A Cryin’ Shame

by Gabrielle Sierra

You are frustrated during an argument and suddenly find yourself crying. Now you feel an added layer of emotion: shame. You are angry at your body for betraying your inner angst and furious with yourself for looking fragile. All the while a male counterpart is awkwardly attempting to console you and just making the whole thing worse.

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We have all been there time and time again. Because guess what? Women cry more than men. In fact, according to science we cry a lot more than men. In the book Why Only Humans Weep, scientist Ad Vingerhoets writes that women cry an average of 30 to 64 times a year, while men cry about 6 to 17 times a year. That is a big difference, and one that would seemingly imply that it isn’t super out of the ordinary to see a woman shed a tear or two.

So if we all do it, why do we still feel like there is a shame in crying? The answer is undeniably built into our social interactions from a very young age.

As children we are taught to associate crying with weakness and the need for help. Babies cry when they are uncomfortable or hungry: basic needs that cannot be satisfied without help from adults. As we get older we learn to satiate our own needs; we get water when we are thirsty, we wear a coat if we are cold. Crying becomes something that is seen as an option, rather than an impulse, and the people we see crying in films and on television are women. Women in distress, women who have been scorned, women who are afraid.

As a result we associate not crying with strength and masculinity. People who cry a lot are told to “man-up” and those who show fear or distress are told to have some “balls.” This generalization stretches so far that it goes in the opposite direction as well; women or girls who don’t cry at sad films or during emotional life moments are often deemed to be cold or robotic..

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Ultimately it is a very confusing message to receive from a very young age. We are expected to cry, but when we do cry we are deemed to be weak. We are expected to be the emotional ones in relationships, yet expected to control these same emotions at work, the place where we spend a large portion of our days.

Most of all it is confusing and frustrating to have to defy the biological factors that cause women to cry more often than men.

One of these biological elements is a pretty simple one; the size and depth of female tear ducts. Multiple studies have shown that women’s tear ducts are actually shorter and shallower than men’s tear ducts, and are therefore more likely to overflow. This would mean that although men may well up, the chances of them actually showing any tears are smaller.

And as with many of our body-related woes, we can also thank our hormones. Dr. Jodi J. De Luca, a licensed clinical psychologist whose research focuses on emotion, behavior, and relationships, says that since our female bodies are “genetically programmed to give life,” we are chock full of extra hormones. Hormones men do not have.  

“These hormones also affect our thought, emotion, and behavior,” says De Luca. “So, whether we like it or accept it or not, many women would report that they are more emotionally vulnerable – and cry more – for a certain period of time before their period.”

(Not to mention during your period, or while pregnant or going through menopause.)

Testosterone, on the other hand, may actually inhibit crying, giving men the chance to feel sadness or frustration but not have it manifest itself in large drops rolling down their cheeks. In this way men can sidestep being called “emotional”.  

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In the end the only way our feelings of shame associated with crying will change is when we see tears as a normal biological function. Much like someone sweating when they get nervous or shaking when they are afraid, crying is something normal and (for the most part) healthy.

So next time you run to cry in a bathroom stall at work, or fight back tears during an emotional argument with a coworker, consider the upside of female tears: women feel more comfortable crying in front of friends and loved ones, an intimacy and experience most men do not share. Additionally, a “good cry” can not only be therapeutic and cathartic, but it can be healthy. Lastly, more tears for frustration or sadness also means more tears for joy, and crying because you are happy is one of the best feelings.

Most importantly of all, consider the power of your tears and attempt to harness this embarrassment for good. As our human compass Tina Fey wrote in her book Bossypants, “Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”