On the Remarkable Versatility of Shame

Saga Jaubert graduated from King’s last year with a degree in War Studies and History, and is now studying for a Master’s in Public Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. She is interested in international affairs focusing on conflicts and intelligence, and is passionate about feminist issues and their manifestation in everyday life.

[Featured Image: “The Rebuke of Adam and Eve”, Domenichino (1626), oil on canvas. Source.]

During these strange times, one tends to let the mind wander back to happier days, when the term ‘pandemic’ called forth only these extreme scenarios in movies where somehow the United States face a zombie apocalypse, an alien invasion, and a lethal virus all at once while the rest of the world carries on quietly. I for my part stumbled upon my high school literature curriculum and was surprised to see how many of the themes from the works we studied were issues or questions that I came to grapple with in the upcoming years. One quote in particular has stuck with me, probably because I did not quite understand it at the time:

“When I closed my eyes I could even see it. It sat somewhere—maybe in my belly, maybe in my heart; I could not exactly tell—and it took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs. I would look at it and look at it until I had burned the cobwebs away, and then I would see that the ball was no bigger than a thimble, even though it weighed worlds.” (Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid, 85)

Let us ignore the uncomfortable spider imagery for a second, and as one does with literature, take that ‘small black ball’ and interpret it in whatever way we like. I believe it to be a perfect image of the burden of shame that weighs on women’s shoulders. I believe it to be an accurate illustration of the feelings of inadequacy that gnaw at your insides when you sense a perceived failure at attaining certain standards set for yourself. While guilt suggests having harmed someone through your own actions (or inaction), shame refers to a ‘totalizing judgment of the self that has failed to live up to certain expectations’: whereas guilt can be eased by issuing an apology, shame is therefore a much more long-lasting and whole-body feeling.[1] It is certainly not a uniquely female sentiment, as men also face such feelings when having to conform to certain standards of masculinity. However, the sources of shame tend to vary and lead to differing levels of internalisation.

            From the onset of puberty, girls are taught to fear their sexual nature and hide their bodies as changes in their physical appearance reveal an ‘impure’ part of themselves. The sudden thrust of awareness of one’s own body and of its relationship to others spurs feelings of shame and places women in a position of great vulnerability in their social interactions. Such feelings are not easily left behind as one steps out of childhood, and in fact turn into a perennial source of doubt in many women’s day-to-day lives. Shame, the chameleon of feelings, is remarkably versatile: ranging from the hastily added “but I’m probably wrong” after making a perfectly valid argument, to self-censorship due to a fear of seeming too opinionated, it can also morph into the far too common cases of imposter syndrome, into sexual shame, or even into maternal shame at the thought of failing in your duty as a mother. The impression of never being enough is something that most women have experienced, and which continues to hold them down throughout their adult life.

            Understanding the reasons why shame is such a prevalent feeling among women requires us to look back into the past and consider the far-stretching roots of the characterisation of shame as a feminine attribute. Its most blatant illustration comes from our very own Adam and Eve: in Christian doctrine, Eve is seen as the temptress that initiated the original sin and brought Adam to his downfall. Aristotle deemed shame to be ‘womanish’, associated with immaturity and irrationality – in short, with people who ‘live by their feelings, and hence often go astray’; and many centuries later, Sigmund Freud added another layer by labelling it ‘the feminine characteristic par excellence’.[2] Building on the societal institutionalisation of shame as a feeling of the ‘weaker sex’, psychology scholar Helen Block Lewis sought to understand what determined shame-proneness in women. Her research demonstrated that differential socialisation teaches girls to define themselves ‘primarily in terms of their relationships with and dependence upon others’ rather than fostering their autonomy and independence; consequently, they are much more likely to judge themselves based on external norms and ideals such as traditional beauty standards.[3] The perceived failure to meet certain social expectations in turn spurs the internalisation of shame by ‘turning against the self’ through blame and self-censorship.[4] Her colleague though not related psychology professor Michael Lewis put forward the ‘two world hypothesis’, according to which discrepancies in the interpretation of emotions serve to explain how women and men react differently to shame: while men tend to link their successes to their own personal ability and associate failure with external factors, women do the opposite, putting their personal inadequacy at fault for their failures and casting their successes are coincidences or a stroke of luck.[5] The institutionalisation of shame as a feminine trait was therefore fuelled by the socialisation of women based on their relationships with others, making them more likely to feel pressured to conform to external rather than internal expectations. However, this also extends to marginalised and minority communities who do not fit the mould of societal standards established by the dominant social group.

            Can value be found in shame? It seems preposterous that shame stemming from feelings of inadequacy in relation to external expectations could bear any value for self-improvement. Some have argued that Socrates’ dialogue method illustrates its importance as part of a continual scrutiny of ourselves and questioning of our prejudices and opinions. Similarly, philosopher Gabriele Taylor distinguished ‘genuine’ from ‘false’ shame to discuss the difference between the failure to ‘act in accordance with [one’s] authentic values’ and falling short of conforming to ‘alien standards’: according to her, discriminating between these two types of shame would prove to be useful insofar as it prompts self-reflection and re-evaluation of one’s values.[6] But if growing up has taught us anything, it is that decades’ worth of internalised emotions do not disappear in the blink of an eye, and such a stance on the moral benefits of shame therefore suggests as a prerequisite that its subjects should stand from a position of social privilege in which ‘authentic’ standards are easily distinguished from ‘alien’ ones.

            As a general rule of thumb, shame is a cumbersome feeling: it bogs you down into comparison with external standards, and tricks you into thinking that your perceived vulnerability is your greatest weakness. There are, however, issues in society for which the collective feeling of shame can bring about a re-evaluation of institutionalized standards through an uncomfortable but absolutely necessary discussion and acknowledgment of privilege, for example regarding white feminism and its exclusion of women of colour and of other marginalised groups. According to Layla F. Saad, feminism that only concerns ‘oppressions of gender’ precludes the incorporation of disparate experiences linked to racial inequality and discrimination based on age, class, sexual orientation, or gender identity into the mainstream perceptions of the feminist struggle.[7] In fact, the prevalence of an allegedly ‘raceless’ form of feminism in society has demanded that women of colour ‘focus on gender before race’ and ‘put their different identities in a hierarchical order’.[8] As argued by Berenice Fisher, collective shame serves as the necessary starting point for a deeper self-assessment of white privilege in society and a better understanding of how it can be dismantled.[9] Collective shame blurs the boundaries between our ‘authentic’ and ‘alien’ values, and requires us to reflect on the ways in which we have unconsciously internalised certain biases.

            What are we then to make of our ‘small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs’? It surely does not serve any purpose to bury ourselves in our internalised shame, nor to continue holding ourselves up to external standards that distort our self-assessment and introspective reasoning process. Perhaps the solution lies in what Jamaica Kincaid suggested just a line or two later: “I would look at it and look at it until I had burned the cobwebs away, and then I would see that the ball was no bigger than a thimble, even though it weighed world”. Collective shame points to the necessity of understanding how certain values and ideals have been institutionalised and thereby harm communities and groups that struggle to conform to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ imperative. Encouraging discussion and recognizing that the road ahead is a difficult but worthwhile one is absolutely crucial in order to grow as a community and ensure that society is as inclusive as possible. The same goes for individual feelings of shame: emotional baggage can be lightened by owning up to your own vulnerability and taking the risk of sharing how you feel and listening to other people’s experiences with shame. All in all, the key player in letting go of shame produced by any expectations you might have about your own and others’ behaviour is without a doubt compassion – something that we probably all need during these strange times.


Bibliography

Locke, Jill, ‘Shame and the Future of Feminism’, Hypatia, vol.22 no.4 (2007), pp.146-162.

Manion, Jennifer C., ‘Girls Blush, Sometimes: Gender, Moral Agency, and the Problem of Shame’, Hypatia, vol.18 no.3 (2003), pp.21-41.

Saad, Layla F., Me and White Supremacy (London: 2020).


[1] Jill Locke, ‘Shame and the Future of Feminism’, Hypatia, vol.22 no.4 (2007), p.149.

[2] Jennifer C. Manion, ‘Girls Blush, Sometimes: Gender, Moral Agency, and the Problem of Shame’, Hypatia, vol.18 no.3 (2003), p.

[3] Ibid., p.22.

[4] Ibid., p.24.

[5] Ibid., p.24.

[6] Locke, ‘Shame and the Future of Feminism’, p.147.

[7] Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy (London: 2020), p.174.

[8] Ibid., p.174.

[9] Locke, ‘Shame and the Future of Feminism’, p.149.

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