Here's the thing: Shame is not a bad emotion. When do we feel shame? We feel shame when we have hurt someone, when we have done something bad or mean or hurtful, and we finally realize that it was just that. Shame is a social emotion - we feel it because we have harmed someone else and we feel bad about doing it. It is a "good" emotion in that it might prevent us from doing the same harmful thing in the future.
However, shame is also an emotion of social control. We might feel shame not because we have done something bad, or we realize that we have, but because someone else thinks what we did was bad. This might be because our actions were, in fact, hurtful or harmful or cruel, and we are just unable to see it, but we do not want to look bad, so we feel shame, or it might be because what we did was not actually "bad", but is still considered unacceptable to somebody else.
If you are a woman, chances are you have spent most of your life feeling ashamed for something. Sure, we also shame men (for all kinds of actions or inactions), but we specifically enjoy shaming women. You know all these magazines calling out celebrities for becoming fat or old or for wearing the wrong clothes or for being caught naked? Of course, these articles are not really about them - they are there to put us, the readers, in our place. And they are almost always about women. It's women, even famous women, who are bad mothers, who dare to look less than perfect, who sleep with people younger than they are (this has never been a problem for men), who screw up. We judge them, and at the same time, we feel ashamed of our own imperfections.
If you are a woman, you have probably grown up with a feeling that you are constantly being watched, constantly being judged, and that you are not "making the cut" in one way or another. You should be ashamed.
Women are told to be ashamed of how they look. Ashamed that our bodies grow hair in places they "shouldn't". Ashamed that their bodies bleed once a month (oh, the humiliation of getting your period at the wrong time and discovering a bloody stain on your clothes!). Ashamed of not being a size zero. Ashamed of getting older. Ashamed of wrinkles and loose skin. Ashamed of wobbly thighs and wobbly arms. Ashamed of pregnancy scars on our tummies (think about all the advice we get on how to get a "bikini body" - and the underlying message is: Don't you dare wear a bikini when you don't look like this!). Ashamed of being caught without a bra (your breasts MOVE when you walk!!!), without make-up, in sweat-pants, on a "bad hair day".
We are told that we should feel ashamed of how we feel. Ashamed of feeling desire or lust. Ashamed of feeling hunger. Ashamed of feeling rage, even ashamed of wanting to feel pleasure. We are told to feel ashamed if we don't look "fuckable", and ashamed if we dare to actually want (or have!) sex. Ashamed of loving the wrong person, or loving in the wrong way. Ashamed of being too emotional and hysterical. Ashamed of being unemotional, frigid, and cold.
We are told to feel ashamed of our relationships. Ashamed that we don't have a boyfriend. Ashamed that we don't want a boyfriend. Ashamed that we have too many boyfriends. Ashamed that we have - or want - girlfriends. Ashamed that we do not want monogamy. Ashamed that we do want monogamy, but at the wrong time or with the wrong person. Ashamed that we are not married yet. Ashamed that we got married too soon. Ashamed that we are divorced. Ashamed that we are the ones who asked for a divorce. Ashamed that we are not the ones who asked for a divorce.
We are told to feel ashamed of our performance "as women" (yes, being a "woman" is a lot of work!). Ashamed that we are not feminine enough. Ashamed that we are too feminine. Ashamed that we are not serious enough (Really, you cannot be taken serious in a job like this if you use pink, sparkly pens!). Ashamed that we are too serious ("Smile!"). Ashamed that we do not want children. Ashamed that we do want children. Ashamed that we are not stay-at-home moms (After all, what kind of mom would leave her kids with strangers?). Ashamed that we are stay-at-home moms (After all, what kind of lazy slob would sit at home all day and let her husband do all the work?).
We are told to feel ashamed of getting older, of wanting to have sex, of being "inappropriate", of being too loud, too fat, too ugly, too hairy, too bitchy, too angry, too masculine, too girly, too slutty, too prudish, too nerdy, too vain.
We feel shame for never being enough. Not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not sexy enough. You know all those blogs and magazines and books out there touting the Perfect Woman, the thin, athletic (but not too strong!), well-groomed (but not vain!), blond, white, smart (but not too smart!), successful (but not too successful!) mother of two (you might get away with one or three, but that's really all that is acceptable, and you might already be pushing it!) kids who works a high-powered job as some sort of important (but not too important!) semi-manager in a big financial company. She does all her own housework (and her house is always clean and spotless!), she cooks dinner from scratch every day, on the weekends she does her own gardening and redecorates the house. She throws elaborate dinner parties and birthday parties, and every night, she is shaved, and oiled, and perfumed, and decked out in lingerie, ready to pleasure her husband (because, of course, sex is a duty, so she performs it well, but she is a good woman, so she does not, herself, feel anything as dirty as desire or lust). If your life does not look like hers, you are taught to feel ashamed. You have failed, as a woman. If you had only tried harder or worked harder or been less lazy or less ugly or less outspoken or less ambitious, you would be her. But you are who you are, never enough and still somehow too much, and so you should be ashamed. And we are. If there is one emotion every woman on this planet has felt more times than she can count, I guarantee you, it is shame. Shame for who you are. Shame for how you feel. Shame for what you want.