Think of a tough situation you’ve been in. Go through all that went into that situation—other people, circumstances, your whole experience.
Did you deserve it? What would it feel like to have a stranger tell you, simply, that you did?
This is a judgment call we make about others constantly. We see this at play when it’s assumed sexual assault survivors somehow provoked their attack, or that those living in poverty somehow mismanaged their lives. These inaccurate, oversimplified, and harmful assumptions are what allow injustice and inequality to persist.
At the root of it all are age-old, antiquated stigmas that still persist in our culture today. When we dismantle these stigmas, we get closer to a society that truly allows people to succeed. And although that may seem like a big task—and to be fair, it is—the route to getting there is actually pretty direct. It begins with compassion.
The Impossible Hoops
Stigma is the process of branding another person, group, or circumstance with shame. It’s a powerful phenomenon, and it’s meant to be.
As Juan J. Lopez-Ibor Jr., a renowned Spanish psychiatrist, wrote in World Psychiatry, stigma was originally about human survival. It helped us mark sources of danger, and ensured that the mark was permanently etched in our collective memory. If we all knew the mark, we were safe from the danger.
But misapplied, stigma is a destructive force that can be exploited for personal gain. Throughout history, harmful stigmas have been attached to innate or arbitrary traits, like skin color, gender, citizenship, sexual history, or income. None of these traits makes a person inherently “good” or “bad.” Yet stigma allows those in positions of power and privilege to make these shallow assumptions, marking them as deserving of their stigma. It’s a strategy intentionally used to condone negative attitudes, and perpetuate hate and injustice. We saw this when Jewish people were stigmatized by the Nazis, when women were stigmatized during the Salem Witch Trials, and when Japanese Americans were put in internment camps.
To make matters more complex, stigmas are like getting caught in a bear trap – the harder you fight to free yourself, the more damage you can cause. As Lopez-Ibor Jr. puts it, “efforts to remove the mark [by the stigmatized person] will lead to make it more prominent and to acquire other negative elements.”
It’s setting up a series of impossible hoops to jump through—a game that you’re bound to lose.
The Feminine Stigma
So much of the stigma that women face is tied to our reproductive health. For two centuries, the word “hysteria”—which describes a state of unstable emotional excess—was a term used solely to describe women. After all, the root of this word, hystera, is Greek for “uterus.” And in all those years women haven’t been able to outrun the false characterization—politicians, religious extremists, and even perfect strangers question our ability to make decisions, especially about our own bodies, and foster stigmas to control and devalue women.
Last December, a Reddit thread called “I think my pharmacist tries to publicly shame me when picking up my birth control pills” blew up with women’s experiences at their local pharmacies. Stories of employees lecturing women about being on birth control or calling out the type of prescription loudly in an attempt to embarrass them—which is a violation of patient privacy laws—filled the thread.
For a stigmatized person, everyone is an expert on your life except you. Stigmatization is about making issues black and white—not acknowledging that as human beings, we’re often somewhere in between, so much more complex than our stigmatized traits.
To dismantle stigmas perpetuated about women’s health and reproductive rights—and stigmas impacting all groups, individuals, and circumstances—we have a lot of work to do. It begins with compassion. Not the kind that is rooted in pity or sympathy—the kind that exists between human beings who are open to learning, loving, and understanding each other.
To have compassion means we need to unravel the harmful myths that exist and be honest about the bitter lies that have dominated our society and beliefs, sometimes for thousands of years. To dismantle stigmas, those who are privileged—in capacities large or small—need to question what’s really behind the stigmas we cast on others. We have a choice in whether or not stigmas stay in our collective memory. When we choose compassion, stigma cannot survive.