In the latest episode of “My Mad Fat Diary,” a TV show on the British network E4, the show’s protagonist is asked by her therapist to describe everything she dislikes about herself. The protagonist, Rae, does so: “I’m fat and I’m ugly and I ruin things.” Her therapist tells her, then, to imagine herself as a little girl and to tell the girl everything that she’s just said. Rae refuses. The therapist then imparts upon her a piece of wisdom that I think about almost every day: “You need to soothe yourself like you would soothe that little girl. You need to tell yourself that you’ll be okay. If you commit to that, then I promise you you’ll be able to face anything.”
I first watched this episode a year ago. And it impacted me really, truly deeply. As a little girl, I developed a deep shame in who I was. I thought I wasn’t good enough. I think I’m not good enough. I make so many mistakes that each one just feels like another blow to myself. I’ve lived and breathed this shame since I was about nine or 10, the same age Rae was. But I never understood my shame.
And yet, after so many years of mistakes and hatred and different experiences, I think I’ve finally begun to. Shame is a shackle. It’s the feeling that you’re not smart enough, pretty enough, good enough and so on. That you’re not enough. Shame is what holds us back. It hinders us from being who we are and it severs any potential connections we have with people. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown delivered two TED talks that do a fantastic job of getting the point across: shame hurts. Shame kills. Shame stops us from living.
In her second talk, Brown talks about how shame manifests itself in the different genders. She cites a study done at Boston University that describes the expectations and labels that women are expected to live up to in American society: “Nice in Relationships, Thinness, Modesty, Domestic, Care for Children, Romantic Relationship, Sexual Fidelity, and Invest in Appearance.” When women are expected to encompass all of these traits, there’s an unquantifiable amount of room for failure. And when we fail, we feel shame.
I’ve dealt with shame my entire life. It has already manifested itself in a variety of ways, including a constant feeling of self-loathing, an eating disorder and my decision to quit the International Baccalaureate program at East. I’m not thin enough, pretty enough or smart enough and I’m ashamed. Those instances are just the beginning of my experience with shame in my life. Those experiences will become more numerous, and perhaps more and more detrimental unless I can stop them.
I am not the only one. There’s a shame epidemic. Women are constantly told that if they don’t measure up, then they’re worth nothing. It’s magazines and movies and commercials that tell us we’re not good enough. It’s generations upon generations of people and media giving us a false idea of what it means to be the ideal woman. And because of all of these external forces, these pressures have become internal problems. Shame is the result.
The concept of the ideal woman is engrained in us. She’s thin but not too thin, smart but not too smart, kind but not gullible, funny but not gross and the list goes on. And even when we have enough courage to admit to ourselves and to each other that we cannot be her, that we cannot be perfect, that we cannot conform — that’s only the first step. To shirk off all of society’s expectations and defy them is not impossible, but it is not simple. It’s a life-long struggle.
It should not be up to us, as women, to have to learn how to deal with these crippling expectations. It’s not fair, but as we’ve all heard since we were children, life isn’t fair at all. Shit happens and you deal with it. I’m not perfect and yet I’ve tried all of my life, even as a child and teenager, to attain perfection. And I’ve now just started to get over that. And I don’t think it will happen soon, if ever.
Our culture is one that perpetuates shame. We’re forced to look at signs and ads and faces that tell us we’re not good enough. Sometimes the influence is obvious, sometimes it’s subtle. It can be a shirt at Urban Outfitters that says “Eat Less” or getting passed up for a promotion because the other contender is prettier.
The only way that we can change our culture and get rid of the ideal is to change the way we look at ourselves. We must reject the notion of perfection. When we look in the mirror, we have to imagine ourselves as little girls and say, “You’re fine. You’ll be okay.” We have to choose to love ourselves, and to forego judgment.
The ideal woman doesn’t exist. She isn’t real. Perfection isn’t a possibility, but love is. And it is only with love that we can drive out shame. It is only with love that we can live.