital pleasure and, if by some natural fluke he is also a virgin, they will learn those arts together.

But in that other room, where the boys have been herded, the messaging diverges. They are being reassured about how difficult young women are to resist. They are being told that the just man falls seven times, and that women are often the stumbling blocks that account for those nasty spills. They are admonished to marry “good” girls–and the definition they are given is narrow. She must be willing to submit. She must be faithful, supportive, and–above all else–she should be chaste. She should be pure. The names of kings are evoked–David and Solomon, the father a man after God’s own heart, the son the wisest in the land. It is noteworthy, their youth leader insists, to mention that though David stole a man’s wife and had him killed and though Solomon wed 700 women and held a harem of 300 others, they are not cast aside for their weaknesses. They are not condemned for their failings.


For girls, shame is an endless absorption. There are few messages that can act as sealants against it. Fewer still are the messengers willing to attempt such protection. But I will be one: we are not responsible for their urges. Our bodies are not talismans intended to topple great men. We needn’t conceal ourselves to ensure their moral fortitude. We are not, as a gender, responsible for the fall of humankind. Our faith can, at times, be difficult to reconcile with our womanhood; this does not make us reprobates. We are not pre-conversion Mary Magdalenes for questioning. In governing our own bodies, we must do what we believe is best; we are the only ones who will be called upon to ever give account. But in so governing, we should know that we needed bear responsibility for any assault or accusation that cites our clothing, our girl-aged bodies with woman-sized assets, our suggestive language, or our mixed signals as its cause. We are never to blame for being overpowered. We are not to blame when our no’s go unheeded. We are not to blame if we cannot eke out an audible no. 

We are not just girls. We are lifetime guerrilla warriors in a draft that cannot be dodged. We will need our fight. Every battle is wearying, for our opponents are not just men or patriarchy or institutions. Our adversary is shame, and it takes the form not just of legislators, but of intimates: our families, our friends, and, at times, our faith leaders.

It’s an uneven match but it isn’t unwinnable. Wage it first within; if it’s conquerable in there, where it feels all but inextricable, and you will be armed to win in any arena shame can ever conceive or construct.

3 responses to “The War on Shame.”

  1. This has been running though my head for a week or so: Measure for Measure II,IV

    Who will believe thee, Isabel?
    My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
    My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
    Will so your accusation overweigh,
    That you shall stifle in your own report
    And smell of calumny. I have begun,
    And now I give my sensual race the rein:
    Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
    Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
    That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
    By yielding up thy body to my will;
    Or else he must not only die the death,
    But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
    To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
    Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
    I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
    Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.


    To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
    Who would believe me? O perilous mouths,
    That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,
    Either of condemnation or approof;
    Bidding the law make court’sy to their will:
    Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,
    To follow as it draws! I’ll to my brother:
    Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,
    Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour.
    That, had he twenty heads to tender down
    On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,
    Before his sister should her body stoop
    To such abhorr’d pollution.
    Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:
    More than our brother is our chastity.
    I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
    And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.

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