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Societal Expectations of Women and Shame

A UK model is airbrushed to look “perfect” for a magazine
A UK model is airbrushed to look “perfect” for a magazine

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the link between societal expectations of women and shame. Men, please read this!

First a quick update:

“Prejudice & racism have no color or political lines”
We all have prejudices and judgments based on cultural programming and individual values. If you don’t believe me, take the test now.

“”Mother-shaming” – Working mom guilt”
 Watch the video below about the shame and guilt many working mothers experience

Follow me on Twitter – You can now choose to follow me and receive a few words of wisdom on Twitter: @Behavior_Expert

Now, let’s talk about the link between societal expectations of women and shame.

Today, being a woman means being everything to everyone.

In 1982, the LA band Berlin, released a song “Sex, I’m a…” that is truer today than it was back then.

The song features a male voice simply calling “I’m a man” and the female voice responding by defining herself.

The male states 25 times, “I’m a man” and nothing more, while the female offers 25 various and contradictory definitions of herself.

I’m a man, I’m a goddess
I’m a man, well I’m a virgin
I’m a man, I’m a blue movie
I’m a man, I’m a bitch
I’m a man, I’m a geisha
I’m a man, I’m a little girl
I’m a man, I’m a boy
I’m a man, well I’m your mother

I’m a man, I’m a one night stand
I’m a man, am I bi?
I’m a man, I’m a slave
I’m a man, I’m a little girl

The definition of a man and of a woman has changed dramatically since 1982. Many men claim they feel irrelevant today. However, this article focuses on the impact on women.

Of course, women have greater choice, more power, better education and independence than ever before, but the societal expectations of women are so unachievable that the result is shame.

Before discussing shame, let’s look at what is expected of women today. “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you struggle.”

Women are expected to:

  • Embrace a (conflicting) identity which is constantly-changing as promoted by society and media
  • Be intelligent, witty, worldly
  • Excel in once male dominated fields such as science
  • Hold high positions in the workforce

Women are expected to:

  • Not need a man but have a man and have successful relationships
  • Get married, have children, be an ideal mother, nurturer and parent
  • Be powerful
  • Stand up and speak out for themselves
  • Be feminine but also be masculine but never angry. (Hilary Clinton was criticized for crying, and criticized as being an ‘angry woman.’)
  • Always be happy
  • Not display emotion other than happiness

Women are expected to:

  • Have the perfect body (before, during, and after pregnancy, and at every age)
  • Be eternally young and full of energy
  • Always look fabulous and be dressed in the latest fashions
  • Display sexual prowess but be pure
  • Be financially independent, wealthy and successful
  • Be as strong as men and stronger (be a badass)

“‘Women have so many opportunities,’ it’s like, ‘Yeah, but at what cost?’ Are women valued for being women, or are women valued when they have more masculine qualities?” – Jada Pinkett Smith

Who creates these expectations?
The people around you – your community and society: parents, friends, family, children, peers, politics, religion & religious groups; the media and advertising (TV, movies, music and magazines) reinforce these roles and expectations.

The above expectations call for perfection, but they are also contradictory, conflicting and competing expectations. The real or perceived failure to meet these expectations results in shame.

What is shame?
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Dr. Brené Brown, research professor, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work 

Shame interferes with our ability to accept and express our truest selves.

Shame leaves women (and men) feeling trapped, powerless and isolated (psychological isolation versus feeling lonely or alone.)

As the shame is internalized, it leads to self-blame, self-loathing, hopelessness and desperation.

Women shame bomb each other! They engage in thin-shaming, fat-shaming, slut-shaming, mother-shaming, membership-shaming (‘you don’t belong here/to this group.’) They do it from an early age and in almost every culture. While living and working in The Gambia, West Africa, in the 1990s, I witnessed constant and blatant shaming of women by women.

“…but you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores.” – Tina Fey as Mrs. Norbury in “Mean Girls”

Shame is the belief that I am not good enough, there is something wrong with me. “I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.”  (When you don’t believe you are worthy and good enough, you will sabotage yourself and your life. I call it the Law of Deservedness. Watch the video.)

Here are some pointers for diminishing and neutralizing shame or as Professor Brene Brown calls it, “Shame resiliency”:

1. Recognizing shame and understanding our triggers
All change begins with awareness. Become aware of your thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors. Are you experiencing overwhelming and painful feelings of confusion, fear, anger, judgment and/or the need to escape or hide? Are you keeping secrets that you believe ‘If people were to find out the truth, they would reject me/not like me/not accept me, etc’? Write down your responses as a way to reveal the truth to yourself. Distinguish guilt from shame. If you did something wrong, correct it but don’t conclude “I am a wrong person.” Notice the difference between shame – “I am bad”; guilt – “I did something bad” and’ embarrassment – “It felt bad in that situation.”

2. Practicing critical awareness
Become aware of the cultural messages that are spread daily; constant messages that tell you that you are missing something and there is something wrong with you. Again, these messages come from everyone and everything – from friends and family to TV shows and billboards. Read my articles “Who is brainwashing and controlling you?” , “Brainwashing and advertising – there is something wrong with you”,“The second greatest obstacle to happiness and success”, and “Our obsession with youth and physical perfection.” 

3. Reaching out
Shame leads to psychological isolation and self-condemnation. The antidote is receiving empathy and compassion from others. Take the biggest step to ask for help and support i.e. open up to others. Admit your shame and it diminishes. Other women have and share the same struggle as you! (The same applies to men – others have the same feelings of shame as you.) Get professional help for personal incidents that have created shame i.e. things that happened in childhood.

4. Speaking shame
As mentioned above, by sharing your shame, you realize you are not alone. The act of sharing creates a connection which counters shame. “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot tolerate having words wrapped around it. What it craves is secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you stay quiet, you stay in a lot of self-judgment.” – Brene Brown

Finally, don’t shame others! Give away what you want to receive – empathy and compassion. Yes, we have all engaged in shaming others. Begin now to express love and acceptance and notice how it also changes you!

If you want further help and support, consider a private, one-on-one session with me. Click here to book your session. 

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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