Be yourself, but exactly like this.

boxing-gloves-300x300Debra looked at me wistfully with a light in her eyes. I had just told her about my kickboxing hobby, so why the look of an unfulfilled longing? “I’ve wanted to box for a long time, but always thought it would make me less of a woman,” she said with a shrug of her hands.

Why would she say something like that? Sports are not inherently gendered. Somewhere along the way in her life, she must have internalized a message of what someone else thought it meant to be feminine. Maybe it was communicated by her family, friends, church, local community, broader society, or the media. Maybe it was all of these. Either way, a feminine box had been created where some things were clearly in, and others were clearly out.

Boxes in themselves are not necessarily threatening, but the consequences of non-compliance are enough to facilitate a community of cubic figures. Those who dare to transgress the sacred walls are shamed and shunned. The innate human desire to belong and to be loved easily overcomes the equally innate human desire for free self-expression. On one hand, society screams “Be Yourself!!” and on the other, it adds “but stay within these exact boundaries.” In Christian circles, it can be even worse, because compliance is connected to what is ‘biblical’, so salvation is on the line.

What are the results? People like Debra are robbed of their wholeness, and we are robbed of their beings and talents. Maybe she could have been a competitive boxer, but we’ll never know. It may not be sports, it could be anything – music, art, emotional expression, fashion – so much is defined by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ boxes.

People like Debra need the freedom to be themselves. Boxes need to be challenged, and not just those related to gender. We need to value wholeness more than conformity, for the individual and the community. Our joy, and even our future, depends on it.

$h@m€: The Other ‘S Word’

16-year-old Jack is found crying after he receives some difficult news. He’s told to stop being ‘weak’ and ‘a pussy’ because ‘real men don’t cry’.

Jane, a vivacious 10-year-old, often takes leadership of projects and situations, but is chided frequently for being ‘bossy’. After all, girls are supposed to be submissive and nice.

Steven has always loved painting and getting creative in the kitchen. He makes delicious entrées! However, he is discouraged and about to give up what he loves because he can’t stand the constant remarks that he is ‘a little too girly’ and ‘might be gay’ [using ‘gay’ as an insult is a whole other topic].

Susan is 35-years-old and single. She long stopped attending family gatherings where the only topic of conversation seemed to be her relationship status, and why she hadn’t yet found a husband. Something must be wrong with her.

Each of these hypothetical (though very real) scenarios is different, but contains a common element. Shame.woman-with-shame

What is shame? In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (p.69). And when you experience the excruciating pain of shame, it seems you’ll do almost anything to get rid of it.

Jack, Jane, Steven, and Susan are put in narrow, suffocating, harmful boxes that contain society’s recipe for masculinity and femininity, and are systematically shamed for being anything other. They must be flawed because they aren’t conforming.

The problem with these stereotypical boxes is that they fit only a minority of boys and girls, men and women, but everyone is forced into them as if they were a fixed and unquestionable entity. The results are harmful not only for those individuals, but also for the whole of society.

Jack grows up learning to bottle his emotions, making him miserable but unable to show it. He may be able to contain it for a while, but an angry and possibly violent outburst is looming.

Jane becomes a shadow of her lively self, pushed into the role of a submissive follower. She lives knowing something is out of place, and the world has missed out on a wonderful potential leader.

Steven long gave up painting and cooking. He’s now in a job that is socially acceptable, but he hates it. He could have been the next Picasso or Gordon Ramsey, but we’ll never know.

Susan feels like contentment is an impossible dream when no matter what she does, it is never enough for others because she hasn’t ‘achieved’ marriage yet. [And even if she does, she’ll be pressured about having kids. And if she has them, she’ll be questioned about her parenting techniques.]

According to research, “shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p.73). So shame, in itself, is a problem. But so are gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes, masculinity, and femininity are social constructs, not absolute truths. Put them together, and it’s a toxic combination.

How much have we personally and collectively suffered and missed because of gender shaming? Whatever we do, we absolutely cannot afford to keep this up. Gender shaming has to stop. Not in ten years, not in one year, not tomorrow. Now.

A proactive response to gender shaming will involve refusing to participate in gender shaming, and calling it out when you see it [this is part of feminism]. The more we shine light on the darkness, the less of a chance it has in overcoming us.

A reactive response (i.e. when you are the one being shamed) involves the four elements of shame resilience, as described by Brené Brown (Daring Greatly, p.75).

  1. Recognize shame and understand its triggers
  2. Practice critical awareness – give the shame messages a reality check
  3. Reach out – own and share your story with trusted others
  4. Talk about shame – talk about your feelings and ask for what you need

Here’s to a future where people are free to be themselves. Where the Jacks, Janes, Stevens and Susans of this world are no longer ashamed to be who they are.

How have you experienced gender shaming? If you’d like to shed some personal light on this topic, leave a comment or contact me about writing a guest post.