All desire and pride: shame and young women
I remember a girl in my PE class making fun of me for not shaving my legs properly. I was around 11 or 12, and still had very fair hair, but I had wanted to be grown-up and so I shaved them in the bath using my mum’s razor. I was short and still skinny, still a child. We sat on a grass verge by our school, during sports day. I was wearing shiny green sports shorts and was sat with my legs bent at the knee. I guess I had missed some sections, or held the razor at a strange angle.
It might even have been that I’d skipped the hair at the ankles, something I still do nearly 18 years later, whenever I decide to shave, an activity that still feels like such an imposition. Wherever the offending patch or patches of hair were, they caught this girl’s eye, someone who was my friend, and she triumphantly told the rest of the little group we were sat with, that I had tried to shave.
How had she already learned the right and the wrong ways to do things? This girl was more developed than me, taller and bigger, also had darker hair. Her comments about my body were of course also about hers: I’m sure someone had told her that she needed to get rid of her dark body hair and that it was disgusting if she kept it. This moment makes me cringe for both of us – me for the first of my many failures to keep in line with some imaginary femininity, and her, as I imagine the things that must have been said to her, or the things she must have read, that led her to call me out in front of others.
So much about girlhood is about shame: even if it is not your own, it surrounds every activity, like a mist. I could see it falling across the faces of my friends when we had to change, when we went shopping, when we compared our bodily developments. I didn’t know or think about the concept of shame, I just knew at the time that I felt secretive and strange and furious all at once, and this was borne out of new experiences that were taking me out of childhood. These feelings transmuted as I got older, when my social life began to include more people, and with different kinds of interactions - and boys - but it remained, as I learnt more about the rules that govern human interaction. This shame was constant in that it always measured in deficit: what I did not have or what I was not. Though I still feel shame as an adult, there is something so specific about the experience of shame as a teenager and young adult, that stems from a lack of resilience, or to put it another way, that any shameful or embarrassing event revealed my precarious grip on myself.
During the current lockdown, I have found myself reflecting on my life in surprising ways, casting my mind over many events and social embarrassments. Perhaps it is because I am so deprived of social contact, that my mind is looking to find ways of demystifying its joys. My thoughts keep straying over my teenage years, and the years of young adulthood, when other people were everything. Perhaps because of my backwards glances, I have found spots of that shame emerging in my reading and in my watching. I had a curious experience reading Annie Ernaux’s book A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer, recently brought out by Fitzcarraldo: as she describes recognising her young self in the films like Wanda, and Love is my Profession, or novels by Cesare Pavese or Rosamond Lehmann, I saw too myself so clearly in the 18-year-old Annie she describes. Just as Ernaux is ‘abducted by the girl on the screen’ I was often seized with a ferocious pull of shame as I read her novel. I don’t mean to suggest that my past experiences were the exactly same as that of a young woman in the late 1950s, but there was something so familiar about Ernaux’s descriptions in which she both delights in her new freedom and feels deep misery about the repercussions of her behaviour. She had caught that double-edge of shame: learning to navigate independence, in all its form, comes at the price of a sense of self.
I found my own shame again in a film by Eric Rohmer, this time in a woman older than a teenager, and perhaps older than I am now, but still embodying that raw feeling I recognise from that time. In The Green Ray, Delphine (played by Marie Rivière) tries to decide what to do on her summer holidays after she is let down at the last minute by her friends. Though Delphine is offered options including a friend’s Grandmother’s house in Spain and joining her family in Ireland, she cannot find a place to go and does not want to go somewhere too unfamiliar or venture out alone. ‘I’m not the adventurous type,’ she says at one point. As she endeavours to find a suitable way to spend the summer, she has a series of awkward and difficult conversations with friends and acquaintances, who ask her probing questions, and often reduce her to tears. I was very interested in these tears. Delphine is very vulnerable, often trying to explain her position but not quite getting it right. As Tony McKibbon writes in his essay about the film, ‘there is something in the social exchange that is too tangible, too expectant for Delphine, and she backs away. It is as if as soon as the social conventions kick in, Delphine must retreat, and we can ask: is she neurotically protecting herself, or generating more belief with each rejected pass?’ Other people are hard for her, and the structures of her social world, even the necessity to take a long holiday in the summer, feel deeply imposing. As I watched this film this past month, I saw something of my past in her body language, and her inability to truly articulate her feelings and desires. There was something so particular in Delphine’s shame about being alone and being unhappy: it felt so similar to what I had experienced as a teenager, the shame that comes from not achieving a fantasy or an ideal, whether or not it was realisable.
This idea of the fantasy is important, precisely because our fantasies when we are very young are so often about the shape and promise of our future lives. There are those fantasies which are beyond our real desires. I had a fantasy that I was married to Orlando Bloom for much longer than I care to remember, and though I think a small part of me really did think it could happen, I never saw it as a true possibility. T here were other, almost mundane dreams about stable boyfriends, exciting trips, or deeply fulfilling social lives. In A Girl’s Story, 18-year-old Annie, inexperienced in many ways, goes to a camp where she will be an instructor - ‘all desire and pride,’ and ‘waiting to fall madly in love.’ She throws herself into her first encounter with a man, H, the head group leader, which ends disastrously. For the next few weeks, she falls into dissatisfying encounters with other instructors. As Ernaux writes, the young Annie ‘is proud to be the object of lust, and quantity seems to her the gauge of her seduction value. She feels a kind of collector’s pride.’ I do not write of shame here to judge her, but to see the way that the embarrassment she suffers at the hands of H, transforms her fantasies of falling in love to a rather shallower version of self-objectification, in which she gets no pleasure, only the momentary joy of the promise of love partially satisfied.
I remember so many girls going through versions of this, where the end goal of these strange fumblings were not pleasure but contact, even simple acknowledgment. In Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Kayla, at 13, pretends to be sexually experienced, even saying she has a folder on her phone of naked pictures of herself, as a way to impress a boy she likes. Her boast is a way of getting his attention, but it is also a way of marking herself out from other girls. In both this film, and Ernaux’s book, we see the mechanisms through which young women seek to make their own desires subservient to that of other people.
I don’t want to make the experience of feeling shame exactly the same as the experience of being shamed by others, though the two are clearly interrelated. When that girl tried to shame me for my shaving inability, I did indeed feel shame at that moment, but its long-lasting effects are probably more powerful than its actual importance at the time. I must have felt caught out and exposed as she said it, but it’s clearly significant that I still remember it, as it spoke to my larger feelings of general inadequacy. I made the moment of shame fit into a larger pattern that proved I was less than. From my lack of skill came a whole other language with which I could admonish myself. There was a public shame found in her words, and there was my own, experienced in private, and that lingered much longer.
All the stereotypes about teenagers and young adulthood, their moodiness, their lack of communication, and their being secretive, is about a new introversion, living in their heads with a novel force. I think for young women, this introversion takes on another level, as we bring a world that so often denigrates and attacks us inward, transforming ourselves into the version or versions of ourselves that we think are expected of us. Each year, there are statistics and studies that elucidate this shame, about our bodies, our sexuality, even our periods. We learn to interrelate our embarrassment with our desires, as young Annie does in Ernaux’s book. Shame teaches us ways to behave, even though those lessons may be punishing and cruel
I hasten to add that my own life has been privileged, and that I had a comfortable and safe upbringing. But no one is untouched by the haunting of shame. As Adam Phillips writes in his book Missing Out, ‘No one has ever had the adolescence they should have had.’ Just as shame finds it ways into the gaps of failed ideals, the promise of an ideal youth can never be a reality. In these weeks where I have been thinking about my adolescence and my early twenties, I find myself thinking about those moments of profound shame through a different lens, not as uniquely happening to me, but as a shade or an echo of many other people’s experiences. Though young Annie experiences these mean-spirited jokes and cruel jibes, Ernaux sees herself as experiencing a quotidian event:
Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.
Katie da Cunha Lewin is a writer, researcher, and tutor based in London. She has a PhD in literature and is the co-editor of “Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives”, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing and reviews have been published at the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Jezebel, and Ache, among other places.