Photo by Tifani Truelove. Graphics by A Stripper's Guide.
Shame, unaddressed, can have catastrophic effects on our relationships. When we are too ashamed to admit our true needs or desires, we hide--from the people we love, and, often, even from ourselves. When we hide, we deny others the opportunity to truly get to know us; we deny intimacy. Confronting that of which we are ashamed is essential if we want grow, both as individuals and in our relationships.
Check out this week's podcast episode for more, including what it means to make use of our shame.
I spent my teens and early twenties punishing myself for my burning desire to make art and music. I thought these aspirations were “silly” and “egotistical”, because I was convinced that I had no creative talents. Whenever I wrote songs or poetry, I would tear them up and throw them out, embarrassed. I appeared on stage as an actor, dancer, and singer, and each time I watched my performances back through the little window on my mom’s video camera, I wanted to slap myself because I thought I was so terrible.
I was also sure that I was stupid. I got good grades until I hit middle school, and then, suddenly, both my interest in school, and my ability to grasp what was being taught, plummeted. I felt completely disconnected with whatever was happening in classes like History or English; I never did my homework and spent most of my class time asleep, pen poised above my notebook so I wouldn’t get caught. I was so mystified by high school math that I literally couldn’t even cheat on my algebra tests (believe me, I tried). To this day, I cannot fathom how a person is able to understand a complex equation by reading a series of numbers in the way that I am able to understand a complex story by reading a series of alphabetical letters.
Furthermore, my school was a joyless place with a thousand rules and the staff was far more obsessed with enforcing dress code, especially on the girls, and especially on me, than they were with the students’ wellbeing or mental health. For some reason, I became a walking target, shamed on a regular basis for my body by my adult teachers. Once, I stretched in class and my polo shirt untucked itself from my pants. My middle-aged male teacher announced, in front of everyone, that my stomach was a distraction. He immediately sent me to the principal’s office, where I was given an oversized sweater and detention. This was a typical day for me in high school. No wonder I didn’t give a shit about trying to learn algebra.
Another part of the all-consuming shame that defined me is that I was profoundly socially self-conscious. Growing up, I always felt like I had missed the memo on a bunch of unspoken social rules that most of my peers seemed to innately understand. This created an underlying sense of uneasiness in my everyday life, especially in situations where I was with new people or in a new environment.
Convinced I was intellectually incompetent, talentless, and that my social awkwardness was a personal failure, my physical body became my bargaining chip.
Cat-called for the first time at eleven years old, I have been at the relentless attention of men ever since. I have grown accustomed to the way the air leaves my lungs as mens’ eyes vacuum me from myself. It’s an everyday eventuality; if I walk down the street, or enter a bar, or go grocery shopping, or I have to do some business at the DMV, or get on an airplane, or happen to look over at the car next to me in traffic, some cis man’s eyes are inevitably there, indulging, uninvited, in my flesh. This eventually became a source of all-consuming dread, which led to a period of severe xenophobia in my late twenties that kept me mostly housebound. But, during earlier years, my ability to affect men was a thrilling source of power for me.
Like most people who were socially conditioned into the role of “girl”, and most people who present as visibly femme, I have an experiential understanding that my physical appearance is often directly correlated with my ability to seize social power. We live within the structures of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, which commodify all bodies, and/but commodify bodies perceived as “feminine” in a sexualized way. As a stripper, I pay my rent with this awareness. As a teen and young adult, though, I lacked a nuanced understanding of what it all means. I knew that there was power in the way I look, but I didn’t understand that my power extends far beyond others’ perceptions of my beauty. All I knew was that men thought I was attractive, and I thought I could use that to get what I wanted. The trouble is, I wanted love, and, instead, settled for objectification.
My body became an apology for what I perceived as my innate lack; my attention became a prostrated gesture of gratitude for the boys and men who would spend time with me, even when I knew they were only trading their time because they hoped or knew they’d get sex. All of my romantic endeavors revolved around my shame, and most of them also revolved around my partners’ ability to benefit from my shame. I dated a series of abysmal men, including, when I was 19, a married, unemployed guy in his 30s who was cheating on his wife while allowing her to financially sustain him. His wife was an abortion doctor who’d moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico for her career, and had to carry a gun to work because of threats to her clinic. I tell that story here because I want to emphasize how easy it is for shame to dictate the quality of our relationships. That shitty dude knew he certainly didn’t deserve a woman like his wife. He also knew I’d be an easy place to dump his own insecurities and shortcomings. Predatory men recognized me as a place where they could come to masturbate, emotionally and physically.
I felt devourable. I was devourable. Shame is easy to weaponize.
Eventually, I found my way into trauma recovery. Through talk therapy and embodied practices like yoga and dancing, I began to recover and reconnect with my true self; the person I knew I was when I was a child. As I grew emotionally and began to heal psychologically, I was learning intellectually about things like autism, radical honesty, and structural oppression. Shame and I began to release our grip on each other.
In my late twenties, I shattered and rebirthed myself (shoutout to my Saturn return!). Within one year, I broke off my engagement to a cis man and stepped fully into my queerness. Within two years, I recorded my first music project, and I’m damn proud of it. You can listen to that here. Within five years, I got in and out of the last abusive relationship I’ll ever be in, and that experience catalyzed me into my current body of work, which includes this blog, my podcast, and the book I’m currently writing.
Today, I am no longer afraid of myself, like I was for so long. I know now that I was never stupid or talentless; I just simply didn’t have teachers or mentors who understood me. The social struggles of my youth taught me something life-changing: I require laser-precision when it comes to communication. As an autistic person, there are so many social rules that I do not innately understand, and so many environments that trigger me to shut down because they overstimulate me. My loved ones must account for these things. I cannot be in close, intimate relationships with people who get frustrated when I have trouble crossing the street, or won’t help me out when I don’t know how to act at a party, or people who think I’m being confrontational when I’m genuinely asking them to explain what they mean during a moment of conflict.
I recognize now that the entire environment at high school, just like the conventional jobs that I was never able to keep, was wrong for me. I can’t have a boss, because I do what I want. I can’t work for eight hours a day, five days a week, because my brain simply will not stay online for that long. The conventions of capitalism are absolutely at odds with my personal rhythms and gifts. I am endlessly grateful that I gave myself permission to enjoy being a stripper, because, with the time flexibility and financial stability it provides, it’s the only job I’ve ever had that allows me to remain functional in the other areas of my life.
Shame no longer has the power to control me; instead, it serves as a steady compass. I use shame to guide me into more honest relationships, with myself and with others. Understanding where my shame comes from reveals to me what’s really missing; always, I find a nonnegotiable need or a deep desire that must be fulfilled. Unashamed, I am free to seek ways to get my needs met. Unashamed, I embrace my desires.
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