wisdom

The Black Silk Flower In My Hair: Bravery, Shame & The Feminine.

Who has the right to act pretty?

Who, besides the aesthetically beautiful young woman, has the right to enhance, highlight, and amplify conventional femininity?

Ours is a narrow, highly stylized, objectified notion of what it is to be a woman. Anyone who dares to be pretty without these implicit qualifications is subject to social shaming, judgment, and even violence.

The oppression of the feminine is largely attributed to Christianity’s patriarchal morality, leading most to associate it with actual men.

While it is undebatable that men are responsible for most crimes against women or anyone expressing the female gender or gender attributes (e.g., transgender, drag, and queer communities), it is quite apparent that women are harsh enforcers of feminine oppression.

On the extreme end we have women performing forced genital mutilation on other women and on the subtle level we see myriad ways that women carry out fear, disgust, and hatred of femininity. One cannot win this battle. The socially-sanctioned beautiful often find themselves in a gilded cage.

Those who do not possess these attributes — males, ugly women, older women, the disabled, the ill, etc. — and attempt to mimic cultural ideals of femininity often find themselves the subject of ridicule at best. I’d like to share this brief anecdote.

It was the afternoon of my oral defense, the culmination of years of emotionally difficult psychological research, and I was getting ready. I had anxiety about how I might look that day, what I might wear, would people think I was pretty enough to call attention to myself by sharing my work?

I picked out three outfits the night before, two included pants and one was a dress. I wasn’t sure about the dress but hung it out anyway. It started to rain, narrowing down my shoe options, so I quickly chose the dress because I could wear waterproof boots with it.

I had doubts about whether it was too short, not formal or professional enough, too young, too alternative… but that dissipated when I became cognizant that my little brother was in the other room.

His values are not those of the mainstream consumerist, which gave me the sense that it didn’t matter what I wore. I knew my brother didn’t care how I looked, he wanted to hear what I had to say.

He asked me to read through my presentation that morning, and not spend time working out my wardrobe.

In my final mirror check, I decided I wanted to add a little something extra to my look. I saw my black silk flower barrette on the countertop. I thought it was so lovely when I bought it, but never really wore it because I feared people would think it looked cheap, or that I was too old for floral barrettes.

Then I thought, screw it, I like it, and today is my day!

I was glowing from the inside when I looked out from the podium to see the people in my life who cared enough to show up that day. I was humbled and felt vulnerability in my heart in a raw, exposed, and exquisite way. And with that black silky flower, I was pretty.

I spent the next hour presenting on shame and its attendant secondary shame, perfectionism, objectification, and other distortions to the self. Surviving it was an exceptional triumph, mainly because my mother, my sister, and my niece were there.

My mother and sister because they played a role in my shame story, and my niece because I dreamed that she would grow up free of profound, destructive shame.

The love and approval I received when my talk concluded was divine, I had to expand my heart to let it all in. Some even told me I was beautiful.

I write this realizing full well that there is a paradox in me that rejects feminine beauty ideals, and is also desperate to be beautiful enough to deserve love. Old conditioning dies hard.

At my post-defense soiree, I was basking in appreciation and champagne, when a close female relative starkly asked, “What is that flower doing in your hair?” At once, I lost myself altogether. I lost the year I had spent researching shame and my family’s propensity for it.

I tossed aside the woman who was brave enough to wear what she wanted on her day.

Without hesitation, I was shamed… I removed the flower from my hair and clasped the barrette onto my scarf. I went so far as to lie, I excused myself for wearing it — I made it seem like I forgot it was there, that it was a mistake, unintentional.

The night went on, and I went back to celebrating… but the shame persisted into the next day. When the fog of the morning wore off and my brain was fully functioning again, I remembered what happened. I felt a surge of anger at both her and myself.

It was somewhat easy to put her into context; to realize we had internalized a similar message about what the flower in my hair meant — or at least to believe that wearing it was wrong.

However, I was floored that with one comment I could be knocked back down to where I was before shame was even a conscious experience.

I was reminded that shame may always be a companion, that no matter what I do, I can’t wholly undo shame. I don’t blame her, how could I? This is the air we breathe, the water we drink, fault and origin are less relevant than figuring how to feel ashamed and live your life anyway.

The moral of the story is self-evident. Shame may or may not be significant in your psyche, but I leave the reader with some questions, questions I myself consider since most of us don’t have a conscious relationship to shame and shaming.

  • What role do I play in using shame as a control device?
  • Does the ­­display of the feminine distress me?
  • Is there unmet shame in me or about my own femininity?
  • How does it benefit me to shame others?

Drag queens are some of the bravest people I know.

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DeborahCluffDr. Deborah Cluff has ‘amor fati’ inked over her serratus anterior, and wears a watch with skeleton heart cut-outs on its face. She dons love’s battle scars proudly. A shadow worker, she plunges into the unknown with her clients and they alight transformed. Dr. Cluff’s work includes research on shame, art, and the self as well as several pithy blogs on dating. Check it out here.

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