What is shame?
Defined by Brene Brown, researcher of shame and vulnerability, shame is an unspoken epidemic in our culture. It affects everything. Brene defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Shame needs secrecy, silence and judgement to thrive.
According to Brene’s research, the antidote to crippling shame is a vulnerability. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
The creation of charts and maps based on the layout of a territory’s geography.
I sat down in the doctor’s office with its impersonal surroundings, to discuss with the female GP the results of my blood tests. I wasn’t sick. I just wanted to have one of those mid-life check-ups. As I looked down at the paper I saw the words Post-Menopause. The blood test confirmed what I already knew. It wasn’t a news flash to me. I’ve been on this menopausal ride for a few years now.
February 2015 was when peri-menopause struck in one single blow. My menstrual bleeding had been regular for many years and I figured at my age it would be regular for a good 5 or more years. I don’t know why I had given myself that arbitrary timeline. I just assumed it would all happen after the magic 50-year-old milestone.
I was in Sydney awaiting the final hearing of a gruelling nine-month child custody trial with the father of my children. It was a stressful time to say the least. As the final showdown approached my period just upped and vanished for about 9 months. I put it down to stress for the first few months, but as time went on, I found myself starting to grieve, ever so mildly and silently, the loss of a whole chapter of my life. My bleeding returned for a couple of months and then stopped. This went on 3 times and each time I bled I felt that it could be my last. When each bleed arrived I would energetically hold it like a long lost friend. A long lost friend who was slowly dying. I held myself with the utmost of attention, reminding myself to remember this feeling in my body. Finally, one bleed was my last. My last ovulation, my last fear of unwanted pregnancy, my last blood stained sheets, my last bleed. I began to grieve in a similar way to when I stopped breastfeeding. I also went numb from fear at times. Fear of what this all meant. I didn’t really know what it meant but I would find out and I continue to find out.
I am 48 years old and I am no longer peri-menopausal. I am now postmenopausal. I had read a little bit about this transition that women move through, but not much. It didn’t seem relevant to me yet, a bit like superannuation, something to take seriously at some distant future version of myself. I was arrogant and apathetic at the same time.
Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist author and activist, prefers to use the term climacteric instead of menopause. Climacteric, from the Greek word meaning critical period. And because no formal celebration or ceremony has ever been devised to mark a woman’s transition from fecundity to infertility, Ms Greer suggests that women will have to invent one of their own.
I noticed that my hair growth had been slowing down, so, at my request, my girlfriend shaved all my hair off back to a tight shave. My hair had become tired and thinned from too much stress and the use of chemical hair dyes. I had been dying my hair since I was in my early 20’s and not because I wanted to have cool streaks and hip fashion hair. I dyed my hair because I had started going grey at an early age. Possibly genetics, but definitely trauma induced.
I decided to have it all shaved off and start again as an initiation into something new, clear the deck and this time I would not dye my hair but instead see what my real hair colour was now. I was nervous at the idea of being almost bald but it only took me a couple of hours to love my new buzz cut. It felt very clean and fresh.
When my hair did eventually grow back, it grew in multi shades of grey and silver. I wasn’t expecting that I would be completely grey. Luckily for me, I was told, that silver was all in fashion. Everyone was having their hair dyed silver, even teenage girls. I had young women stopping me in the street to ask me who my hairdresser was that coloured my hair so beautifully. I would tell them that I earnt every strand of it over the years.
I kept it super short, like a nun on her first day in the convent or a boot camp recruit in the army, for about 6 months and during that time I could feel how people avoided looking at me. I was told I looked like a Chemotherapy patient. This surprised me in this day and age that people still responded to shaved hair as being only for the sick or Neo-Nazis. I learnt that there is a prejudice against sick people because of the fear that they represent to those who are prejudice, reminding us all of our innate mortality. I learnt this even though I was not sick. People would look at me with a strange cocktail of pity and disgust. I also learnt that people do not know how to be with ageing women. I was not and am still not sure if I know how to be with myself as an ageing woman.
Having silver hair and being climacteric slammed me up hard against my identity of who I thought I was. I noticed a fear enter my body that I had not had before. What was the fear about I inquired? How was I starting to perceive and experience myself and what was that perception based on?
The fear has many corridors to it.
After all the yards I had put in over years of therapy and personal inquiry, becoming intimate with the real me and giving myself gravity in my existence, I was horrified that my sense of self-empowerment might all crumble under the weight of the natural ageing process and silver hair. A kind of humiliation came over me. I judged myself as being indulgent and self-absorbed. As I write this, I notice I still have that thought running in the back tapes of my mind.
Even with my beloved man, I thought to myself; he might find me less attractive and trade me in for a younger model. Never mind that he is the same age as me and also experiencing the changes that occur in his body through ageing. The fear of being upgraded for a younger model is such an old cliché fear with so much continual evidence being stacked from politicians, celebrities, sporting stars and tabloid press half shaming and half celebrating a man taking a younger woman and leaving an embattled wife on the sidelines. It is a narrative that is familiar and never a surprise. However if a woman ever leaves her marriage and takes up with a younger man, the judgement is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Names like ‘cradle snatcher’, ‘cougar’, ‘desperate’ are thrown around like confetti.
There were no signals coming from my beloved that he found me any less attractive, but yet there it was. This currency as I said, has many corridors, that I will write about in the Cartologies of Shame series but this one arterial route was to do with not being able to veil the truth of ageing.
“ Nobody tells the carefree 25-year-old female that in another 25 years she will be invisible
They are not actually seen as insignificant, rather they are simply not seen at all. “
~ Skylar Liberty Rose.
I started gaining weight, not entirely because of menopause but the whole shape and energy of my body changed. Instead of just getting bigger and bigger thighs when my weight increased, I now had a flotation ring around my middle. My waist started to disappear and blend into my hips. I felt shame about that. I realised that I had been submitted to the same indoctrinated as most, that to be overweight or dare I say, fat, is another thing to be ashamed of in this skinny worshipping, photoshopped society that I am a product of. I am rapidly falling outside of the narrow bandwidth of what is societally accepted as the “viability of women” physically and sexually; the infantilised sexuality of billboards, commercials and pop culture. Like a fruit that has passed its ripeness and so ferments on the tree, I felt Unviable. A dear friend of mine, who is a decade or two older than I told me about how women start becoming invisible.
Why is there so much shame about women ageing? I see that men experience this invisibility that comes with growing old or older and I see that it affects women much more harshly at an earlier age. Our used by date seems shorter. Hollywood reflects this assumption perfectly with women being cast as lovers against a leading man one decade and the next decade being cast as the same leading man’s mother as he pursues younger skirt.
At first I noticed that men stopped checking me out in the street. Something that my feminist nature says could be a good thing. I got to fly under the radar of unwanted attention that I had experienced most of my life with misogynist heckles, stalking and sexual harassment. No longer having to put up with the lion share of that is a great relief.
I also didn’t realise how reliant I had been for reflected worth through the male gaze. It had currency that I was ashamed to say had held value to me, though I had never been entirely aware of it. The value in the objectification of myself had become familiar. Something that women are fighting to eliminate had been entrained into my internal compass. But now that I had caught this conditioning by the tail I noticed that my worth and sexual currency were wanting to have a talk with me about where I was going to get paid from. I figured it would have to be from myself in new ways.
What I had been experiencing was an internalized turning away from myself. I was beginning to reject myself in who I was becoming as I was creating a cognitive dissonance from the image of myself I carried about in my mind. It was me who was avoiding seeing myself and accepting myself as I found and find myself. My identity was in a cryostasis; a time warp that my body was not biologically able to agree with. An uncomfortability with the truth of my ageing, post menopause and silver hair had me come face to face with my own shame of ageing; my own ageism.
I saw how all those decades of continual indoctrination about beauty, fertility and youth in media, movies, books and common dialogue had worked their sordid magic in my psyche and the resulting shame that I experienced because of this fraudulent paradigm of ageism. I found my thinking started to be one of resignation, resignation to the aches and pains in my body, to the lowering of energy in my body, to the dryness in my body, the weight gain. I was thinking like a defeated old person at the age of 46 and 47. I had, as Marianne Williamson wrote in her book The Age of Miracles, fallen into dark psychic waters. It was time to begin a new conversation about what it meant to be a woman in my middle life, and what currency I would create for myself.
“We live in a youth-obsessed culture that is constantly trying to tell us that if we are not young, and we’re not glowing, and we’re not hot, that we don’t matter. I refuse to let a system or a culture or a distorted view of reality tell me that I don’t matter. – Oprah Winfrey.
I began to explore both the inner and outer world of ageism to see if I could find a new foothold from which to create peace with what is. In the outer world, I looked at rites of passage archetypes and found the triple goddess: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Maiden – Birth, Mother – Childbirth and Crone-Death. This metaphor left me deeply dissatisfied as it did not reflect the point that I was at in regards to my journey as a woman. I am technically still a mother of my 2 children, however, I feel another energy moving in me that has grown out of the shape of mothering being my primary identifier. In my explorations, I tripped over Cedar Barstow’s information on the four rites of passage archetypes for women. She introduces the missing archetype…
“I’m no crone yet, far from it, I’m out there in the world earning my living and I have so much to give. I’m not wondering what I’m going to do with my life anymore; I’m doing it! I have arrived at my Self in this life season. I’m not trying to prove myself and so I’m driven by a desire to use my gifts and passions to give back.” ~ Cedar Barstow.
Maga gave me the foothold I was looking for. To have my transition and life stage reflected out in the world, if only in a select group of women who shake their heads in silent knowing of what I say when I inquired where was my reflected identity now?
Watching Grace and Frankie has had therapeutic benefits, as I watch these women traverse the no man’s land of ageing. I think, a little bit like the golden girls’ sitcom series of the 80’s and 90’s, Frankie and Grace inquire into many of the challenges that confront a woman’s confidence and purpose, showing how both women have to redefine themselves, creating a new framework for their life to be enjoyed within. It requires them going through a death process of the old versions of themselves.
It dawned on me that I needed to go through a death process, of all that had come before to embrace what I was birthing myself into and so I let go of all the assumptions I had of youth, of viability, of beauty, of fertility. I began to empty out all of my pockets of beliefs and education of who I thought I would become. I decided to drop my bag of expectations at the door and enter the very questioning of who I want to become as I change and evolve, not based on biology, but on my radical desire to live more, not less. I stopped telling myself the story that I was obligated to be the poster woman for grey hair after so many women telling me that my silver and grey hair had given them permission to let their hair grown naturally. I felt like letting them all know that I wanted out of the role of middle-aged inspiration.
“Age can hit you like a truck, knocking the wind of your youth right out of you. For years you move around in reaction, seemingly defined more by what you aren’t any more than by what you are now.” ~Marianne Williamson
I decided to embrace the dying that was taking place within me and to die to my concept of middle age, ageing and growing old and to take shame with me into the fire. It was time to burn the lot and inhabit a new terrain.