On my thirteenth birthday, someone gave me blue nail polish. It was bright, it was bold, and I loved it. So naturally I painted my fingernails with it.
When my mother saw my fingernails, she told me to remove it. I had been allowed to wear pink, apricot, and red nail polish for years, so this made no sense to me. Why? I wanted to know.
My mother, who was from Alabama and had a very broad southern accent, said, “It makes you look like a Ho-er. Do you know what a Ho-er is?”
The two-syllable word sounded like someone who hoed for a living, but given her tone, I supposed that was an incorrect guess, so I shook my head.
“It’s someone who sells themselves for sex.”
Ah. She meant a whore. So the blue nail polish made me look, in her eyes, like a common prostitute. The red nail polish did not, but the blue did. Right. Glad we cleared that up.
My mother taught me a wide variety of ways to be ashamed of my physical body. Of boys, she said, “Tell them to keep their peter in their pants.” Of marriage, she said, “Boys like sleeping with girls, but when they want to get married, they’ll look for a virgin.”
But more than words, my mother transferred her feelings and energy on to me. What do I mean? I believe very strongly that people never have to speak a word on a subject, but they will still convey their prejudices, judgments, personal issues, and shame on to their children as a sort of energetic imprint. The transference is unconscious, of course, but we are all psychic beings, and we pick up on it. So, my mother also taught me that the body is dirty, that pleasure is sinful, that self-denial is righteous, and that the male of the species was not to be trusted.
My parents married after knowing each other for a mere six weeks. I do think, in 1965, that my father was pleased to find such a wholesome virgin who seemed so very charming and who was certainly attractive. My father is a sensual man, and he loves the pleasures of this world, particularly food, wine, music, and, yes, physical pleasure. Unfortunately, he married someone with the opposite sensibilities.
I know my mother was powerfully ignorant of her sexuality when they married, because to a large degree, she still is. The Encyclopedia of Sex, A-Z (with pictures), which occupied our family bookshelf mostly collected dust until I started poking through it when no one else was at home. It was greatly informative, but I had the nagging feeling that the lot of it was dirty, and I probably shouldn’t really be reading it at all. Which didn’t stop me.
The same is true of everyone’s first real sexual experience: masturbation. It was the sort of thing I really wanted to do, but would promptly feel incredibly dirty and ashamed of after the fact. Mom had done her job well.
I was 18 when I first had sex, in college. I think I pretty much had to be out of my parents’ house in order for that to happen. In high school, the fear of getting pregnant and the attendant shame was enough to keep me in line. But in college, I found a degree of freedom, so I began to explore. The only problem with this sexual exploration is that, even then, in the back of my head, it always felt like my mother was watching—and disapproving.
This was borne out when my mother, who didn’t understand the meaning of “privacy,” was rummaging through my underwear drawer and found the condoms. She held one up. “What are you doing with this?” she asked. “Being safe,” I replied.
And then she cried for a week. No, seriously. She cried for a week because I was no longer a virgin.
This pretty much sums up why I’ve never had an honest conversation with my mother since I was probably 7 years old. Nothing good ever came of it.
But where did all this shame come from? In her Southern Baptist mindset, a male God had created men and women, told them to procreate, made it fun to procreate, and then told them not to do it too much or under the wrong conditions (of which there are many), or, if they did, then they were supposed to feel really terrible about it and beg for forgiveness. In this worldview, the body is the enemy. It is to be conquered, held in check, cleansed, made worthy even though it cannot actually ever be worthy.
I didn’t know it then, but I am aware now that there was sexual abuse in my mother’s household. I do not believe it was visited upon her directly, but it was certainly visited on probably at least two sisters, and my mother was aware of this in some way. My mother’s abhorrence for the physical goes beyond mere toxic religion.
The body is sinful, she thinks, and it is inherently dirty. She puts everything up her nose except cocaine, because she believes that there should not be mucus there, ever ever. It’s dirty. Her house is so clean you could eat off the floors. All knickknacks are under glass so they won’t get dust on them. Animals are dirty. She regards them as vermin, and they are not allowed in the house.
And as for sex? Well, let’s just say I feel sorry for my father, and I wonder how I got here.
Of course, she did her duty. And she wanted a child. A single child, because the physical trauma of giving birth to one was overwhelming. She had a rough time. I probably should have come via C-section. Her body was her enemy. I was not breastfed. And she spent years trying to persuade various doctors to remove her female organs. She finally found someone who would. Out, out, damned ovaries!
Shame is a human concept. The rest of life on this planet does not have shame for who they are or how they feel. The body is a vessel for the spirit that is to be cared for and enjoyed during its short journey in this realm. To feel shame for one’s body or anything else is to say that God (however you care to define the Divine) simply did not know what it was doing. That the Creation is flawed. The only thing flawed here, often, is the way in which we think of ourselves.
I think that shame arises from areas of cognitive dissonance. While the perpetrator of abuse may convince themselves (and the world) of their moral superiority, all the while knowing that they are actually out of integrity, the victims of abuse convince themselves of their moral inferiority and badness in order to make sense out of what is occurring. And social rules are used to create scapegoats for society’s shame. If a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, then she can bear the brunt of everyone else’s shame, and then individuals won’t have to look quite so hard at themselves and how they are out of integrity. It is so much easier to throw stones at someone else for their sins than to address your own…
Shame is a concept whose time has passed. Its only purpose is to keep people down, to disempower them. And it is particularly terrible when the person doing the disempowering is—you. It is the worst kind of self-abuse.
Our society gives a lot of lip service to the word “Freedom,” and I think few people even really know what it means any more. But if you want to be truly free, then you must release your shame. Love yourself, love your body, love your feelings, love your pleasures, love your passions. Be you, gloriously. And wear blue nail polish.