When the occasional (poorly informed) person tries to tell me that sexism doesn’t exist anymore, I sometimes ask in response:
So you think women can talk just as freely about bodily functions as men?
Typically, the response I get is an eye roll — because really, has feminism come down to women wanting equal rights at potty humor now?
Well… kind of.
It’s not just potty humor, though. The thing about sexism is that it’s sneaky — it shows up in ways that can be very difficult to see unless you’re looking for them, because that’s the nature of shame. We all work really hard to hide things that are shameful, and when it comes to being female, damn near everything is shameful.
The Shame of Female Bodily Functions
Most men generally feel entitled to burp, stink, scratch their balls, pick their noses, and just be gross in ways a woman would never feel entitled. It starts young, when boys learn that pooping, burping, and farting are hilarious, while girls grow up learning that those things are “unladylike” at best, and a form of social death at worst.
Personally when I was in high school, my brother and all of his male friends felt perfectly comfortable being gross in a thousand ways I would never have dared.
Not that I wanted to trap my friend under a blanket I had just farted in, mind you. I didn’t. I would have rather died actually, but that’s exactly the point: I would have rather died than let someone else know I had gas, while boys did things like that to each other constantly, without ever stopping to wonder if they should feel embarrassed by the noises and smells their bodies made.
At the time, I figured that men’s open urinal situation meant that peeing isn’t private, so if a guy comes out of a bathroom stall, everyone knows what he was in there doing, while the privacy of a girl’s bathroom stall means she can — and should — always keep up a facade of being clean, quiet, and never disgusting.
The same is true for a wide variety bodily functions — men feel safe being “gross” (read: human) while women feel they need to hide and suppress it. It might be in part because boys are taught that it’s in their nature while girls are taught these things are crude and unseemly, but I suspect it’s also because men are not seen as sexual objects, while women are. Sexual objects are supposed to be there for one thing and one thing only, and it’s definitely not to be human or have gas.
The Shame of Female Genitals and Sexuality
Men can look down and see (and touch) their genitals from a young age. They are also often exposed to the genitals of other men in locker rooms and other semi-naked spaces periodically, and they grow up knowing the right words for their genitals.
Plus, people of all genders more or less know how to get a guy off sexually, and what it looks like when he finishes.
Women, on the other hand, can’t see our genitals at all unless we get a hand mirror down there, and even then the vast majority of our sexual organs are hidden inside our bodies. A heterosexual woman is unlikely to ever see another woman’s genitals unless it’s in porn or some Google search gone horribly awry, so we have very little exposure to the extraordinary diversity of vulval shapes, sizes, colors, and textures.
At the same time, for decades, advertisers everywhere have tried to convince us that a vagina should smell like flowers and taste like spring water, in an effort to get us to buy more stuff, which leads a lot of women to believe that there is something wrong or gross about their natural state.
Plus, since the vulvas in porn are pretty homogenous (hairless, symmetrical, bleached, and representative of the popular “clamshell” look created by plastic surgery), many of us end up feeling an enormous amount of shame and insecurity about the way our own genitals look, feel, smell, sound, and taste.
Not to mention the fact that we don’t even learn the accurate names for things. Most of us were taught that boys have penises while girls have vaginas, but the vagina is technically the birth canal inside the body. The external part we can see when we grab a hand-mirror is actually called the vulva, which includes the inner and outer labia (lips) as well as the clitoris.
This common mislabeling means that when a woman talks about her own genitals, she often inaccurately refers to the whole package down there as a “vagina,” essentially erasing the entire external part — the part that gives women the most sexual pleasure and gratification.
Now this might all seem very silly and nitpicky, but it’s not.
The shame, mystery, and silence surrounding a woman’s genitals is an extension of the shame, mystery and silence around female sexual desire, arousal, and pleasure.
We are still taught that sexual desire and pleasure are a male’s domain, and that our role in sex is at best decoration, and at worst to resist men’s advances in order to preserve our virtue. We never learn the name of our own genitals, how our bodies are designed to change with arousal, or what we need to orgasm.
This epic silence on female genitals and sexuality is part of the reason the majority of women either think they don’t like sex, think there’s something wrong with them, or experience some other kind of shame around their sex lives.
The Shame of Bleeding
Want more proof that everything about being female is a shameful secret? Let’s talk about how, despite the fact that most people know that women bleed from their vaginas every month, there is still a tangible veil of secrecy and embarrassment about periods.
Ever notice how commercials for pads and tampons only use a thin blue liquid to demonstrate how their products work, instead of anything even approximating period blood?
That’s because our society cannot handle female menstruation. Despite the fact that for something like 40 years, most women experience big shifts in energy, mood, discomfort, pain, appetite, creativity, and mental focus as we shed our uterine linings through our vaginal openings, our periods are still considered gross, embarrassing, and something we have to hide.
This means that on top of the physical and emotional discomfort of menstruation, we also have to do the emotional labor of hiding, suppressing, medicating, and ignoring our monthly cycle.
We hide our tampons in our sleeves or boots on the way to the bathroom. We blame ourselves for being lazy when our bodies ask us to slow down. We apologize for being “crazy” when we experience mood swings, we use euphemisms like “Aunt Flo is in town,” and we all smile and pretend the blue liquid commercials aren’t completely ridiculous
The Shame of Not Smiling
If a man is having just an absolute shit day and doesn’t smile, nobody will bat an eyelash, think he’s incompetent, or attack his character. Men are allowed — even encouraged! — to be brooding and serious, if not even outright irritable and unhappy . People typically still rate an unsmiling man as powerful, intelligent, professional, and competent.
But a woman who doesn’t smile bucks a centuries-old standard of femininity, and is seen as bitchy, cold, unprofessional, incompetent, and unlikable. A woman must appear happy in order to be “likable,” and this is of primary importance in assessing her character, performance, or capacity for a particular role.
What all of this means is that a woman cannot simply move through life smiling when she’s actually happy, and otherwise appearing neutral. That would undoubtedly cost her opportunities, respect, money, and connections. Neutral is never enough for a woman; in fact, being anything other than happy is another shameful secret that must be kept.
No matter what’s getting in the way of a woman being genuinely happy and smiling (from struggling with mental illness, to having her period, to being uncomfortable with the way her boss is talking to her) she must always put in the effort to appear happy and smile, so that the people around her will be comfortable, thus safeguarding her job, position, and social safety.
Why is Shame So Inherent to the Experience of Being a Woman?
I’m hoping you can see by now how much time, effort, and energy most women put into hiding the many shameful secrets that come from simply being female.
Think about every shameful “flaw” we’re encouraged to fix or hide about our faces and bodies, too. Women are pressured to get rid of our body hair, lengthen our legs with heels, smooth our shape with spanx, hide our cellulite, push our breasts up and together, make sure our hair meets eurocentric beauty standards, keep our nipples hidden, cover up our acne, tone our muscle, contour our faces, suck in our tummies, and diet, diet, diet.
The natural state of our bodies is considered unacceptable, unfinished — something to be fervently fixed and controlled.
Why is this? Is it because our bodies reflect something too wild and human about us? After a lifetime of being taught to be polite, pretty, happy, helpful, and “good,” does the natural state of our bodies, faces, and hair give away the fact that we can never truly be tamed? That we’re far too complex and three-dimensional to be boiled down into sex objects?
I’m inclined to think it’s all of the above, which is actually great news! If the secrecy and shame that surround the real experience of being a woman is upheld only because we’ve all somehow agreed to keep it as such, then we can all take immediate action to improve things.
Begin by identifying which “secrets” you spend time, effort, or energy on hiding: what do you feel embarrassed by, or mortified by the thought of other people finding out? Question yourself — where did you get the idea this particular thing is shameful, or needs to be kept hidden? How true is that, really? What are you afraid would happen if you were honest or upfront about this? And how even true is that?
For a lot of the items listed in this article, there are several baby steps we can take toward breaking the silence and removing the stigma from the experience of being a woman.
What if you started referring to female genitalia loud, proud, and accurately for example? Personally I use the word “vulva” as often as possible, and I hold the people around me accountable for the same!
What if you stopped hiding your tampons, and called out anyone who suggests that it’s making them uncomfortable? What if you stopped wearing spanx or stopped sucking your belly in, and walked around refusing to let the roundness of your belly be a shameful secret? What if you learned to fart in front of your partner despite feeling embarrassed?
If every woman started challenging the legitimacy of these shameful secrets, breaking her silence on them, and personally dismantling them with her actions, then we could all help set each other free, and move closer to true equality together.
- Tracy, J. L., & Beall, A. T. (2011). Happy guys finish last: The impact of emotion expressions on sexual attraction. Emotion, 11(6), 1379-1387. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0022902