Over the weekend, I read some of Brene Brown’s older book, Daring Greatly. It’s always a toss up as to which lens her words will register through first for me, personally or professionally. Sometimes, it’s both. During this reading, I found myself hooked on her ideas about shame being gender based, and both sets of wheels went into motion.

First, she lays out the reasons around which women are shamed: body shape/weight, parenting, and their ability to be perfect without making it look like they’re trying too hard. Or as she sums it up, how we look, what we should be, and how we should be. She notes a US study that rates “being nice” and “pursuing a thin body ideal” as the leading attributes for being feminine.

Next, she takes on the topic of shame for men: vulnerability/weakness is never an option. The consequence of being perceived as weak can range from the loss of a gift (artistic or creative expression that is seen as less than masculine) to the ultimate, as we see in the LGBT field on too regular a basis, loss of life. The outcome for many men is simply to shut down, thereby not allowing themselves to be seen as weak, but also not allowing themselves a depth of expression that other people want from them. What a tightrope to walk!

I sat with that information for a couple of days, percolating on how many trans and gender expansive kids are moving through schools across the country.  I poked at it with a stick and stirred it around. Do gender shaming messages have to been viewed as a binary? What about those kids who have found the binary doesn’t fit them?

Are we growing a generation of kids who, as they throw off the restrictions of the binary male/female constructs at younger and younger ages and live somewhere in the middle, may inadvertently set themselves up to carry both the shame messages for the gender they were assigned and the gender they identify as? Or will it serve as an armor, effectively repelling shame messages from both, because they identify as neither? Do there have to be shame messages at all?

I ran it through the filter of my own experiences, pre-historic though they may be. Urban Tidepool tells the story of being raised as a female child in a household with a widowed, alcoholic father and an unstable, drug addicted brother. Shame messages were not just an every day occurrence, but many, many times a day. From a parent whom I’ve described in previous blog posts as, himself, emotionally limited (when he was sad, he was angry; when he was hurt, he was angry; when he was angry, he was angry), the message was an unrelenting, “Tough guys don’t cry.” This was a non-negotiable standard, applied to both my brother and to me, and probably to my two oldest siblings who were grown and gone by the time I was born. That’s how he understood the world.  Do NOT show weakness. In Brown’s terms, it was a male message.

From my unpredictable and explosive brother, the message was quite different. “You fat bitch.” “You’re a pig.” “You fat whore.”  In Brown’s terms, those could clearly be considered female shaming messages about how I appeared and who I was. Whether or not I was, in reality, THOSE things was never in question. And frankly, looking back it from age 50, I envy that size 12 that I wore until I went away to college because I haven’t seen it since! I was not a significantly overweight teenager. But THAT was never the issue.

I joke now about who I was as “a little boi”, having learned about gender fluidity as an adult, and now having a career based on LGBT issues. As a kid, either way I looked at those messages, the take home was the same: You are not enough. You will NEVER be enough. And do not dare be anything less than a male ideal AND a female ideal—in a household led by an active alcoholic and missing any kind of female role model.

Wow. Okay. Let me get right on that! THAT just sounds totally do-able, guys!

So as I read and percolated and ran things through the filter of my experience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the kids with whom my agency works. What might they feel? What experiences were they having around how to be healthy people in the world? Where are their messages coming from and what were those messages? I got a glimpse into the answer this week.

My heart breaks.

In reviewing stats for one drop-in center, I saw that 40% of the kids at that site reported being verbally abused. At home. By their parents. Primarily by dads and stepdads. 40%.  I almost cried while I wrote the report for which I was organizing that information.  40% of our kids getting daily—and some cases multiple times a day—messages about being less than, not enough, and under continual pressure never to DARE be anything less than an ideal that most of us cannot live up to. Think about that. They are being shamed for not living up to an ideal about a gender that they don’t even identify as! From here, it was an easy step to also wonder if those kids are also carrying shame messages related to the gender they identify as, as they find it necessary to shut down, shut out, shut off…simply to survive living in their own homes.

I suspect Brene Brown would want to look at this generationally and dig at the shame messages that those dads and stepdads are carrying. When I look back at some of the messages my dad put out, I certainly have to question the shame he may have been carrying about feeling anything–ever– and expecting me to live up to that standard. From the angle of being 50, I can afford to make jokes about my gender shame-receptors being slightly off-kilter. I can laugh about being both the woman who doesn’t feel AND the man who is never going to be thin enough. I have the luxury of developed cognitive skills and a wonderful circle of friends who welcome me as a gender blend. But the other question remains. How fast can we stop the emotional hemorrhage of the children and teenagers being verbally battered in their homes for being themselves? And if we can’t stop it, what are our plans to help heal it after the damage is done?


  1. joanneeddy says:

    I don’t know Brene’s work, but I do believe that kids at least are getting this concept, so perhaps the next generation will be raised differently. At least, I hope so. With all our conservative NC governor’s posturing (joined by other rabid rightist bigots) getting national headlines about gender and bathrooms, I heard yesterday on NPR that the National Association of Principals says kids don’t understand what all the fuss is over. That gave me hope. Listening to my grandkids does too.

    So, I hope the stereotyping of genders is a war that is in its death throes. And if kids see that people are just people, I hope shaming for this will also go away. I say that knowing abuse, sadly, will not and rabid bigotry will not….so you will not be out of a job in the near future. But if the world at least can give positive messages to counteract parental messages, maybe the damage will be lessened to some degree. Again, I sure hope so.

    Thanks for sharing this post. Great as always, Nancy!

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