Europa Bendig
Managing Partner STURMundDRANG
17.10.2022 | reading time: 6 minutes

CHANGING CULTURES MAGAZINE > MINDSET2030 > Shaming Culture: Taboo and Opportunity

Shaming Culture: Taboo and Opportunity

We’ve all been there before. Blushing, breaking out into a sweat, stumbling over words … Feelings of shame are what is known as ‘affects’ – the strongest and most intimate human emotions, which are uncontrollable. Conditioned by socialization and culture, ideas of what is shameful change along with changes in societal norms and values, as illustrated by the current debate on topless swimming and sunbathing. Thus over time, our feelings of shame over a given matter can evolve into a different response, of anger or of pride. Let’s take a look at this sensitivity and what’s behind it.

Subjects: Behavior change | Culture change | Society



Shame is an emotion that we feel deeply as an individual human being. Humans are the only creatures capable of seeing themselves from the perspective of others and envisioning being morally judged. Shame is felt in particular when an individual feels discredited in a manner that puts his or her social identity in jeopardy. Blushing is the human response to fear of losing social standing, when we feel our personal image is being compromised.

Shame is a kind of protective mechanism for our social relationships. As a rule, we behave in ways conformant with societal expectations in order to protect these relationships. Shame thus serves to stabilize societal structures, like a seismograph pointing out when something has gone wrong, when a line has been crossed. Among other things, shame regulates the degree of our conformity with norms and expectations within the family, social groups and broader society – the degree to which we follow our conscience.

From a sociological point of view, we are not solely responsible for our sense of shame, as it is a function of the social and cultural expectations placed upon us. As a sociocultural phenomenon closely bound up with identity and social recognition in context with cultural beliefs and taboos, it remains ever relevant as a topic.



Even in today’s age, taboos and behavioral biases are operative in many areas of our lives: aging, death, mental illness, ethnicity, sexuality, menstruation, menopause ... to name a few. While breaking taboos can lead to intense feelings of shame, failing or refusing to do so can in some cases be detrimental to one’s mental or physical health. For example, some people refuse to seek professional or medical help to avoid exposure to feelings of shame, remaining alone with their problems – abuse experiences, alcoholism, joblessness, body image or health issues mental and physical. Shame can be paralyzing, but it can also be converted into anger or pride.



As part of the evolution of societal norms, our sense of what others expect of us changes. Many life practices, core beliefs and taboos around gender roles, age, health, aesthetics, relationships and other areas are now in a process of renegotiation. This process is in fact accelerating as our culture becomes progressively inter-networked, and thus increasingly fast-paced. Instances of shaming may be taken up as a societal issue of public debate, and when this happens, what once was shame can be transformed into pride or anger within mere months. Within the past five to ten years, several such cases have been seen, including the body shaming/body positivity, gay pride and now period pride movements. And new in-group/out-group phenomena are emerging all the time now in today’s modern age of digitalization and social media discourse.

"Shame can be paralyzing, but it can
also be converted into anger or pride




Taboos are being addressed today through the retelling of narratives and positive encoding. Intimacy boundaries are being erased on social media, and today there are omnichannel services offering 24/7 advice on taboo topics, around skin or sexuality, for example. The business sector has become engaged as some companies have taken a clear stance to support voices being heard. There are inherent tensions around taboos, thus brands must navigate very carefully in working with the cultural narratives currently in play, until such time as normalization sets in of the issue concerned, inaugurating broad societal acceptance.



Breaking aesthetic taboos
We see intimacy boundaries eroding on social media, as the sharing of personal matters and private-life photos becomes the norm. The taboos around these behaviors are diminishing, and part of this is how such sharing, when done judiciously, holds up a mirror in a certain sense, allowing the viewer to come to him or her own realizations without preaching. The normalization process is also furthered by aesthetic coding of taboos and retelling of the attendant narratives.



Omnichannel services
Today everything is 24/7 and everybody is reachable at any time – even on an intimate level. Taboos are now the business model of highly successful start-ups, especially ones around skin and sexuality. These services may help eliminate trips to doctor, for instance, or enable better communication with professionals and peers without leaving one’s couch, affording a protected and intimate setting.



Corporate philosophy
Businesses that offer products or services that make a cultural statement need to take a clear stand, especially where a taboo area is concerned. And that can mean owning identity as an in-group party directly affected, rather than appearing as an organization with mere affinity or sympathy with such parties. To achieve this level of credibility, the entrepreneurs must themselves have a similar story which they tell from personal experience ("The Tampon book" from the Female Company as example).


In women’s health and elsewhere, cultural codes are changing. Once dubiously referred to as “Eve’s curse”, today the menstruation cycle is portrayed aesthetically as something natural with a shift from codes around hygiene and obligation toward ones of pleasure and ‘intimate wellness’. Once negatively cast as the ‘close of femininity’, today menopause is celebrated as a rite of passage into a new life phase.



Feminine cycles in a natural aesthetic.
A shift is clearly apparent away from the old coding around “Eve’s curse” toward a positive conception of the menstruation cycle, along with all other facets of femininity and phases of a woman’s life. In terms of product characteristics, naturalness and a less-invasive quality are coming to the fore.



From hygiene and obligation to pleasure and intimate wellness.
Female pleasure has always been taboo. In recent years, however, intimate hygiene has become increasingly associated with sensuality and sexuality through sensual imagery around intimate pleasure.



Menopause: NOT the close of femininity.
Gen X is a generation of doers – not of shrinking violets. Gen X women are now entering menopause, and they have no intention of giving up their energy, mobility or sexuality, accepting incontinence, vaginal dryness and depression instead. Alongside the new products needed, there must be new and inclusive narratives.



The cultural shifts outlined above reveal how our society has developed a desire for change of a progressive and fluid nature. There remain many hurdles to be overcome however, as has ever been the case ... with feminism, LGBTQ and equal rights movements generally. These powerful resistance movements are all focused on combating shame and loss of dignity. Disrespecting human dignity and treating others as inferior is wrong, and yet it is a tactic used with great success by the power elite, a privileged minority, to manipulate popular sentiment. That is why historically shaming has only been overcome when individuals band together in solidarity, breaking out of emotional isolation to organize as a major societal group.

Processes of societal change can then occur as people realize that many others face the same situation and feel the same way. And we easily take for granted the ways in which we benefit today from people engaging together in social activism. Shame has its complexities however, as it can have positive aspects, in that it can also lead to much-needed moral correction or revision of norms. Yet despite this double-edged nature, the awareness is important that the behavioral controlling shaming is aimed at is in many cases misguided.



For further reading on the subject please refer to "Von Körperscham zu Period Pride. Eine visuelle Analyse" (GER) an article by Jennifer Jordan and Karolina Braun.

Images: Hide | Shame | Pride by jacoblund | Skin | Einhorn by Verena Brandt



Author: Europa Bendig

STURMundDRANG founder and General Manager Europa Bendig has been consulting on innovation processes for NGOs and international enterprises for 18 years, primarily in the luxury goods, health, services, beauty, living and social businesses. She specializes in cultural codes and narratives that give brands and portfolios cultural relevance and promote customer loyalty.


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