De-Shaming Female Bodies, Reclaiming Female Power

Me, Only FIVE Months Pregnant with the Twins

I was bullied just about every day in the fifth grade, and much of sixth and seventh too.  I was bullied about everything you can imagine, and most of it made no sense whatsoever.  I was called “fish face,” and “nobody,” accused of “wearing diapers,” told I smelled, and that my pants were too short.  In junior high there was even a creative group of boys who would follow me around singing “flooooooooooood” as low as their little pre-pubescent voices could muster.  The genius thought-process behind that was that my short pants indicated I was, “waiting for a flood.”

You would think I might have taken comfort in the fact that these jabs actually had nothing to do with me.  Ok, my fashion sense wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t like they were calling me dumb or ugly or anything that would indicate a permanent flaw.  I was even a little chubby.  Now THAT was something I could have done something about… but for whatever reason, they didn’t go there.  For me, the inexplicable nature of their mockery just made it all the more maddening.  If my face didn’t look like a fish, and I didn’t “wear diapers” and I didn’t stuff my bra, as they vehemently insisted, then their viciousness was utterly beyond my control.

It’s amazing how memory is encoded so clearly and permanently when the emotional parts of our brain, particularly those associated with fear, are engaged.  I don’t remember my fifth grade teacher’s name.  I can’t recall what my school looked like, or anything specific I learned that year.  What I can see clearly in my mind’s eye is the bathroom in which I un-wrapped a maxi pad at school for the first time.  The blue-green-gray stall.  The radiator hissing.  The open window.  The still-oppressive heat.   The door opening, and the shiver that ran up my spine as a face peeked under the stall door to inspect the sneakers of the person opening that wrapper.

I got my period early, especially for back then.  It was a week after my 11th birthday.  My mother noticed some spotting on my underwear and told me I would probably get my period soon.   Sadly she didn’t include an explanation of what that was.  She simply bought some pads and gave them to me.  I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I just knew I felt ashamed.

It did not help when at school that day the kids were on the war path, trying to figure out whether me or the other poor soul wearing the same sneakers was the girl who had gotten her period.  It never occurred to me at the time how curious it was that little miss tell-all, sneaker-inspector had an uncanny knowledge of the sound of a maxi pad wrapper being opened.  For her, for me, and for everyone in that class, however, the message was clear, female bodies, female sexuality, female-ness was shameful.   I was one of the first to develop physically and one of the first to experience being punished by both the girls and boys for becoming less boy-like (albeit against my will).

Last January two perfect, live, human beings were removed from my abdomen after they had been created there, nurtured, and thrived for 7 ½ months, growing from microscopic to almost 5 pounds each.  In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir suggests sexism may stem from men’s terror with the immensity of women’s power, and their tremendous discomfort with the knowledge that they were created in a women’s body and only exist as a result.  I have to wonder if those little boys and girls were communicating a cultural discomfort with women’s power, women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality.  The message was keep this hidden, experience it as shameful, rather than celebrate this, express this, experience it as powerful.  In my case, my parents’ discomfort with my going through puberty only reinforced these messages.

I think for every woman there is a moment of cognitive dissonance when your experience of the strength and power of your body and soul becomes so incredibly out of sync with these cultural messages that one has to replace that shame with awe.  I have been a feminist since high school.  I was a Women’s Studies major.  By college I was already encouraging others to embrace their sexuality and resist messages of shame.  But it is one thing to protest these messages in theory, it is another to watch a human being be lifted out of one’s abdomen.  It is another to view a sound-generated image of two tiny beings huddled together inside of one’s body, and yet another to hear those two precious hearts beating and realize holy shit… HOLY SHIT, they are ALIVE!


Twin Heads

For some women it is feeding another being with your own body.  For some, it is the pain endured through childbirth, through breastfeeding, or through painful fertility procedures.   For others, it is the moment when a 14 month-old shrieks in your ear at a decibel level that literally obliterates brain cells, while pulling your hair and scratching your face and eyes, and you respond lovingly and patiently.  For still others, it is surviving mastectomy and finding a way to still love one’s body, finishing a marathon while enduring horrible menstrual cramps, or having the courage to hold a dying friend’s hand and be present with her until the very end.

For me, it was last month.  My hormones still off balance from my miscarriage, I was standing in my shower bleeding what felt like buckets of blood and thick, bundled clots.   As I stood there thinking, ‘I will survive this,’ my mind was suddenly filled with all the other things I’d survived:  the shaming, the crippling cramps, the wishing my breasts would disappear, the infections, vulvodynia, and all the other vaginal drama, sex in all its permutations, pleasures, and confusions, carrying my mother through cancer and death, being told I would never conceive, fighting, and fighting harder, the pregnancy, three months of bed rest, childbirth, the first four months with twins, the miscarriage… and now this.

Moments later, still dripping from the shower, my hair soaked, having had time to put nothing on except a Depends adult diaper, I would pass out on my bathroom floor.  I would wake up to find my nanny and two male police officers staring at my almost-naked body, still rolling with baby fat, my breasts drooping, my stretch marks showing, sporting a grown-up sized diaper… but there would not be a shred of shame!  I was powerful.  Incredibly powerful.  I would survive this… and anything else.

So when my daughter begins to bleed, you better believe we will celebrate her power and her strength, not because my son is not powerful or special – it is not an either or thing – but because my daughter is.  Her body holds the power of the entire universe, every cell in every living thing on this planet.  And you better believe when I send her off to school that day I will tell her to hold her head high.  It won’t matter whether she tells anyone at school what’s happened or not.  What will matter is that she holds onto her power, and shields herself from shame.

Copyright 2012  All Rights Reserved.

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Sex… It’s Not All Good

It’s amazing to me in a culture that is so sexually saturated that we are still so bad at sex.  We’re bad at talking about it, and we’re bad at having it.  We are, however, really, really good at watching unrealistic portrayals of it in movies and on television.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are so bad at it.  It’s much the same as seeing stick thin models everywhere you look while our culture suffers a serious obesity problem.  If the cultural ideals are completely unattainable, our response is likely to be “eh, fuck it, pass the soda and chips.”

If you don’t have a different, more realistic ideal for yourself, you’re kind of stuck with giving up all together.  I, for one, used to be about 20-30 pounds heavier.  It wasn’t that I was satisfied with my weight and just accepted it, because that would have been fine.  I was never satisfied and always felt bad about myself.  I just had no idea that it was actually possible for me to be thin.  No one had taught me how to do it.  I hadn’t seen anyone else in my life do it in a way that seemed workable for me.  About three years ago, however, I educated myself in a variety of ways, and completely changed my lifestyle.  I lost weight in a slow, healthy way, and kept it off.

Since I began a postdoctoral program in sex therapy (an additional certification above and beyond my doctorate in psychology), I feel like the same thing has started to happen with sex.  It’s not that I ever really thought I was good at sex, I just didn’t know what to do about it.  It turned out there were obvious things I could do to make it way better.  A lot of jargon gets kicked around out there about sex, but we don’t necessarily know what it means or how to do it.  Foreplay, for example.  Most men and women will agree or at least think they are supposed to agree that “foreplay is important,” particularly for women to get off.  Well I always knew that.  And I thought I was doing it.  I really had no idea how much or how long was needed, though.  I would just wait until I was wet and then move on to intercourse or oral sex, partially because I was thinking my partner might lose his erection if I waited too long.

Interestingly, lubrication is not a sign that a woman is aroused enough for intercourse.  It is only a sign that she is beginning to become aroused.  Who knew.  Just because you can slide the penis in without a major issue, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time.  Same goes for oral sex.  Keep on going with the foreplay long after you think you might be ready – keep going until there is not a shred of doubt you’re ready.  The payoff is, after all that, you will cum a lot faster (happy partner).  And for those of you who don’t cum easily or at all, you will be way more likely to.

About that fear that a guy will lose his erection, it is actually normal for a man’s erection to soften and harden numerous times during a sexual encounter.  I was amazed to learn the “once it’s gone it’s gone” theory is totally wrong.  Of course if once it’s gone all partners involved become totally anxious that it’s gone, than it probably will be gone for good.

It’s amazing how easily we humans give up, at so many things.  Since starting my sex therapy training, I’ve seen so many couples who, after things started to go wrong sexually, just gave up… for years.  There are solutions to so many problems out there in the world, but so often we are more likely to stick to what we know and not seek them out.  In the area of sex, it’s probably worse than anywhere else, because we don’t talk to each other.

If every man with erectile dysfunction talked to his male friends about his erectile dysfunction, there would be very few men left with erectile dysfunction.  Most people don’t even know sex therapists exist, and yet we are equipped with a whole array of strategies to help with performance problems, low desire, sexual pain issues, and almost any sexual problem you can think of.  But honestly, if we talked to each other more about sex, sex therapists probably wouldn’t even be that needed.

Most of my clients can’t trade notes on curing depression, processing trauma, or solving other marital problems and alleviate the need for therapy.  Nor would I have been able to address my own anxiety just by chatting up my friends.  But we could be saying to each other “it’s okay if you lose your erection temporarily,” and “when we say foreplay, we mean like a very, very slow build, not shoving your tongue in someone’s mouth, removing their pants, fingering them for a minute, and then beginning intercourse or oral sex.”

So people, if you’re out there, and I know you are.  If you are not having sex at all, having bad sex, or avoiding painful sex, find a certified sex therapist.  Don’t be afraid, they are trained to make you feel comfortable and will conduct themselves with the utmost professionalism.  And for the rest of you, consider how much better your sex could be.  Educate yourself.  Read The Guide to Getting in On.  Watch porn.  Read erotica, or any number of sex books and blogs that will spice things up and teach you an infinite number of tricks.  Your partner(s) will thank you and you will too!

Copyright 2012,  All Rights Reserved.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Lyla Cicero

Baby Brain Made Me Do It (True Mommy Confessions II)

If I wasn’t a person with unusually high self-control who tends toward over-thinking and extreme caution, I’m quite sure I would have left my husband or at least be cheating on him by now, and my only excuse would be “baby brain.”

What is “baby brain?”  Before having children, I would often hear new moms referring to “baby brain,” mostly when they were forgetful.  I read that mothers actually lose brain cells in the more logical, memory –oriented parts of the brain and gain them in areas related to emotion and instinct during pregnancy.    But it wasn’t until after my babies were born and I was well into severe sleep disruption that I had my first full-scale encounter with “baby brain.”  For me it was an awkward sense of being unable to think.  The only comparison I can make is with feeling like you can’t breathe.  It is only when we feel short of breath for some reason that you are suddenly aware of trying to breath.   I would have the distinct sensation of having to actually try to think, usually with poor results.

It was particularly apparent in the area of memory.  I could only hold onto a thought for a few seconds, and then it would just be gone.  I would be aware of some mental empty space, but I just couldn’t get it back.  I would think, ‘I need to clean the bottles.’  I would lose it.  Then I would go through the same mental process I had just gone through in the first place.    The babies are crying, it’s feeding time, they must be hungry, there are no clean bottles, I need to clean the bottles.  Then I would lose it again and start all over.

For months I blamed this on the cognitive deficits that have been well documented in the sleep deprived.  Adequate periods of REM sleep are required for the brain to function optimally, and I was sleeping 2-3 hours at a time.

At the end of that sleep deprivation period, I felt my first urge to make a grave error in judgment.  All of a sudden it came over me – the powerful, undeniable urge to buy a house in the town where I grew up (a place I would normally NEVER want to live).  I took it so far, we were under contract before my husband sat me down and got it through my head that we couldn’t afford it.  A few months later the whole incident felt utterly surreal.  I could no longer understand those powerful feelings that left me driving around in tears looking at houses I couldn’t buy while my babies napped in the back seat.

It is now just about a year later, and aside from some temporary bouts of insomnia, my sleep is normal, but my brain is most certainly not.  There was the sex-crazed phase in the fall when I became super-horny.   I then decided I could no longer stand being in the closet, and needed to out myself as a pansexual.   Urges to make grave errors in judgment also continued, including the very strong desire to respond to my husband’s and my marital stress by having an affair with a woman.  In my defense, I did become pregnant again four months ago and miscarried, so my brain has been hit by a double whammy.

So what the heck is going on up there anyway?  Sometimes I think they should make public service commercials to warn women.  “This is your brain…  This is your brain on hormones.”  For me the hormones were like some kind of trippy drug that exaggerates everything.  That combined with having been cooped up for so long, first going through a nightmare infertility situation, then pregnancy with twins, bed rest, and childbirth.  All those parts of me that had been hiding out, de-prioritized while all my energy was focused on trying to make my kids, and then trying to keep them alive, were suddenly screaming, ‘Hey, I’m still here!’  Take that cooped up brain and bath it in a cocktail of sexually-charged, impulsivity-driven hormones!  By the time my babies were born I was like a caged animal ready to claw her way toward a martini and a hot piece of ass.

These are the things they don’t tell you.  And it looks different for every mom.  Some have no sex drive at all but experience a burning desire to become a scuba instructor.  Some decide it’s time to follow their lifelong dream of riding motorcycles, or obtaining multiple tattoos.  I’m not saying these urges aren’t real, (I certainly take seriously my desire to be out of the closet), but they are, at the very least, heightened.  How can I be sure whether a given hormone surge is a good trip or a bad one!  I feel all I can do is use caution and wait until I’m certain my brain is back to “normal” before making any sudden moves.

For most moms though, from what I have witnessed, the most dramatic aspects of baby brain, those that might entice us to cheat on our husbands, embezzle money, becomes strippers, etc., go deep underground.  I don’t believe new moms lose their identities simply because they are so wrapped up in their babies.  I think giving up our identities is a reaction to the frightening degree to which our selves are screaming for attention, louder than ever.  Already feeling neglected by the time our babies are born, and driven like motors by brains bathed in hormones, sleep deprived, and perhaps having shifted around some key neurons from the logical to the emotional arena, our brains are screaming for us to be wild.  The screaming is just as loud as the screaming for us to pro-create (screaming that for many of us became deafening somewhere after age 30 to the point where we would have flushed our doctoral degrees down the toilet and eaten our left arms to get pregnant).  The same brains that made us crazy with the desire to parent are now making us crazy with the desire to be everything else we are!

Armed with being an extremely anal, over-controlled person, I found myself able to dabble in real estate transactions and hang out at gay bars fantasizing about lesbian affairs with relative confidence that I wouldn’t do anything I really can’t reverse.  My guess is a lot of other women, who perhaps allow themselves healthier levels of personal freedom, fear these impulses so much that they drown themselves out all together becoming ultra focused on the their babies.  This prevents any problematic mischief from occurring, and has the added benefit of helping us fit the societal image of the devoted mother who is in a state of complete bliss in early motherhood.  Thus, we can squelch temptation at a time when society is telling us we should be desperate to rock our babies to sleep, not desperate to run out of the house dressed like a hooker with a flask hidden in our bang-me boots.

There is one aspect of baby brain I have not yet touched upon.  Dissociation is a clinical term related to trauma.  When human beings experience trauma, in order to protect ourselves, we split ourselves emotionally into different parts.  The most extreme example would be someone who actually develops alternate personalities that do not remember the trauma.  More simply, anytime you realize you’ve arrived at your destination without having been conscious of the drive there you are dissociating.  In essence one part of the brain does not know what other parts are doing.

Let’s be real people, motherhood is traumatizing.  Yes, it’s natural, the most natural thing in the world.  And yes, it’s traumatizing.  Ask women to tell the stories of their attempts to get pregnant, their pregnancies, their birth experiences, and the first year with newborns.  Find me the woman who doesn’t relay a single traumatic event.  Then there are the intense feelings and images from our own childhoods that come flooding back in ways we may or may not be aware of.  Finally, simply becoming a mother is a traumatic assault on the self.  Having our lives go from all about us, to all about another being is a massive, jarring alteration of consciousness that even the healthiest among us will be utterly thrown by.

Further, we are offered no cultural context or preparation for this assault on the self.  As we look around, we see other mothers denying, whether consciously or unconsciously, that they are experiencing trauma.  For some, the denial is blatant.  They are experiencing postpartum depression, their marriage is falling apart, they have urges to hit their children, they scream and lose patience, but they show up at play-dates appearing totally fine and together.

For others, the denial is hidden, even to themselves.  They no longer experience a self, thus shielding themselves from the trauma of losing it.  That part of them has been split off, dissociated, and all that is left is the devoted mother part.  These are the mothers who offer the biggest mind-fuck to those poor fools among us who are actually painfully aware of how fucked up we really are right now!  But these women’s selves will re-emerge, and they will do so with a vengeance.  We can only go underground for so long, and imagine the trauma of realizing one has been keeping herself in captivity for one, five, ten, or even twenty years!

So what’s a girl to do?  I used to joke that I wished there was a pill to turn off that insanely powerful part of my brain that suddenly, at 32, informed me that having children, something I’d never wanted, was the most important thing to do in my life.  But there is no pill.  Our brains are sophisticated and complex, but ultimately ruled by instinct.  It is that same survival instinct which makes our neglected selves run wild after the brain finally gets that baby it so desperately desires.  After all, we need that self to be strong and healthy in order to help our babies thrive.

The best we can do is be real with each other.  Let’s be real so that those women whose brains can’t think about anything but baby understand what they are signing on for.  Let’s normalize that “baby brain” is more than just a little forgetfulness.  It is feelings of depression, or wanting to flee, or almost making, or sometimes actually making grave errors in judgment.  Let’s normalize thinking 30 times “I need to make the bottles” but never actually doing it.   Dissociation means literally one part of the brain can’t communicate with another.  Let’s tell each other the truth about messing up with our kids and having to go back and weed out what part of our own baggage made us do it.  Because facing our demons, admitting we are flawed and trying again and again to do better… that is parenting.

If there was space in our cultural and in our collective consciousness for selves that are traumatized, battered, confused, bewildered, and also perhaps more passionate and creative than ever, perhaps we could free those women who have gone underground.  Perhaps we could all find a little more balance.

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