Amsterdam-South, last week. I was waiting for my train in the shade next to a Starbucks. A young woman in her twenties approached me, perhaps she was nineteen. In The Netherlands it’s hard to tell sometimes – women can be tall and sturdy.
As if there’s no intersection between their best features, no meeting of the whole. They will have shiny long hair, great skin and bellies as flat as the streets they walk on – unimpressed by anything – but not know what to make of their ageless, tough bodies.
She kept staring at me
This girl was tall too, her voice was a bit deeper then you would expect. She wanted to ask me something. She wasn’t carrying stuff around to sell me, that was a relief, but now I was in the dark – what did she want? She sat very close to me on the stone wall. I asked her to wait a minute because I had to finish a text message – all the while she kept staring at me.
She was a ‘environmental defence’ activist, she told me, and she wanted to know if I was eating meat. Was she asking for a schoolproject or something? ‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Where did I buy my meat, how often and why,’ she continued.
Every answer resulted in her judgment of some kind. I told her I eat red meat a few times a week because it prevents me from fainting, that my low blood pressure is not having tofu. She ‘accepted’ that as a valid reason.
I had already had enough of her halfway through our talk, and it was not because of the topic. In the train I realised it was something else. She had not shown any normal signs of shame or hesitation to pull me into her seemingly overconfident idealism. And for what?
Extravagant displays of emotion
I was no more than a mirror for her to look into, to walk by – so she could see herself practice her ideal version of herself. I was not part of anything that had just happened.
Shameless (mostly) young women are everywhere these days. They talk like there is no tomorrow about their bodies, their feelings (“My external world is like fine, but my internal world that is totally different story etc. etc.”) and each other. They think that extravagant displays of emotion are required of them, and perhaps they are right.
They are making themselves up as they go along.
I too made myself up as I went along, I still do, but shame and self-control are a big part of that proces. Shame can be a painful social emotion, but also an affect, a cognition, state or condition. It prevents me from emotional flooding, being an idiot, from harassing strangers in the street.
Charles Darwin described shame as ‘consisting of blushing, confusion of mind, downward cast eyes, slack posture and a lowered head’, but he also noted the sense of warmth or heat occurring in shame. My guess is, if it burns it is trying to tell you something.
Shame as an overal condition is fear of being inadequate. It makes you think through behaviour, it is – just like Adam and Eve experienced – an awakening to free will: now that everyone can see my nakedness, my flaws, I should try to overcome them, that is if I don’t want to be haunted by them. The girl at the station did not see or experience any nakedness. The world was her mirror, the self just a passerby.
Shame does not equal shyness
After the radioshow that evening, a male friend and I discussed girls without shame, he recognised this idea. He (too) did not like girls that showed no signs of hesitation or self-awareness, girls that just land on your shoulder like a bird. They will comment on your wardrobe, tell you intimidate details, ask you about yours.
Shame, when experienced in a healthy manner, is what prevents falling apart in public, it somehow contributes to self-knowledge, respectability and trust. Shame (a red face, reluctance to speak or join in when things get ‘crazy’, the delay of tears until in the shower) is a postponement of the self, it is awareness of others – those deadly creatures that can rip you apart if they want to.
We don’t have to walk around with ‘a slack posture and a lowered head’ though, fear of shame is enough to enable a person to think ahead, align oneself with certain social standards and try to predict the outcome of certain behaviour.
So shame does not equal shyness. I’m not shy. Shameless women, however, are often shy. Dutch female writers for example will scatter their thoughts on sexuality, with specifics, trying to ‘break every taboo’, but point out how they ‘would love to feel comfortable in their bodies, and dance like no one is watching’. They have been taught that shame is bad, that anything goes. On Twitter and Facebook they share intimate details without a second thought.
They are falling apart as they go along.
Women in a shy world, where nothing can be said without consent – without the approval of the collective, are paradoxically shameless in their interactions with strangers. I hope they can glue themselves together in time – being a woman is tough enough with your clothes on, away from any mirror.