The shame that comes with being a woman

The shame that comes with being a woman

I got a lift with a colleague a few weeks ago. We had some time to kill, so we decided to have some coffee at a coffee shop in a nearby lifestyle village (read: rich people’s mall). While at this lifestyle village, I saw a SPAR and realised that I needed pads, so I told my colleague that I wanted to pop in at SPAR quickly and that I’d meet him at the coffee shop. He then said ‘No, it’s fine. I’ll come with you’ and my first thought was ‘ah, crap!’ because 1) how on earth was I going to hide my pads (and I don’t buy those little dainty ones – no, I’m all about extra protection and comfort) and 2) what else can I buy to make it seem as though the pads weren’t my main reason for going to the shop? Of course I caught myself thinking this and immediately realised how ridiculous I was being, so I confidently walked to the feminine hygiene products section, grabbed my packet of pads with Colleague standing next to me, and walked to the till without even attempting to hide my new purchase.

This got me thinking about the inherent and ingrained shame that comes with being women. We close our legs, we suck in our stomachs, we speak softly, we shave and wax our naturally growing hair and we don’t talk about periods, sex, masturbation or pornography.

The whole idea of being ashamed of our sexuality has always fascinated me. Women should be enjoying sex and should be open about how much we enjoy it. After all, we can have two different types of orgasms: vaginal and clitoral, whereas men really only have that one option. We are able to do so much more for our own sexual happiness because we have options galore. Hands, toys in all shapes and sizes, other human beings. It is therefore absolutely ridiculous that we are conditioned to feel ashamed of all things sexual and feminine.

We start this from a very young age. We tell two year olds to close their legs, to be quiet and ladylike, to sit still so that they don’t ruin their dresses. We don’t tell two year old boys any of those things. In fact, we encourage boys to explore, to get dirty, to speak their minds.

As time goes by, we tell girls to be flattered when a boy is mean to them ‘because that means that he likes you’ instead of telling them to stand up for themselves, to tell the boys off for being mean.

Then we proceed to make girls feel bad for having bodily hair and menstruating once every 28 days. One of the first things my friend and I discussed when becoming sexually active became a possibility in high school was ‘Now we’ll have to shave.’ Now that is uncomfortable! No one’s body is able to bend in that way – this is one of many reasons why shaving is stupid. Of course, in high school, that’s what you do. No one has money to get waxed (also, ouch!) and I doubt that any young girls from conservative and religious Vredenburg were going to ask their moms for money to wax their pubic hair. The point is that we teach girls the wrong things about sex and sexuality from a very young age.

Buying pads, at least, is okay. Buying condoms is an entirely different story. No one wants to use Choice (they’re free and all, but no), so someone has to buy the condoms. It is the most nerve-wrecking experience imaginable. Honestly, I have never been self-conscious or ashamed of my sexuality, but even I feel uncomfortable when I buy condoms. Of course you also see some other interesting sexual items while you’re trying to decide between ribbed and studded which you might want to check out. Maybe you want to splurge on some massage oil or lube, but the shame and embarrassment is often enough to make condom-buying a quick in and out (innuendo intended). Something as intimate and enjoyable as sex should never be a quick in and out.

Someone out there is going to wonder how this is a women’s issue specifically. It is. No one bats an eyelid when my male friends buy condoms or whip condoms out of their wallets, but when I do it, I have to write an essay explaining myself, or worse, I am congratulated for ‘not being like the other girls’. There’s a reason why ‘other girls’ don’t carry condoms with them wherever they go: they have been socialised and conditioned to believe that sex is something to be kept quiet, something to be ashamed of.

It is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of women to shame sexuality. Men are known to watch and enjoy porn, they are known to masturbate. Women enjoy masturbation and porn too, but we don’t acknowledge this. Worse, we shame this, which, once again, is ironic because women have a much bigger range of options available to us when it comes to sexual pleasure.

In her famous essay entitled ‘We should all be feminists’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the expectation for girls to remain virgins while society almost praises the boy who manages to ‘bag a couple of girls’ before he finally settles down with a nice little virgin. In the essay she mentions how ridiculous that is mathematically, because who are we expecting these boys to have sex with if we are expecting the girls to be virgins?

These gendered expectations create an unfair society in which men are allowed to discover what they like and dislike, but women aren’t. I have heard women say that they don’t tell their partners when they don’t enjoy sex because they don’t want to hurt their partners’ feelings (fragile male ego) or because they simply don’t know what they would prefer their partner to do instead. Often this happens because the women weren’t able to get to know themselves sexually before they got sexually intimate with another person. They were never comfortable to play with and explore their own bodies because masturbation and pornography are somehow bad for women.

We should be raising our daughters like we raise our sons: allow them to get dirty, allow them to ruin their clothes, allow them to explore, to play, to ask questions. We should encourage our daughters to speak up, stand up, fight back and spend time with themselves, exploring their bodies and their sexuality.

In short, we should be eliminating the inherent and ingrained shame that comes with being a woman.

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Shine, Graduand, shine.

We see you. I see you. I see you as you reflect on years of hard work. I see you as you remember crying in matric because you did not have money to go to university. I see you as you cry tears of joy when that loan finally comes through. I see you as you leave home all by yourself and head off to the big bad university with all of its glory. I see you as become disillusioned with university as soon as someone harasses a black tutor. I see you as you cry when you get that first test result back. I see you as you cry when you finally pass Stats.

I see you as the years go on and the nights get longer. I see you as the panic attacks become more frequent and the waiting list at Student Wellness becomes impossible.

I see you as things fall apart financially and at home. I see you as the pressure mounts to be “the first in our family”. I see you as you try to hide your failures from your family because they wouldn’t understand. I see you as the other kids sign up for tuts on their iPads and you have to settle for the 16:00 tut, even though you have to take three taxis to get home.

I see you as you sleep in the library and skip dinner so that you can get on par with the rest of the class.

I see you as you see those words: “Qualifies for award of degree” and you run to the nearest person to laugh and cry and dance and sing.

I see you as your family looks at you with admiration, I see you as you know that you have finally earned something so sweet that you don’t want that moment to pass in a million years.

I see you as you prepare for graduation. I see you as you have to choose which two guests you will invite into Marikana Memorial Hall with you. I see you as you look for the cheapest outfit that still looks decent, I see you as you worry about where your family is going to stay, how they’re going to travel, what they’re going to eat, and how to pay for it all. I see you as you work extra hours, as you save every cent, as you decline the invitation to celebrate with your friends because you want to make sure that your family has a good time at your graduation. After all, it is their graduation as well: it is their tears, their hard work, their double shifts, their prayers and their support that got you to that hall. Or not. Maybe it is all you. Maybe no one supported you or contributed to your degree, but you still have expectations resting on your shoulders.

I see you as you sit in that hall and take it all in. I see you as you cry tears of joy for yourself and tears of loss and grief for your comrades who didn’t make it to that hall because of exclusion, illness or circumstances.

I see you. This is your moment. Shine.