My greatest teacher on shame wasn’t some great researcher or professor, or even some spiritual guru or book. No, I stumbled upon my mentor in the most unusual of places—a brothel in Johannesburg.
Who more qualified to preach on the matter than a sex worker, an ancient profession intimately familiar with rubbing up against societal shame?
I was conducting my thesis research, spending a lot of time in brothels and sex workers’ homes getting to know them, and trying to better understand their relationship between their professional lives and their lives as mothers—two roles that, when married, challenge the status quo of the “good mom.” After all, a woman couldn’t possibly be a sexual being, nevertheless a prostitute, and change diapers?
Years later, I am finding that the lessons I brought home ran so much deeper than my original thesis question.
The sex workers received an almost daily barrage of “slut-shaming” bullets in the form of catcalls and verbal harassment, but they rarely broke skin. I remember walking down the streets of Johannesburg flanked by sex workers, and feeling so tiny, when they stood so tall in the face of adversity. They were some of the most empowered women I had ever met. There was no shame, no embarrassment, no hiding who they were. They were proud. Working professionals and mothers fighting for their human rights and for a national sex workers movement to make their job safer. I had a lot to learn.
Back home, in America, I find myself immersed in a culture that constantly shames women and their bodies—making the body in its most natural state seem wrong and foul and bad. Our society spits shame while delegating women into the binaries of right and wrong, good and bad, virgin and whore. Whether a working mom, single woman, too thin or too fat, women are set up for failure when measured against the impossible standard of Barbie. So how can any one individual woman rise up in the face of such adversity?
The sex workers taught me how to feel confident, sexy and empowered, even when doing so challenged the norm.
The essence is this: shame requires consent. Not consent in some sort of formal agreement to sit through an unkind diatribe, but permission to let those words sink into the soul. No one can actually make a person feel shame for something, unless there is an unhealed wound waiting to be triggered.
The secret, then, is to do the work. If a woman has made peace with her sexuality, with her body, and with her soul, there is nothing left for outsiders to shame. If someone makes a comment that stings, look at it. Where does it hurt? Is there a hint of truth in their words, cloaked in ugliness? Shame can be a helpful teacher; it can reflect back to the places in the self to work on or heal.
The truth is every person on this planet is worthy of love, simply by being born. When we forget that, or when we act in ways that move us away from being able to remember our inherent goodness, we open ourselves up to becoming targets of shame. And often we forget that any person berating another with shaming commentary is simply offering a reflection of his or her own emotional, physical or spiritual dis-ease.
After spending time going inward, diving into the trenches of darkness, I have uncovered a deep sense of peace in loving and embracing those places within my own self where before I may have felt shame. I feel empowered knowing that no comment can bring the sting of shame, if there isn’t a place within me harboring shame already for the words to trigger.
The best armor against a society that shames women, sexuality, and the female body, is a woman who knows her worth.
Shame cannot penetrate someone who is intimately aware of her own sacredness simply from being, regardless of her actions. There is power in a woman who is confident in her sexuality. There is power in a woman who loves her body as it is—organic, wild and untamed. And there is potential to change the world when women join together in refusing to shame each other, instead gently and lovingly guiding our sisters to turn their awareness inward.
Check out my Elephant Journal article on shame.