Shaming Women, Why Do We Do It?
You don’t need to think hard to remember examples of women shaming each other. Just recently a woman went off on a couple for their public display of affection calling the girlfriend an ugly slut and a prostitute. God forbid, you flirt or wear revealing clothing that exposes breasts or thighs, you’ll immediately be labeled as a whore.
Women’s imagination has no boundaries when it comes to finding reasons to shame. For example in the Soviet Union, there was a widespread belief that only prostitutes take daily showers. Good girls did not need to wash so frequently. Shocking?
And it doesn’t matter what your body type is, you will be shamed for it either way: for being fat if you have a big butt or for not looking like a “real woman” if you are skinny and have small breasts. Stay-at-home moms are shamed for being lazy and a lack of ambition.
Working moms are shamed for selfishness and not paying enough attention to the family.
Women get shamed if they do not cook, choose not to put on makeup or wear feminine-looking clothing. The list can go on and on.
“Women slut-shame each other as much as men do.”
But why do women shame each other instead of offering support?
Don’t we face the same struggles: childbearing, menstrual pain, sexual harassment, objectification, unequal pay, mansplaining, gender discrimination, etc? It is counter-intuitive to stigmatize, embarrass, humiliate, and put down each other instead of providing a safe space for empathy, understanding, kindness, and wisdom.
You might be surprised to find out that women slut-shame each other as much as men do. In 2014, UK think-tank Demos released a study that analyzed online misogyny. It revealed that thousands of women chose to attack and use derogatory terms against individuals of their own gender.
An anthropological perspective
Shame has an important function. From an anthropological perspective, shaming is a mechanism that forces people to adhere to social norms and morals. It regulates people’s behaviors and thoughts. In the United States, it is shameful to not to pick up after your dog or to leave a small tip for a good service. How do women fit into this framework? Let’s look at history.
For centuries in many cultures around the world, the only way to secure a prosperous future for a woman and her offspring was to marry a rich and privileged man (or someone who may become one) and then protect the union. There were not many men like that around; therefore, women had to compete with each other.
Two functions of shaming women.
In the process, shaming served two purposes. First, it made rivals appear less desirable. The quality of a woman depended on whether or not she would make a good wife because her role in society was mostly limited to childbearing and taking care of home. If a man thought that a girl couldn’t be a fine spouse because her cooking was awful, personality was feisty, or behavior was promiscuous, he would be less likely to marry her.
“Women shaming each other is an internalization of patriarchy.”
Second, shaming was used to control sex according to supply and demand. The idea is if all women behave according to community standards and do not give away sex freely to avoid shaming, then men can only have sex with their long-term partners because they will not be able to get it from anyone else. Hence, the union is preserved.
Sex was used as a bargaining tool for male manipulation. Men could not know that women had high sex drives and desired it just as strong. Otherwise, the demand would decrease. As a result, women had to police other women’s behavior, verbally attack their appearances, and suppress unconcealed expressions of female sexuality.
In short, women shaming each other is an internalization of patriarchy. Emily Gordon from the New York Times described it well, “When our value is tied to the people who can impregnate us, we turn on each other.”
We don’t have to give in to shaming other women.
Women shaming is a social construct. We acquire its tactics growing up from our friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances. It becomes a bad habit that is deeply wired in the brain. Shaming is so prevalent in our lives that many women do not even realize when they start doing it automatically. Although this adaptive social strategy made sense in the past, we do not have to use it now.
Tracy Vaillancourt, a Canadian psychologist who studied slut-shaming among women said, ““Studies show that if you change cognition, you change behavior. This behavior causes harm.”
These days, we can secure our own future. We can be financially independent. We can sleep with whoever we want without feeling shame. We can give birth and raise children completely on our own. There is no need to compete against each other. It is time to take control over our old habits and not fall for them under any circumstances. Women have to support each other. If we don’t, then nobody else will.