The naked truth about stigmas

"Penis.  Vagina.  STD.  Breasts.  Groin.  Sex."  These are some of the words that I was appalled to see posted on the lunchroom wall of an elementary school.  I was not only appalled.  I was embarrassed.  'Is this what our education system has resorted to?' I thought to myself.  'Handing out condoms in high school was not enough?'  The school system flaunted blatantly sexual words in front of elementary school readers, and my instinct was to judge, and run.

'That's it.  I'm homeschooling.  The school system has lost its mind.'

I was also embarrassed because my reason for being at the school that night was to participate in a homework support group for African immigrants.  I had traveled to two countries in Africa; Ethiopia, and Sudan.  When I thought of the modesty of some of the places I had been exposed to, I cringed at the thought of these new-comers to my country reading these words.

It was volunteer orientation night, and one of the first things they asked us about was culture shock.  The facilitator asked the volunteers to put ourselves in the immigrated students shoes, and perceive what they might see.

When it was my turn to speak, I pointed to the perverted words on the wall.  "I don't understand what those words are doing on the wall of the lunchroom, in an elementary school.  At least put them in a health class, but out here, in the lunchroom, where kindergarten kids are exposed to them?  Are you kidding me?  That offends me.  I can only imagine what a new-comer to Canada must think."

A girl across the table from me agreed.  Then, a guy sitting next to her, opened his mouth and changed everything.

"The reason they put those words on the lunchroom wall is to take away their power.  If those words are used when the kids are really young, they will become common.  That way, if someone uses one of those words to call another child a name, it is less likely the child will feel shamed because it's an everyday word.  It's not a big deal.  Also, if someone is sexually abused, but they are comfortable with these words that seem common to them, they will be more likely to talk about what happened to them, instead of fearing the shame of these words."

The next day, I educated my daughter.  I told my one-and-a-half-year-old she had a vagina.  When she potty trained, I told her she needed to wipe her vagina, and then her bum.  A few weeks later, someone said to me, surprised, "Your daughter said she has a vagina."

"Of course she did," I responded.  "She does.  What would you call it?"

A year later, when my daughter came home and told me her friend JJ had a penis, I didn't turn all red.  I didn't avoid the statement.  It was a descriptive word and she was right.  "Yes honey.  JJ has a penis."

This week I attended my first suicide bereavement group.  I knew there was a stigma about using the word "suicide," but I didn't know how fearful most people were to use it.  It was like those left behind were the victims.  Whether at work, out with friends, or meeting a client, people expressed dread and fear over the question they would inevitably be asked when a colleague, friend, or client found out their loved one had died.  "How did they die?" was the dreaded question that often followed.

"Um...well, stammer, stammer.  It's complicated."

I had already made the choice to be public with my grief journey before I found out how my husband had died.  A week after I started, I received the coroner's report.  What awaited me was what I call stigma in a large yellow envelope.  The first word I saw as I lifted the report out of the envelope, was "suicide."

One of the initial reactions I received when I learned that my husband had committed suicide, was not to write about it.  To be very careful about how I handled this revelation.  I thought about that advice, and I felt suffocated.  I did some processing, and then I wrote a raw, transparent, and what I believe to be a constructive article on suicide.  I wrote because the reaction I received was exactly why I had started  The news that my husband had taken his own life made me sad, angry, mad, hurt, all sorts of emotions, but I did not feel responsible.  I rejected the feeling of guilt.  I refused to be victimized by a choice I didn't make.  A choice I can't even say my husband made.  He picked an option in a desperate, fearful, isolated, hopeless moment while fighting a mental battle.

Once I released my article there came a tremendous response of gratitude, and support.  I know that is not always the response others will receive, but to their credit my thoughts were received with gratitude for shedding light on a situation many are unsure of how to process.  That experience made me realize the poor reaction society sometimes injects onto stigmas, is perhaps less about intending to cause harm, and more about not knowing what to do with things society doesn't understand.  For example, the same person who told me not to write about suicide, thanked me for writing after it was released.  That same article was featured on and read by over 7,000 people within one week.  My impression is, people want to understand, people want to talk about it, but we don't always know how.  Creating safe places, non-judgmental, spaces for learning, exploring, and having the freedom to ask why, to say the words, to tell our stories, are vital for freeing our society from the clutches of shame that is not ours to own.  As long as we refuse to use the words, stigmas will hold the power over us.

As someone who was also sexually assaulted, I understand the feeling of shame when words have been hidden in a closet and rarely used, only to be pulled out for use in the worst kind of awkward situation.  Now is the time to dust off our words.  Now is the time to pull them into the light, and make them common.

Did you know that "1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime?"  Did you know "1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.  The remaining 4 will have a friend, family member or colleague who will."  Did you know that according to "Statistics Canada...drug related offenses (are) at a 30 year high in Canada," or that "25% of all deaths in Canada are due to smoking cigarettes?"  Here's another fact.  "In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide."

As riveting as these statistics are, they are not what shocks me most.  What astounds me is how silent our culture can be.  Silence, isolation, and fear, are the ammunition fired by the devil that are allowing evil to win.  It's time to take control of this war. Words have power, and what's even more powerful than that is when we use them.  When we name things, when we confront our fears, when we refused to be locked away in the dark closet of isolation any longer, thinking we're the only ones in this battle, even though statistics tell the story of a very different reality, we can find hope, healing, and freedom as we reduce stigmas simply by naming them, and telling our stories.

As my fellow volunteer at the homework group pointed out, using words gives the power to us.  I am a woman.  I have a vagina.  Some of my readers have a penis, and if you ask me how my husband died, get ready, because I will not hesitate to tell you it was suicide.


If this article was helpful to you, please leave me a comment.   Thank you for helping me break the silence by joining my journey.  I pray you find safe places to share your story, and whether you do, or not, just remember, the power of words belongs to you.




Shawna is a writer and public speaker.  Email Shawna to invite her to speak at your next event. 


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