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Shame; noun, a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
One morning in Brooklyn, my roommate closed the apartment door behind her upon leaving our neighbor’s place. She was wearing the same dress she went out in the night before, her hair was tousled, and her slingback heels were hanging off her finger.
I was sitting in the hallway of our apartment complex visiting over coffee with other neighbors when we saw her.
She had a calm and pleased smile on her face.
“Walk of shame!” someone called out with a laugh.
“No shame,” she replied with ease.
Although this day occurred about 13 years ago, I’m remembering it lately while thinking about shame and how it relates you, the people in this community, to the girls, and to myself.
My roommate's shamelessness made me very curious.
Shamelessness was unfamiliar to me because it was so ingrained in me to be secretive and ashamed of my own sexual experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
While I was a teenaged girl, my family was very involved in a Christian church. Each Sunday I would go to what we called, youth group where the youth pastor would give the teens sermons or Bible lessons.
There I was told time and time again that sex was for marriage only and that, if you even thought about sex outside of those bonds, you were bad, you were a sinner and you were disobeying God.
Because I was defiant, I would ask questions with the intention of shocking the youth pastor or to get the group to laugh. For this, I would be pulled aside and told that talking like that was sure to have me end up a pregnant teen statistic.
When I was about 20, I was sitting in the front row of a church sermon wearing a skirt that fell just above my knees. Shortly after I sat down a woman who was a church volunteer, gave me a small, black blanket to cover my legs with as she whispered,
“So that you will be more appropriate—after all, you are sitting in the front row.”
Then her eyes cast over to the preacher as if to allude that somehow the disgraceful exposure of my legs would render him unable to teach the word of God.
My reaction to that was to tell her there was no way I was going to wear that blanket on my legs and I threw it on the ground. Now I can see how her consciousness was distressed by the shame she was carrying which she then projected onto me.
Have you ever thought about the phrase “lose your virginity?”
To lose is to be deprived of something.
The first time I had sex I did not feel I had lost something but instead gained something significant. What I gained was a loving and womanly experience.
At 16 years old, my boyfriend was 18, he and I were fortunate to have shared a positive first sexual experience together. We were madly in love with each other. It was an incredible afternoon, full of love and joy and pleasure.
I told not one soul.
Not even my best friends.
Why? Because I was ashamed.
I didn’t want people to see me as someone who had “lost” something treasured, or to see me as less valuable than I was before I had sex.
My boyfriend and I met at church, so he shared my guilt and shame.
We even prayed together and asked for forgiveness a few days later.
I am thankful that our beliefs about what we were doing changed for us soon after this.
We both knew we were in a complete love vortex and decided what our pastor taught us was not true and that a love like that could only come from something so divine as God himself.
But still, I told no one.
Had I forgiven myself for my sin?
Or, did I want to do it more without having to apologize every time?
As the years passed, I became more open about my sexuality. But girls I knew would scatter words like slut, hoe, and skank like bits of bread fed to ducks at a park, which would only cause me to shut down again.
Had they too been taught to be ashamed of sexuality?
Was this judgment a defense or were they right?
It was hard to tell.
Though my own experiences of shame originally came from a religious setting, I’ve noticed over the years that church wasn't the only place that represses women's right to pleasure and pride.
In general, our society puts rules on girls and women to dress, act, and speak a certain way or else you are ‘asking for it.’
Even women in our families and communities are conditioning us with their words and looks.
As is the case when men speak down to us in all settings.
School teachers telling us we are a distraction and the principal proves it with a behavior slip.
So here we are still; girls conditioned, even if girls are never assaulted, they often feel shame and take to therapy and counselors or religious services in order to try to escape the guilt that is taught.
About a year after I started Miracle Girls, a youth program to help girls build self-esteem, the expectations of me from other people got me feeling that I had built a tight and confining box around myself so that I could fit their mold of what a leader of girls should be.
An example of this came up after a yoga photoshoot I did for the website and event flyers for Miracle Girls. A few people told me that in the pictures I “looked too sexy to be a leader of girls.”
Although these remarks did not come from parents of the Miracle Girls, I was humiliated about this and I worried about what the parents and girls would think.
But after hours of thought and prayer, I decided that wasn’t fair to me.
If I was going to lead girls I wasn’t going to present myself as anything other than the real, whole me because that is what I want for the girls and for myself.
If I happened to look sexy in yoga clothes doing a lunge twist, that was just going to have to be the case, whether that offended people or not.
As a way of owning this conclusion for myself, I did a little project of creative self-expression (which is one of the 4 pillars of this program) in the form of a rap that I wrote, performed, and posted on YouTube.
This was healing and empowering and I was happy with the feeling this project gave me.
But, when I showed it to a woman on my staff, she said she would feel much better working for Miracle Girls if I took the video down.
Her reaction brought another wave of shame to me.
When my friends saw my rap they loved it.
They thought it was funny and awesome and they knew it was one part of the many layers of the Sarah they knew and loved.
Their reaction to my project helped me to let go of the shame again and like removing heavy chains from my shoulders I began to live shameless and free in my sexuality as I continued to run Miracle Girls.
But just a couple years later, I became a mother which as most mothers would agree with, brings a whole other complex bag of feelings to work through when it comes to sexuality.
It has taken me nearly three years to be able to own my sexuality as a mother. Many mothers I have spoken to are in agreement with me that it can be a slow and bumpy road to feeling sexy, and knowing how to embrace our sexuality as mothers.
How ironic is that, really?
After all, the act of sex is what brought us to become mothers in the first place!
The story of the Virgin Mary is about a woman who is “so pure and holy” that she becomes a mother with no sex. The way I see it, this story has played a huge role in shaming mothers from their sexuality for a very long time.
The conditioning we receive at a young age runs deep and has a backlog of many generations. So, even if one has a desire and an awareness to change it, real internal work needs to be implicated to see that change through.
A sister-friend of mine shared a story with me about owning her sexuality as a mother.
She was naked in her kitchen making chocolate when her baby was only 3 months old.
My friend was feeling fat and tired and anything but sexy.
Even so, the sweet smell of the warm chocolate was arousing and when she licked the spoon the taste was so delicious that her senses were ignited. She then rubbed the chocolate on herself, licking it off and smearing it all over.
She told me that it was in this moment she pushed herself to let go of her vision of herself as a fat, tired mom and decided to awaken the forgotten sexuality inside of her; not because of a man or the act of sex but by allowing her senses to come alive and by a choice to remember this part of herself.
This Summer I did another photoshoot for the Miracle Girls website.
After an image from the shoot was published, someone very close to me emailed me to tell me that my facial expression looked "too flirtatious and sexy" and that if she had a teen daughter, she wouldn’t want her to be led or influenced by me because of that.
But this time I stood my ground with a question,
“Can we women PLEASE stop shaming each other?!”
Miracle Girls is about empowering girls to be whole; not ideal.
I am a flirtatious person, so it makes sense for that to be seen in a photo of me and I will not edit myself for the sake of anyone's comfort because that is the opposite of what I want to teach girls to do.
This was a big moment of growth for me but I knew there was still work to be done to rid this feeling of shame within me once and for all.
This was made clear to me in the Fall on a night where I was kissing a man in a parking lot when I heard the sound of children playing in the distance.
In a split second my feelings of enthusiasm, safety, and pleasure shifted to shame as my fears hit me like a smack on the head with the thought,
“What does it say about me that I would be kissing a man in front of children??”
This notion bulldozed over the good feelings at that moment.
Reflecting upon that night later, I felt sad for myself because I was not able to fully enjoy something wonderful due to my conditioning of shame.
But when we set the intention to change something within us the way to do so unfolds itself in time.
Now, it is Spring and for me, that means my daughter is about to turn three.
This tiny girl has been my new teacher, she has lead me to finally be shameless.
By watching her as she discovers her body with such pure innocence, by seeing how open and free she is and how she hasn’t the slightest bit of shame I am now able to be free from my shame.
By witnessing her I am being educated on how we are not born to be ashamed of any part of us and I am finally free.
Shame is taught so shame can be untaught.
Let’s stop teaching girls that they cannot be sexual beings or that this part of them is something to be ashamed of.
Let's instead focus on teaching them about being respected by the partners they choose, about willing consent, love, readiness, and all the rest that could come from a healthy sexual understanding.
No more will I be anything but proud that I am a powerful woman who made my baby with my beautiful body because of my sexuality.
My hope is that every other mother feels this pride.
I am smart, funny, silly, serious, elegant sometimes, and frumpy sometimes. I am emotional, strong, vulnerable, resilient, and I am sexy and none of this deems me unworthy of leading girls but rather makes me qualified in every way.
Will you join me in throwing out shame for us and our girls?
Let's put it in its place, to be devoured by a river of molten lava from now on.