All this week long, as part of their ongoing Shame Issue, ELLE.com will be digging into the uncomfortable, unacceptable, and universally human emotions that keep people down. Hopefully, by addressing these issues, we can make strides in banishing those feelings of guilt, fear, and not-enoughness. Here's to just letting. It. Go.
Like any other emotion, shame is highly individualized—a situation that leaves one person feeling traumatised might roll off the back of another. But while the way we experience the feeling (and to what degree) might vary from person to person, there are certain circumstances or scenarios that, collectively, leave us more vulnerable. With this in mind, we asked experts who specialise in women's mental health to help us pinpoint the times in a woman's life where she might be more prone to feeling ashamed. Here, we narrow it down to four junctures.
Puberty: Body Shame
Our teenage years are a cesspool of hormones and raw emotion, and shame is often at the forefront of the chaos. A lot of it, our experts say, comes down to our rapidly morphing bodies—and thanks to conflicting cultural pressures, this is particularly sentient for young girls. 'It's much more frequent in women,' says Catherine Roca, MD and chief of women's programs at the National Institute of Mental Health, USA. 'I think while there are many factors that weigh into that, there are certainly standards that women and girls are more aware of, that they may become the pressure or focus of it.'
'It's a very mixed message, right'" adds Antonia New, MD and professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai in New York City. 'On the one hand, there's a social value on being attractive to others as you grow up, and being popular socially in that particular way. But I think there's also a tremendous number of young women who embody the other side of that, which is that their sexuality and their developed bodies become a source of enormous shame. There's this hiding of puberal development, hiding of breasts. I think it's that women encounter these mixed messages around female sexuality, particularly in puberty.' It's this whirlwind of factors that leaves girls more prone to eating disorders at this age.
In The Workplace: Pusher Shame
Obviously it depends on the industry, company, and role, but gender politics are often the culprit behind shame in the office. 'There's very interesting data that shows that women who are more outspoken in the workplace are seen as loud-mouthed or pushy, and men are not,' New says. 'If you go to scientific meetings, for example, there's a striking dichotomy where women, when they give a talk, give a huge amount of data, and a minor amount of synthesis of their own ideas. Whereas men typically give a very minimal amount of data to help pitch their own ideas. I've actually sort of tracked that over 10 years with our grand rounds here at Mount Sinai, and it's a striking difference. I think women [are made to feel] that if they're too pushy, they should be ashamed of being too pushy or too arrogant.' That isn't even to mention the politics and body-shaming involved in what women wear to the office.
Roca adds that changing roles, starting at a new company, or even entering the workforce for the first time can leave women prone to shame as they try to adjust to a new norm. 'Transitions are times of increased stress, and stress and shame often go together,' she says.
Postnatal: 'Bad Mum' Shame
'There's a pressure to be this ideal, perfect mother, which nobody is,' Roca says. 'There may be this expectation that it should be a time when you're very happy and this is what you wanted. But it's actually very stressful for most people.' This failed expectation, she says, harbors a lot of guilt and shame about not being a blissed-out new mum all the time, which can in turn lead to postnatal depression. 'I think there's a lot of shame and stigma around that because of the expectation that they should be feeling happy and they're not,' she says.
Thirty-Something and Single: Spinster Shame
No, it's not just you: The pressure to pair off is real, and New has found that it only feels more uncomfortable with age, and especially for women. (Exhibit A: George Clooney vs. Jennifer Aniston.) 'For many women, not having been chosen by anyone is a deep-seated element of shame, which I don't see among single men,' she says. 'I've found that single men in their late thirties don't seem to be feel ashamed of that, whereas single women who are not in a relationship are more ashamed of that. It's like an extension of what we feel during puberty, of wanting to be chosen and valued. I actually see a lot less shame around divorce than I do about being unmarried or not partnered in any way.'
The grand takeaway from all of this? It's normal to feel like this, during these times and at any other moments in your life that you encounter shame. 'It's just part of the human experience,' says Roca. And on that note: If the feeling is more than transient, however, or you find yourself feeling more down than usual, there's also no shame in seeking help.
From the editors of ELLE.com