Taboos Which Must Be Named

Reading The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling easily represents taboos and how we can deal with them by, well, not dealing with them. The fear the animals have of fire leads them to use the term “Red Flower” in naming it. “No creature in the Jungle will call fire by its proper name. Every beast lives in deadly fear of it, and invents a hundred ways of describing it.” It shows the very human quality of avoiding taboo subjects and disguising them with language; avoiding openness and discussion by running away and pretending it doesn’t exist.


We do this every day, probably without realising. In so many contexts we will consider certain words or phrases inappropriate or somewhat terrifying and will replace such a word or phrase with, essentially, others we deem “less scary or threatening.” Upon googling “taboo” I found lots of definitions and many name taboo activities as “improper” or “forbidden”, and yet we extend this meaning, so much of the time, to allow for us to treat taboo activities as “improper to talk about.”

Depression. Death. Cancer. Prostate cancer. Suicide. STIs. Rape. Alzheimer’s. Anorexia. 

There are other topics we have made taboo to talk about that immediately sprung to mind and yet I cringed too much to write them- and here is our problem. If we are treating subjects as so terrifying or embarrassing that we can’t even have a discussion about them, how can we possibly decrease the daily suicides that take place across the world/raise awareness about diseases/make all of those affected by mental health issues know they can speak out and get help? We make subjects such as depression, death and cancer taboo because we feel like they are forbidden to discuss openly.

I recently read Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig; a book that is so important. It is about his struggle with depression and so much in between. Mental health is so stigmatised and far too ignored. In the book, he says how mental health is treated differently to other illnesses because we can’t see it- we wouldn’t tell someone whose leg is on fire to just keep smiling, so how can we tell someone with mental health issues to deal with it? So much of the problem is the awareness that needs to be spread. And we can only spread awareness if we start talking about it instead of flushing red and ignoring the issue altogether!

The Harry Potter series serves as a brilliant example of how our enforcement of taboos relates directly to emotions such as fear, and even a defeatist attitude! So many characters in Harry Potter refuse to use “Voldemort” in talking about the Dark Lord. Instead they call him “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” In giving dark, evil and powerful people or things this so taboo we can’t talk properly about it status, we are handing over such a significant portion of power back to them. If we refuse to talk without honesty and reservation with regards to topics such as rape, suicide and death, we are on our way to winning as a society. We must have a constant, open discussion about these kinds of topics- with everyone involved.

Although many taboos refer to an action that is illegal/prohibited, humankind put their own label on many of these same actions and others too. I think there are worldwide taboos and then what could be taboo for one person might not be taboo for the next. Taboos even differ across cultures. Through language and actions we see how taboos can relate directly to peoples’ views and fears. Although lots of actions are taboo, we shouldn’t “taboo” our talking of them.

Ignorance plays such a big and terrible part that we will all be guilty of in different ways. Despite the fact that as a female I feel privileged and have rarely felt limited because of my gender, I still experience sexism (that age-old taboo). And equally as important, so does any male I know. And all of this must be addressed- through speaking and not being scared of saying, “Woah, that’s not cool; don’t do that” and taking action. All in the same breath we need to speak for the women and men around the world who can’t or don’t. For the women who have no or little chance at an education; for the staggeringly higher percentage of boys and men who commit suicide across the world (while remembering the girls and women too!); for the men who are raped and then don’t feel they can speak out about it; for the change of this ridiculous “mould” men and women are supposed to fit into: to be masculine, a man should be muscly and to be feminine, a woman must be slim. If we refuse to understand about topics we don’t know about or remain ignorant to what so many people are going through (just because it doesn’t affect us), we are segregating so many people and choosing to ignore the struggles that take place across the world.

Treating so many subjects as “unspeakable” can only be damaging. It doesn’t matter what country you think of, sexuality is an “un-sorted” topic. That the process of “coming out” even exists does upset me- if our families/societies/country/world really realised that homosexuality is as “normal” as heterosexuality, we wouldn’t need this “coming out” process in the first place. I want generations to come to see homosexuality as unsurprising as heterosexuality. And yet daily, people are suffering because of the far too many people who just won’t realise that their views are wrong. Homosexuality must still be a tabooed topic since across cultures, people suffer daily just because they are being themselves.

From avoiding discussing The Red Flower explicitly to stunting the process of the world talking in order to improve global issues, we are simply encouraging evil to triumph over good. Talking about symptoms of illnesses, giving advice on where to go when suffering and discussing death in a healthier way can only bring comfort- ease the fear. I am no expert on these topics I have named as taboo; these many topics we fear talking about. Or don’t want to talk about at all. Ultimately these subjects affect us entirely differently at an individual level, but one thing we can all do is spread awareness in whatever way to make for a better tomorrow!

~ Kat ~


6 thoughts on “Taboos Which Must Be Named

  1. Mr Mill says:

    We should certainly be able to talk about any topic, even if it leads to different views being expressed.
    Talking openly is good and healthy.


  2. itsjustjodie says:

    This is so relevant in today’s society. We are literally raising generations of people in fear of what goes on inside their own heads. I loved your references to different books as well by the way x


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