Writer’s Note: Please note that the word “women” in this article is intended to be inclusive of anyone who identifies as a woman, including transgender, gender-fluid, and non-binary individuals.
I have a story about self-deprecation. It’s my written exploration of women and how we poke fun at ourselves, the barriers, and the size of personal ridicule. What does it mean to air our flaws out in a way that’s vigorous and blunt in its delivery merrily because society expects politeness?
A few weeks ago, I woke up in a pile of sheets and a comforter positioned diagonally from a restless sleep. I squinted into the camera of my phone and found myself on social media, scrolling listlessly through dozens of sunrise photos. It was 8:15, so the pink gauze of the morning had fully lifted outside my window. Another day, another sunrise missed. A particularly gorgeous photo of the city waking up rolled under my thumb. I reshared it on my Instagram story with the caption: “I don’t wake up early enough for these incredible sunrises every morning because I’m a pile of garbage so instead I guilt-admire them as I doomscroll during lunch.”
I meant the post to be self-deprecating. A big part of my personality is; being funny gives me relief and lets me feel closer to people and our weird intricacies. As we publicly prance through Instagram, rushing to tidy up our reputation and look more vulnerable, less intimidating. According to Mark R. Leary and research from Arcadia University, self-ridicule is a form of humor we often use for a sense of relief. This behavior can be described as a method your brain uses as it “continuously monitors the social environment for cues regarding the degree to which [you are] accepted versus rejected by other people.” Could we find that being self-deprecating is being self-aware? Has social media become a place we do this more often? Yes, I think so.
After posting on my Instagram story, women reached out to me personally. Most tried to build me up. Some tried to offer advice.
“You are not a pile of trash!”
“Don’t say that about yourself!”
“Here’s what I do to wake up early.”
Worse yet, my intention behind the post wasn’t about looking for someone to feed me compliments and advice. And then, one woman stuck out to me. She wrote, “I really love your writing but I can’t stand how you talk to yourself. You are not a pile of garbage.”
And you know what? Her comment pissed me off.
Why? First, because I felt embarrassed. Her comment sounded like, “I liked you, but now I can’t stand you because you don’t love yourself the way I want you to.” And then, I got angry about how others interpreted my personality. Why can’t I make petty jokes about myself? Why can’t I point out my flaws and laugh through them? Why can’t that be in the form of an insult? And why, when I do, does it affect so many other women?
I often find my aspersion a relief to express. So, is putting myself down good or bad? Am I doing it because I’m trying to take up more space or less?
I know self-deprecation can be bad, of course. This brand of self-awareness is a form of humor based on shame and unworthiness, a tactic women use to turn down compliments or seem less threatening. Self-deprecation is a way we try to shrink ourselves and be polite. I notice this happening when women serve each other compliments.
“I love your dress!”
“Oh, it’s a piece of absolute shit I got on sale at Target.”
That’s (a version of) how a lot of us respond. It’s very Minnesotan of women to try not to take up a lot of oxygen. If you simply tell them it was on sale and you kind of hate it, that means no one can be jealous of you. Diffusing the compliment and saying something shamelessly unfeigned means everyone is equal. Don’t worry ladies, you’re not bothering anybody! (Writer’s Note: Italicized words are my sarcastic font).
However, I often find my aspersion a relief to express. So, is putting myself down good or bad? Am I doing it because I’m trying to take up more space or less? In seeking these answers, I went down a rabbit hole. And I found this tweet from psychologist Adam Grant that reads: “When men make self-deprecating jokes, they’re seen as more capable leaders. When women do it, they’re judged as less capable.”
Someone commented below the tweet, “Self-deprecating humor demonstrates a comfort level with and confidence in who you are even with your faults.” A lightbulb went off between my ears. Perhaps we get frustrated with self-deprecating people because we’re unsure of ourselves. We’ve never been allowed to make fun of ourselves and find the healing in mocking pain. That random woman’s Instagram comment made me feel less capable of merrily making fun of myself to feel better.
But there’s more.
A woman pokes fun at herself, and the jokes signal sadness, jealousy, or incompetence. When men do, a flash of humility and wit shines. Society lets men know themselves well, but women can’t possibly understand themselves fully. Why?
This article, “Making Jokes During a Presentation Helps Men But Hurts Woman” from Harvard Business Review presents interesting experiments and findings. The basis of the piece reiterates research that “suggests that the benefits of humor [in the workplace] do not extend to everyone—women may actually be harmed by using humor at work.” And you know, I think that goes beyond work too.
According to that Harvard Business Review article, men are stereotyped as having something they note as “high achievement orientation” that drives home the idea that men are task accomplished and motivated. Per the article, “These expectations align closely with the functional interpretation of humor.” Women, on the flip side, are stereotyped to have lower ambitions. After all, women take care of the household. How can anything be funny about four walls?
Poking the bear of insecurity is a secret love language, human to human. . . . When we joke about ourselves, it unites us in our flaws.
Things are changing for women, I hope. Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave “Instagram” sketch is a great example of hilarious self-deprecation between women. In the snippet, friends at brunch (including SNL’s Vanessa Bayer) share photos of each other on Instagram. They each create a silly caption, and Vanessa’s character goes overboard. She mistakes one friend’s caption, “brunch with these two dum dums,” as an opportunity to create the most self-deprecating caption ever, which includes one line calling them “bona fide pieces of hog shit.” I laughed so hard I cried. As we all know, self-deprecation between girlfriends is a term of endearment, and the “Instagram” skit was such a valuable representation of that.
And maybe self-deprecation goes beyond self-awareness and how we feel comfortable around our girlfriends. Poking the bear of insecurity is a secret love language, human to human. Jesters in medieval courts would make fun of themselves to amuse kings and queens. When we joke about ourselves, it unites us in our flaws.
For women, self-deprecation can soften how others see us; make us look less jealous and the like (Writer’s Note: I’m not the biggest fan of this part). However, being jesters can let us be loud and take up space. Like most things in life, self-deprecation is a paradox. And if we use it in a way that makes us comfortable I think that’s powerful. We can serve ourselves by being a little ridiculous.
Of course, we shouldn’t overuse the jester character. Too much of anything isn’t healthy or worthwhile. But language is striking and powerful. If we’re able to take ourselves less seriously, figuratively kick down the emotional walls that separate us, we’ll be better for it. I believe in that. I want to laugh at myself. I want to see the positive and negative in self-deprecation, breaking barriers of patriarchal norms (taking up more space) and assuring that I don’t get too comfortable in its safe grasp (being too polite).
Be kind and take up as much space as you need.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.
BY Brittany Chaffee - December 29, 2021
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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
You just reaffirmed me. Thank you. I feel like people think I present like a male with my humor, and it bothers them…and that bothers me.
Hi, Katie! I’m so happy to read this! Here’s to people understanding self-deprecation better when it comes from a woman. And to making a joke every once and a while 😉
I think the article is great and of high value. The thing I want to comment on is your bio. At the end you say, “go hug your Mother.” What is that’s a dangerous thing to do. What if your Mother is utterly crazy and the last thing on earth you should do is hug her. I think you need to notice what that message says to the larger world. When you say that you point out to those of us with deeply mentally ill Mothers how we don’t fit into society. It’s painful.
Glad you brought this up. Some of us had toxic mothers.
This gives me a deep sense of comfort, thanks for writing about it! Some of the most painful moments in friendship for me have been when friends mistook my light-hearted self-deprecation for actual low self esteem. Now I recognize that someone this humorless and uncomfortable with looking directly at our human flaws is probably not a good friend match for me!
This makes me so happy! That’s exactly it – I think women are easily mistaken for having low self-esteem instead of the ladder, simply being comfortable enough to joke around lightly. Human flaws are real and actually hilarious, so I hope things get lighter for your friendships looking at life that way 🙂 Thank you for reading!
My take as 45F is that it’s not about the female / male interpretations of self-deprecation, it’s about tribes and music. Read on, it’ll eventually make [some sort of] sense… So I use self-deprecating humour all the time with males / females at work and at home and for the most part, people get me in part cos they can perceive the humour in my voice. Of course, it’s harder using written form cos the subtleties of tone can be lost however this is the first post of yours I’ve ever read and I don’t know anything about you, yet… Read more »