At the suggestion of two different friends, I started reading a lot of Brené Brown, the scientist who has a gift for getting to the heart of the matter. And, lately, that matter is Women and Shame. For a fantastic primer on what I mean, please set aside 20 minutes to watch her TED talk from 2010, if you haven’t already.
In a nutshell, Brown describes how shame unravels relationships, how insidious it is, and what keeps it fueling so many broken lives. On the flip side, she talks about the antidote to shame, which is the courage to be vulnerable. I love her definition of courage: “To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”
I haven’t been as busy on Higher Highs, Lower Lows for the past year due to several circumstances, most notably a higher work load both in and out of the home. But after a recent incident, I realized how desperately I needed to tell the story of who I am with my whole heart. And this blog is the best place for that medicine.
I took a yoga class last Saturday in which just one other female and two other males comprised the class, along with me and the teacher. To set the scene, the room was about 12 feet square and I was – clearly – older than everyone else by about 10 years.
I truly love yoga. Before the birth of Seabass four and a half years ago and Sweet Chuck two years ago, I practiced nearly every day and even considered becoming a yoga teacher on the side. Nowadays I’m lucky to do it once a week, but I might love it more than ever now because it’s so precious.
I knew before I even walked into the class that I was fragile; my fuse a little shorter than usual, tears a little closer to the surface. In short, hormonal. But I was thrilled to have an hour in which to care for myself and wanted to make the most of it. As we entered our first pose, the teacher asked us to close our eyes and….I immediately started to weep. This is not uncommon since I had kids. When I take the time to settle down and look inward, tears often start to flow. No big whoop.
The tears soon subsided and we moved through a handful of standard sequences. The teacher was pretty hands-off – no touching or adjusting or calling people out on their form – until about 20 minutes into the class, when she walked over to me in the middle of a twist and whisper-shouted,
“ARE YOU PREGNANT?”
No joke. The mind reels.
“ARE YOU PREGNANT?” she repeated.
“NO,” I replied, aghast, looking down at my mat. Was I bleeding or something? “GOD, DO I LOOK PREGNANT?!?”
“NO, I JUST WANT TO MAKE SURE YOU’RE NOT PREGNANT BECAUSE SOME OF THESE POSES WOULDN’T BE SAFE FOR YOU. YOU KNOW, IF YOU WERE.” And she proceeded to return to her station at the front of the room, cool as a freaking cucumber. The rest of the class blushed. I wanted to dissolve into the floor.
My yoga experience that morning was blown. There was no joy, there was no peace, there was no rest. When I wasn’t scrambling to give her the benefit of the doubt (i.e. maybe she thinks I’m someone else?), I was batting away tears at the thought that I actually resemble a pregnant person.
Brené Brown says that, according to her research, body image is the number one shame trigger in American women. Is anyone really shocked to learn that? I wasn’t. Just this morning during a workout with a friend, I ran uphill holding weights and, surprise surprise, I couldn’t get comfortable with them in my hands. And it hit me: this is how it feels to live with the burden of a warped body image. The picture had never been so clear or visceral to me before.
Yes, it’s magazines and the media. Yes, it’s celebrities. Yes, it’s mixed messages. But I would also argue that we, as women, are a little too aware of each other’s bods. We compare, scrutinize and log an awful lot of data about each other that focuses on appearances.
Anyway, God knows I’ve said some pretty stupid things in my life. For whole years I’ve lived with my foot lodged securely inside my mouth, vacillating between soul-crushing arrogance and soul-crushing self-hatred. But at least I’ve never asked someone if they were pregnant.
That’s not the point, of course. The point is, I was thrown into doubt and shame, which followed me as I packed up my things and scrambled out the door with my teeth clenched. And would you believe it, the teacher actually yelled as I left, “SORRY FOR ASKING IF YOU WERE PREGNANT!”
Old Me would have smiled and just skittered out the door. New Me turned around and said, “If you suspect someone of being pregnant, keep it to yourself. It’s not your problem. Don’t ask.”
To which she replied, shocked, “Are you offended? Oh God, did I offend you?” She may have said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I was long gone.
I hopped on my bike thinking Everyone’s looking at me wondering what the pregnant woman is doing riding a bike in heavy traffic. And then I started to cry. Hard.
Not wanting to die in a collision, I pulled over and let myself have a good sob. And then I called a friend.
Here’s what I know: I’m a good-looking gal. A healthy, normal-sized mother whose husband thinks she is smokin’ and has no interest in trading her in. I’ve birthed two 9-lb+ babies in rapid succession. I’m strong, I’m smart, I’m fun, I’m impulsive, I’m a homebody, I’m selfish, I’m kind, I’m fearful, I’m real, and I also tend toward being depressive. These are true statements about the person I am.
Being asked if I was pregnant would have sent the Old Me into lockdown for well over 24 hours, petting and caressing a grudge until paper-thin. But New Me (the Me who acknowledges her weaknesses and is devoted to what Anne Lamott calls “radical self-care”) knows how to puncture shame: with storytelling, with truth-telling, and with a whole lot of laughter. Having a network of “shame puncturers” is my key to peace these days. Bringing my crazy to someone who loves me and sees me is the swiftest and most effective way to joy. Thank God for the many women and men who surround and support me and whom I am privileged to surround and support.
To Old Me, this would have been a destroyer. To New Me, this was a kerfluffle…and a great story. After 20 minutes and a couple conversations, I was good. When I told Jake about it, he asked if I would ever return to that class, sure that I would be too ashamed.
“No way!” I said. “I’m gonna plague that girl the rest of her yoga-teaching career. ‘It’s me!’ I’ll yell whenever I see her. ‘Still not pregnant!'”