Piercing the Veil of Shame

When I was first found out that I was pregnant, I knew that the little bean growing inside of me was a girl. It didn’t surprise me, then, when the ultrasound confirmed it. Dave and I decided on the name Maya soon after. “Maya” has many different meanings, but the one that resonated for me was the Hindu or Buddhist connotation of “illusion”, that the world around us is illusory. But if we learn to pierce the veil of that illusion, ultimate reality or ultimate truth is revealed.

When Maya was born I hoped at that moment that she and I would continue the powerful bond that I feel with all of the women in my family. I hoped that the world she was born into would value her unique gifts, not despite being female, but because she is female.

That hope has been put to the test by some recent, very tragic events which have forced me to really look at the world she will grow up in. In the last several months there have been at least three reported cases in Canada and the U.S. of adolescent girls who have taken their own lives after photos of them being sexually assaulted were circulated on social media and then used to torment and shame them. I cannot imagine the pain these girls endured and the terrible grief and loss their families are now left with.

It is difficult not to feel disheartened and demoralized when faced with the ugliness that continues to exist in this world; ugliness that seems disproportionately to impact children and women. And I wonder how I will possibly be able to prepare Maya to navigate this new reality, a reality for which I am, admittedly, woefully ill-equipped. Smart phones, capable of sharing your darkest secrets with the world, did not exist when I came of age.

The sensible part of my brain tells me that there are, of course, practical strategies I can employ when Maya is older. I can teach her about safe sex, forbid her to go to parties that are unsupervised, warn her of the dangers of drinking, do my best to ensure that she trusts me enough to be able to tell me anything. But if she is anything like I was, those strategies may be rendered useless.

My own adolescence was filled with painful lessons I learned the hard way despite the many warnings, prohibitions and groundings. I was forbidden from going to unsupervised parties and drinking underage. I did it anyways. Of course I had no idea how to drink. No one taught me that. And like most teen girls, I desperately wanted to fit in without really knowing how to go about doing that. I wanted boys to like me. I didn’t want anyone to know how dorky I really was, so I showed off to appear “cool” and “older”. If offered a full glass of straight brandy, I would take it and chug it down. Looking back, those attempts at being grown up were ridiculous, like a toddler thinking they’re grown up because they can put their pajamas on by themselves. But that is the point really. Adolescents live in a strange world in which they know little about, but are required to fake knowledge and sophistication just to survive in it. Their inexperience is quickly spotted by the more worldly (or opportunistic) and easily exploited.

My determination to :”fake it” in that world resulted in being perilously close to alcohol poisoning on a few occasions, leaving me with few, if any memories of that period of time. The memories I do have aren’t pretty. Thinking about it now, I realize just how vulnerable I was, and how completely dependent on the good-will of the people who happened to be around me, most of whom I had never met. It didn’t help that they were also drunk and barely had the capacity to take care of themselves, let alone me.

For the most part, I was fortunate. Any pain, embarrassment or humiliation I suffered was relatively minor. However, had there been photos or video to serve as constant reminders of my youthful lack of judgment, I am very aware that my humiliation would have been compounded exponentially. I was lucky. I got to put the events out of my mind as “lessons learned” and move on. Young women today do not have that luxury.

Social media has become an effective weapon to propagate something that has been used to control women from time immemorial: shame. Women and girls have been and continue to be indoctrinated to be ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of their sexuality, ashamed of their own power, their own voice. They have been taught that their worth is to be determined by others. When the propaganda “takes”, particularly in relation to sexuality, girls and women come to accept those messages, that they are ugly, bad, dirty, defective, blame worthy, worth less, valued less, unloveable. Shame is used to silence women and to subjugate them. It works by making them feel responsible and defective if they are sexually assaulted. Its success is mostly due to the fact that the institutions of our societies, our laws, our religions, cultures, education, health, media, families, communities and our governments, frequently reinforce those same messages.

How does a young woman withstand these powerful messages of shame, particularly at a stage of development when she is experimenting with her sexual identity? It takes heroic amounts of courage and strength. Education can help pave the way for an alternate discourse and allow her voice to be heard. Teaching boys and girls the notion of “enthusiastic consent” might help. I think that we also need to explicitly focus on deconstructing shame itself. It is the toxic effects of shame that poisons people’s ideas of their own worth. This is where the significance of “maya” and illusion arise.

I remember a professor trying to explain the concept of “maya” to me; that the reality we perceive is essentially illusory. I wasn’t getting it. He pointed to a table and explained that the table, on a molecular level, is not solid at all. There are vast amounts of space between each tiny molecule. He told me “The solidity of this table is an illusion.” Then he sat down on the table. “But it is one powerful illusion.” I got it.

So it is with shame. Shame is merely an illusion, albeit a very powerful one. That women should feel ashamed for being consensually sexual or sexually assaulted is a lie: it is an illusion. But because it is backed up by many of the institutions mentioned previously, it is an incredibly powerful one, even lethal.

In order to see the ultimate reality of women, that we are magical, beautiful, wise, valuable, nurturing, creative, sexual beings, powerful beyond measure, we as individuals and as a society need to pierce the veil of shame and see it for what it is; a tool for subjugation, a weapon used to silence girls and women and keep them in their place.

Is combating shame the last battleground of the women’s movement? If so we must re-claim our warrior side. Our battle cry: “No more”.

How do we pierce this veil? How do we, as women and men, girls and boys, withdraw our consent, opt out of the propaganda? What small and large acts of protest can we engage in? How do we deconstruct shame so that we no longer permit it to be associated with women’s sexuality or as part and parcel of sexual assault?

I believe that in many parts of the world we have reached a critical mass where it has become safe enough, for most people, to speak out. There are other places in the world, however, (not just countries but families too) where women who have the courage to speak out risk physical injury or death. But when the critical mass has been reached, and speaking out does not risk one’s physical safety, the only weapon left is shame. And shame requires our participation, our agreement. If we withdraw our agreement, the veil is pierced and shame is revealed for what it is: a smoke screen, a magician’s trick, an illusion.

Piercing the veil of shame is like climbing a mountain; one small act of protest after another. Each time someone speaks out against messages of shame the veil is pierced. Each time someone stands side to side with the person being shamed the veil is pierced, the illusion is revealed for what it is. Each time a community comes together to demand justice for children and women the veil is pierced.

We cannot expect our girls and boys to do this alone. Shame is too powerful to withstand in isolation. We all, each of us, men and women, need to support any act of protest against shaming by standing together. We can be silent no more.

What would happen if shame is exposed as illusory? Would all of its power to silence and devalue women simply evaporate? If shame lost its power, what would change? I think everything would change. I think it is already happening.

What small (or large) acts of protest have you participated in or witnessed that has pierced the veil of shame? Mine are in the comments section. Please feel free to add yours.