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Let me tell you the truth about Catholic school slumber parties, in celebration of the "word of the year" trend that has risen as an alternative to New Year's resolutions.

But before we get into those revelations, let me explain why I've chosen SHAMELESS as my Word of 2014. Normally I would shy away from a negative word. "Less shame" is a negative, reactive concept as opposed to a positive, forward-facing inspiration. But I realized in a weird flash of neural fire between reading a Matt Bors comic strip and listening to a committee meeting report at work (I won't bore you with the details) that before I can freely move forward in my life, I need to set down and unpack my lifelong burden of shame.

This is the kind of baggage that I had thought, for the past decade or so, that I had mostly put behind me already. I went to Catholic school. I'm a girl who grew up right near the cliff edge of Generation X in all its grungy, cynical glory. Of course, my youth was laced with sexual shame--not so much from my kind and open-minded parents as from school authority figures and peers--pretty much a given for a Catholic schoolgirl. Layered on top of the moral shame was abject fear of the bare facts of life. I remember taking a "Family Life" course in elementary school and confusing the words "menstruation" and "masturbation." I had this vague concept of God punishing girls for touching themselves by making them bleed, followed by eternal damnation unless the sin was described in penitent detail to a creepy old man in the dark corner of a confessional booth.


Fortunately, I eventually straightened out my vocabulary words and also made a conscious and ferocious effort to free myself from the slimy clutches of sexual shaming. What I didn't realize, for the past 30 years, is that the shame mechanisms seeded deep in my psyche were about much more than sexuality--sex was only the tip of the iceberg, the most obvious and accessible form of shame. Even after I made peace with my own sexuality, the bulk of the shame inside me remained, weighing me down like a dense, hidden tumor.

One of my most intense experiences of shame as an adult happened in my first college-level creative writing class. It wasn't that the teacher or fellow students were overly critical or overtly shaming. It was a burning, self-loathing feeling that came up when I exposed my unpracticed, unedited writing to others. It felt like showing them an infected hillbilly cyst and asking them to pop it for me.

Blogger David Cain wrote a great blog post a while back called "The Four Horsemen of Writers' Block and How to Defeat Them." The fourth is "Self-Doubt," which in my case, and probably in the case of many other writers, is related to deep feelings of personal shame. In college, I'd been in a music class with a teacher who told us in complete, brutal earnestness that singing is natural to all humans; those who cannot sing properly or do not have perfect pitch suffer these challenges as the result of disordered personalities. Similarly, many writing teachers and classic authors have asserted, along the same lines, that good writers are good people, and vice versa. Each failure or mistake is equivalent to a soul-tarnishing sin. It reflects upon the worthiness of the author, which is something fixed and measurable. Now, I never actually believed those assertions, but there's a difference between believing something intellectually and letting it affect you emotionally. Shame works through the avenue of showing you what others think about you; it does not depend on your own values or logical beliefs.

In order to grow as a writer, I had to separate my self-worth from the value of each piece of writing I produced. Somehow, I was able to do that. I write fearlessly now, and I don't feel that my roughest drafts or typos reflect on the incontrovertible nature of my soul. I'm not exactly sure how I was able to pull of that maneuver; maybe it was easy because the shaming was so obvious and overt, like the slut-shaming of the '90s Catholic school cafeteria.

So back to those slumber parties. There are plenty of cliches about games and activities pleasurable to the fantasies of male gaze, but they were never homoerotic or sexy--not at coed Catholic schools, anyway. We wore things like Winnie the Pooh pajamas and acne-treating facial masks. We talked about boys a little, but we knew very well that the naughtiest and most exciting sin wasn't sex--it was Satanism.

That's right. Satanic rituals. The occult. Paganism--gasp! Anything that made a mockery of the Catechism by giving credence to any hoodoo-woo-woo nonsense that wasn't made up by old Catholic patriarchs in pointy hats. Because the greatest sin, the Original Sin brought into the world by Woman, was not sex. It was a reach for power. It was curiosity to know.

Sure, the "knowledge" of the forbidden fruit seemed largely carnal in nature. Tempting fruits, snakes, fig leaves, the punishing pain of childbirth--all these images left their mark. But at the root, the real problem was a young girl reaching out to get some knowledge for herself and to share its powerful sweetness without the blessing of the Father.

So those sleepovers were all about imitating scenes from The Craft and The Excorcist. They were about seances, necromancy, Ouija boards, Tarot cards, Wicca, black magic spells, and urban-legendary rounds of Bloody Mary in the basement.

This should have been a clue to me. The slut-shaming, the fig leaves--these were all distractions to cover deeper, even more toxic forms of shaming--the related, but not truly sexual, shames of being female, of being young and truly innocent, of reaching out for one's own power to generate life and to think and to act.

As I look back on my young life in the framework of non-sexual or beyond-sexual shame, so many things about myself--about how I've felt and behaved and spoken--suddenly make sense. An impossible knot has been pulled straight. The weight of a cross has been unborne. I am Psyche, returning from the underworld with the Secret of Beauty in my hands and my butterfly wings unfurled.

The Shame of XX 

On sports teams and in classrooms, in public and at family gatherings, I've been shamed for being female. Not for being slutty, just for being female. My failures and mistakes and shortcomings on the sports field and in math and science and philosophy classrooms have been forgiven too easily, passed off as an expected limitation of my gender. My successes have been explained away as flukes, "beginner's luck," or even something more sinister, cheating or lying or being somehow unnatural.

The Shame of Want

My parents were raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression and lived by the saying, "Waste not, want not." And wasting wasn't the only sin in the equation. Wanting anything--a toy, an article of clothing, participation in an extracurricular activity--was automatically suspect, on the edge of sinful. Wanting things smacked of ingratitude for what one had. Covetousness--desire itself, whether sexual or not--was a weakness.

At school, children applied the shame of want to peer relationships. I always felt that each kid in the class had a numerical social value, and it was calculated thusly:

X - Y = your social value

where X = how much you are wanted by others 
and Y = how much you want others

That "want" could be in the form of a crush, but most of the time it was not a sexual desire. It could be any kind of desire for positive attention from someone else--the wish to impress one's platonic peers, to suck up to a teacher, to "steal" someone's best friend. In some circles, the desire for the object of a romantic crush was sometimes more shameful than actually fooling around with someone--especially if the sexual partner was not wanted but just used.

Sad and cruel, but true--in the '90s. I feel that kids today are more compassionate and emotionally intelligent, so that gives me hope that my daughter will not be subjected to so much objectification and shaming as she comes of age.

The Shame of Sickness and Brokenness

I thought it was really cool to have glasses in the first grade. They made me feel grown-up and quirky and "smart" looking, in a good way. I also thought it was cool to have braces in the fourth grade--they were something only teenagers normally had. By middle school, it was a relief to shed the braces, but I was stuck with poor eyesight for life. Somewhere along the way, I came to see my extreme near-sightedness as not just a disability but somehow a moral failing, a primal defect, an elemental flaw of my DNA. In eighth grade, I got fitted for contact lenses and almost never wore my glasses. They made me feel weak, vulnerable, and ugly.

Since then, I've spent my life buying apologetic glasses--frames as unobtrusive and bland as possible, which were often unflattering and fed into my insecurity. As an adult, I got a job behind a computer desk that gave me eye strain when I wore my contacts. And after pregnancy, my eyes became dryer. Now I can only comfortably wear contact lenses on days when I am not looking at an LCD screen or reading a book for any significant amount of time--which is almost never, except on holidays and date nights.

This year, I bought new glasses with thick, bold, retro-curvy frames. They make my face feel complete without makeup and without apology.


I realize that I have also suffered from a couple of silly (but sometimes debilitating) phobias based on my fear of being identified as sick or defective. One is arachnophobia. I'm still not totally cool with spiders, but I'm not ridiculous about them anymore. I used to be so terrified upon seeing a spider that I would break things, hurt myself, tumble over furniture, that sort of thing. Ironically, I think I was afraid of my own reaction to the spider more than I was afraid of the spider. It was a spiral of terror; I knew that spiders triggered embarrassing reactions, so I became increasingly afraid of them, and my reactions were increasingly embarrassing. Working through the shame of my phobia has actually made it almost disappear. Now when I see a spider, I think, "gross," and I calmly squish it--or let it go, without spending the rest of my day feeling all skin-crawly.

A second phobia I've suffered for the past 15 years or so is emetophobia, the fear of vomiting. In my teens, I developed a menstrual disorder that gave me overwhelming pain, heavy bleeding to the point of anemia, and gastrointestinal distress. It was a humiliating problem that caused me to miss school days, sports events, and social gatherings. And the only way to control it was to go on the Pill. Unfortunately, that treatment had a few unpleasant side effects. It made my family and any Catholics who found out about it all squeegy and suspicious of my nonexistent sex life, and I reacted badly to the estrogen with increased nausea and occasional vomiting in the middle of the night. The whole experience made me feel gross and dirty and defective. The disorder threatened to become part of my identity as a person, something that controlled and defined the limits of my whole life. I felt humiliated at being forced to explain, "I'm not having sex, I'm having diarrhea." I felt disgusting and unlovable.

This phobia also spiraled into a greater issue, an anxiety disorder that caused many sleepless nights and evenings spent shivering and tense, feeling nauseous and fearing that I would throw up. These bad nights increased during stressful times at school or work, causing me to lose sleep, feel worse, and become less able to handle challenges gracefully.

After I had a baby, as predicted by many of my doctors, the menstrual disorder vanished. Now I don't have extraordinary menstrual difficulties, and I don't have to take the Pill. I rarely feel nauseous, and the last time I puked it was years ago, during an outbreak of Norovirus. But until I started dealing with my shame about illness and disability, the anxiety disorder continued to terrorize my nights.

The Shame of Privilege

This is an interesting one, and it's the largest psychological barrier to social justice that I've ever encountered in my advocacy work. We throw around terms like "white guilt," but I think we're confusing guilt with shame. You can't feel guilty for something you know you didn't do. No white person alive today feels guilty for slavery, for example. But I think many white people and rich people and powerful people feel ashamed of benefiting from an evil and unfair history, from a regressive social hierarchy that harms children, or from the predatory actions of their predecessors. This feeling of shame can make people defensive, ineffective, or even outright hostile to the oppressed, fearing that admitting to their privilege will force them to give it up or pay for it somehow.

I've gone to some effort to deal with my own shame and ignorance in matters of race, ethnicity, and class, but I'm just beginning to understand my issues with the privilege of being thin. This discomfort has been confused in my mind with sexual body shame and general body insecurities. Now that I'm in my 30s, I've let go of my youthful prudery, and I'm generally satisfied with my body--even though nobody's perfect, I have no major dissatisfaction with the way I look--but sometimes I feel badly about how my thinness makes other people feel. I've had friends, coworkers, and family members look at me sheepishly and say things like, "I wish I could wear clothes like that" or "You take care of yourself so well." In some cases, the speaker would look fab (in my opinion) in the outfit I'm wearing, and in some cases, the speaker takes care of herself just as well as I do--I put no effort into being thin. It's a characteristic of my body that I've never been able to change much; the thinness that I have effortlessly (naturally, I guess you could say) is something that other people have to work very hard to achieve, if they can ever achieve it at all.

For selfish and unselfish reasons, I wish everyone could understand that weight and body size and shape have very little to do with "trying hard enough" and a lot to do with genetics and with environmental influences that are beyond our control. I'm not talking about fitness--everyone can become healthier through effort, including myself--but as a society, we confuse fatness with sickness and thinness with health and success. (Correlation does not imply causation, people!) We also have prejudices linking body size and personality traits. I'm trying to unpack the ways these prejudices have affected my life and to face up to my discomfort with the privilege of thinness, so I don't slip up and get defensive in a way that might shame people with other body types.


So this year, my goal is to live, feel, speak, and act without shame. I feel that shame has done a great deal of harm in my life and has no particular use for me. I'm not a person who is vulnerable to temptations to do horrible things--and I think that people who are inclined to do horrible things, like hurt people on purpose or send d*ck pics or hire prostitutes with taxpayer money, are pretty much immune to feelings of shame anyway. I think that shame is a useless emotion to many individuals; it's a toxic invitation to be manipulated, controlled, and oppressed by people with less ethical internal values.

I'm not attempting to let go of my standards, morals, or dignity. I am trying to shed the manacles of self-loathing that hold me back as a writer, a mother, and everything else that I am or want to become. In turn, I'm making a special effort to be gentle with others who may have their own struggles with shame, and to try not to spread it around.

What is your focus for the year 2014, summed up in a word?


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