Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"I'm just...mortified"

“I’m just…mortified.”

I can't tell you how often I've heard those words in my life. My mother was from the south, and as a child I came to understand that mortification was an integral part of life for a traditional Southern Lady of a certain age: upon being born (that messiest of endeavors), upon having sex (um, we don't talk about such things)…and even upon simply growing up. Mom used to leave the room whenever an ad for euphemistically entitled “feminine products” came on television, ashamed even to acknowledge that such bodily functions existed.

Shame is a powerful emotion, and no doubt serves an important purpose: it helps train us to respond appropriately to our fellow humans, to deny certain base impulses because we know them to be wrong, and to understand the consequences of our actions. In fact, amorality, or an utter lack of shame at doing wrong, leads to criminality and a banal sort of evil.

But at what point does shame turn on itself, twisting into something more sinister? Sex, sensuality, our very bodies....these are problematic in our culture. The Bible describes humanity's discovery of shame and the need to cover one's shameful (especially female) body. Christian or not, we all experience the repercussions of our historical/cultural tradition.

Above: Upon expulsion from Eden, Eve attempts to hide herself in shame.

'To mortify' -- the root of the word so clearly connected to death -- refers to subduing or deadening the bodily appetites. It is no wonder that mortification so often takes place in a religious context, where one's love for a higher power is proven by damaging one's all too human flesh.

But how much can we shame ourselves or each other without experiencing a twisted, malformed reaction? And less dramatically, simply the death of joy?

Luckily for me, I came of age in California during the 70s and no matter how much my sweet and loving mother tried to impose certain ladylike mores upon her youngest daughter, I threw out a whole lot of shame with my childhood bathwater. But how much do those who allow their lives to be restricted and dictated by fear of mortification miss out on in life?

When I looked up this week's theme in order to write this post, I saw that medically, 'mortification' refers to gangrene: the literal death of flesh. Mortified flesh does not heal without ugly scars. Neither does our psyche.

So I say down with shame...not with flesh.


Sophie Littlefield said...

yes, yes YES. you've summed up my thoughts beautifully. And, for that matter, the theme I was trying to come up with: "But how much do those who allow their lives to be restricted and dictated by fear of mortification miss out on in life?"

This has been on my mind all week, and I did have one thought...the body shame you describe is so, SO much less for kids now than it ever was. Will you and I ever completely escape the shadow of our poor mothers, who were so ashamed of their bodies that they never made a comfortable relationship with them? I will never forget the look of utter horror on my mother's face when I accidentally walked in on her putting on a bra - mostly what I remember is puzzlement at the level of APOLOGY in her expression. "I am sorry for having these breasts, and sorry that you had to see me with them." It just hurts me, thinking about that.

I don't want to embarrass my own baby girl with examples, but suffice it to say that she and her friends are so much better off. Girls discuss their menstrual cycles right in front of boys, appreciate their curves. It is far from perfect and the job is far from done, but it is far better.

Not to pick on our younger sister Pens, but I notice that even a difference of a decade has sanded off many of the sharp edges of shame. I look at them - Adrienne, Gigi, Martha, Rachael - all beautiful and all so much more comfortable with themselves than I was for many years. Bravo, darlings!

Gigi Pandian said...

It's true, I have no shame ;)

But I definitely don't think that's true of all women my age. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, right? I bet I self-select as friends other confident women who are going for what they want in life. said...

I hope this blog topic has been read far and wide this week. A great service to people of all ages.
Thanks for being so open and honest and beautiful, Pens!

Unknown said...

I think shame kills creativity with the same force it deadens flesh. They tried to shame Anais Nin, Lenny Bruce, even the Smothers Brothers...

It's so weird, coming of age in the late 70s, isn't it? How quickly things turned for us :)

I've noticed the really younger kids (late teens, early 20s) seem to be ashamed of emotion, especially emotional intimacy. Still trying to work out where that came from, if it's true...

Christine said...

I second Camille's endorsement of all of these posts! And Sophie's right, you nailed it, Juliet, with the line, "But how much do those who allow their lives to be restricted and dictated by fear of mortification miss out on in life?"

As much for the sharing and remembering of events, people or places, I've come to realize that my photography also allowed me a buffer. I could be near the action and guests of honor of whatever event taking pictures without the risk of drawing attention to me or making a "wrong step". I'm 45 and really just starting to get a grip, but I can still feel, on occasion, the mortification of things I've said or done in the past.

Thanks for the great posts, Pens!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Thanks, all. Yes, it is amazing how deeply some of this stuff goes. And I agree, the younger generations seem to be afflicted less and less by social mortification. I was shocked a while ago when I heard my son and a female friend of his (both 17 at the time) joking about her period. It was jolting, but also wonderfully affirming: why should it be some weird mystery? It's biology, and we should all revel in our biology. It's what makes us human, and wonderful, after all.