Is shame so deeply ingrained that we’re fucked (pun intended) forever?
by Bianca Smith
We had our first field trip to the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in the 6th grade. It was not considered one of the “fun” field trips, because here was where we had our first iteration of “the talk.” Before they got to any of the birds and the bees and the hair and the parts, we were told to look around the room and notice which female classmates were taller than the rest. Those were the girls who were most likely going through puberty.
I happened to be one of the tall ones.
You know where this goes.
One minute, I could be giggling with a neighbor-friend, Google Image searching “boobs,” and that was acceptable and fun.
The next, I would be ingeniously using an old phone on vibrate to explore what it meant to be horny—I promise it was before I was aware that vibrators existed.
Then all at once, I was fervently denying a rumor that I was masturbating. My fellow classmates were horrified. Disgusted. I cursed myself for ever thinking I could have any pride in feeling comfortable in my body.
That rumor and my denial of something that was so unnecessary to deny seemed to make anything related to sex…bad.
The conflicting messages—you are innately sexual and, also, sex is bad—were reinforced culturally. Sex was dangerous and avoidable, said textbooks and doctors and parents. You might get a disease and be written off forever or worse, die. But those jean mini-skirts? The bikinis at the public pool in the summer? Yeah, they’re cute, wear them. Be desirable, be yourself. But, quietly. Don’t be proud about it.
Sure, it’s confusing. You’ll just…have to figure it out. Best of luck.
American sex educator and researcher, and author Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. writes in her (very helpful and validating) book Come As You Are
that these conflicting messages, the shame, the confusion—they’re relatively universal.
“You’re born with a little plot of rich and fertile soil, unique to yourself…[but] your family and your culture plant the seeds and tend the garden [until you’re old enough to tend it yourself]. You may come to find that your family and culture have planted some pretty toxic crap in your garden. These travel not in the seeds planted by families but underground via their roots, like poison ivy, under fences, and over walls, from garden to garden.”
She goes on to say that no one asked for your permission before they started planting the toxic crap.
No, they sure didn’t.
It’s no wonder why it’s hard to grow when societal, cultural, and generational weeds are giving you shit nutrients and barely any sun. Years of school-sponsored sex education didn’t make me less fearful of how I was perceived as a sexual being. My peers were probably going through the same bout of shame as myself. My parents taught me what they knew based on their lived experiences. And plenty of cultural factors helped the bad stuff thrive.
So here I am, nearing two decades post-puberty humiliation, still trying to pluck said weeds from my garden. It took a recent cervical cancer scare to re-evaluate my relationship with my shame—to look back at all of the wrong turns I made in relationships and toxic views I’ve had of my body and try to get at the root of the thing.
All of this is to say I haven’t eradicated the weeds quite yet.
I know where they are, though, and I’m trying to find the right concoction of stuff to kill the weeds and not the other things around them. Writing about it—sharing this with you—is a part of that solution. My loving partner, another. Conversations with friends, a huge addition.
It makes sense for this clearing process to be a long one. But I have to believe that years of unchecked invasive growth doesn’t stand a chance to this newfound clarity and acceptance.
Bianca is a writer and strategist from Chicago. She helps run a digital community called Distant, spends too much time cuddling her two cats Pearl & Norman, and refuses to acknowledge that pasta sauce can also be called gravy. You can find more of her work at www.biancapsmith.com and you can find her on Instagram at @biancapsmith and @distant.community.