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.

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9 thoughts on “De-Shaming Female Bodies, Reclaiming Female Power

  1. Thanks for this post. It felt good to read. I am often concerned that messages about body shame actually serve to shift shame into fear. As if we can defend ourselves against shame by denying our sexuality or not trusting men. Being a sexual woman while still being respected by ourselves and others is a challenge, but a challenge worth taking. I prefer to keep the focus on strength, and our right to be respected.

    • Thank you so very much for your thoughtful comment. I honestly had not thought about it that way, but I think you are absolutely right. I think so many women never access their sexuality fully as a defense against just this type of shaming. Indeed fear can distract us from being fully sexual beings as well. Look at the poor woman who wished to testify before congress about her need for birth control – public shaming. I could see that subconsciously causing other women to focus less on their sexual needs and desires, or at the very least not be public about them. Thank you so much for your comment, it is my first intelligent non-spam comment (not from someone I know). Thanks for taking the time and thanks so much for your interest in Undercover in the Suburbs! Hope to hear from you again!

  2. I’m starting this with a disclaimer because I am about to critisize the above post. What i want to assert first is that I do not intend disrespect: i’m not looking to come in and kick up dirt, make noise, and put people down. I’m looking to lodge my disagreements and maybe get a discussion going :-).

    I’ve been working my way through you blog, in part because i’m curious (i’m a pretty hetero-normative male) about what you have to say, and in part because i have… unclassifiable friends and I desire to understand them better. I’ve enjoyed for the most part: things are well written and approachable and there’s lots of stimulating thought to be had. However… this post threw me for a loop, and I’m betting you can guess which part:

    “sexism may stem from men’s terror with the immensity of women’s power”. I’ll admit, I have not read Second Sex, so maybe this is more sensible with the context it was intended to have, but as I lack that. Really? It’s not, you know, because children are often mean-spirited, bodily functions are gross, and it’s a personal thing and thus a nice heavy rock to throw at another kid’s head for amusement and social profit? Kids dont tease each other about farts because they fear the body’s ability to produce gas. They do it because bodily functions are gross and children like to put each other down.

    Male children have a similar experience with erections and wet dreams. Some boys have the moxie to swing this as a good, positive thing (rare, but I knew a boy that managed to convince people his wet dreams were a sign of his OBVIOUS manliness and physical superiority), but most do not and are subjected to taunts and teases from their peers about all manner of bizarre things. Heck, grown men still struggle with erections. If a man walked around the office with an obvious bulge in his pants, he would at best be asked to cover it up, and at worst be ridiculed and given un-original nicknames to cut him down for other’s amusement. In some situations, some colleagues might even go so far as to brand him a pervert and he could risk his job if his boss was that much of a stickler.

    I’ll buy that there is an inherent amount of cultural shame involved in sex and bodily functions, but this is inherent to ALL bodily functions and is not particular female or male processes. By extension, it becomes very unreasonable then that this is a power issue, and more just that our society is not comfortable with publicly discussing the wide variety of messy, smelly, and (honestly) unhygienic things our bodies do.

    • Hi, and thanks for your interest in my blog, and thoughtful post. I am eager to hear feedback from my readers, both positive and negative. I do think it’s difficult to some up the argument I was making in the passage you cite in one sentence (which is, admittedly, what I tried to do). I think what’s more critical to the points I’m trying to make in this post is that the cultural shame around female bodies is different, and inherently misogynistic. I don’t disagree with you that shame around male bodies and bodily functions exists, but I think there is additional shame for females that is directly related to gender. I am not saying that elementary school kids are consciously aware of that when they make the comments they make, but I do think the attitudes of the large society color the way children respond to events and to each other. For example, I was given the message in my family that getting my period was uncomfortable and should not be discussed. If a lot of kids were getting that message, they would be more likely to treat others who got their periods with shame, and be ashamed themselves (which makes it easier for others to put you down), as opposed to if those kids’ parents were having a family cupcake party when they got their periods, for example. Right at this very moment in history we are experiencing a fascinating example of the cultural ambivalence about women’s sexuality and whether women should be having sex for pleasure or merely reproduction. The attempted restrictions on access to birth-control and slut-shaming of women who argue for the right to birth control are not about discomfort with bodily functions in general. They are about discomfort with women’s sexual agency. I don’t think men are subject to the same kind of scrutiny about their sexual lives. It is kind of assumed that they have sexual agency, and our culture seems comfortable with the idea that they want sex, not just for reproduction, and they should have access to things that help them do that like condoms, viagra, etc. Yes, erections can be embarrassing for young boys, but I don’t see that embarrassment as connected to a deeper level of cultural shame mixed messages about their sexuality, just a mild baseline level of embarrassment around puberty that both boys and girls would experience in a culture in which so much shame did not surround women’s sexuality. I’m not going to say more about the Second Sex reference because it’s kind of beyond the scope of this discussion, but I’m hoping I still clarified some things. You may still disagree, which is, of course, your right. I love the fact that my blog can be a place to have these discussions – a big part of the reason I’m doing this is to learn about myself, and to learn from others, so I am absolutely open to any ideas you wish to throw out. Thanks again for your interest.

      • Glad to see my comments were received well/i didnt make a jerk of myself.

        I suppose you’re probably correct about increased levels of bodily shame for women nationwide, after all, I only went to one school district, but we experienced a lot more male shame than girl shame (or else i was oblivious to it). My sisters are very vocal about this kind of stuff so I doubt it.

        Also cannot disagree with you about sexual agency across the sexs. There’s a saying that goes “If your daughter sleeps with the whole football team, you throw her out. If your son sleeps with the whole cheerleading squad, you buy him a car.” Whether you say it ironic, in culture disgust, or seriously (never met someone who has…), it does ring somewhat true all the same.

        My issue was purely with the idea that sexism is based on men’s fear of a womans power to create life, and where you went with that idea from there. My view is kind off the beaten track given I was raised in a medical family (all my aunts are nurses, my mother is an ER unit tech, my father is a nurse, several doctor uncles…), so our treatment of periods and erections occured way before public education and read more like an anatomy textbook than a story about birds and bees. And we were given both sides of the story too. It was treated on the same level as blowing one’s nose or using the toilet. Namely that “It happens, dont bring it up in polite company, and wash your hands when you’re done to stop the spread of disease.” I was discussing this topic this morning with a feminist friend of mine infact, and she remarked that my stance that periods were “just another bodily function” was “egalitarian” and quite at odds with the rest of the world. There really isnt any ‘shame’, but it’s not throwing cupcake parties for periods either (which I think might be a little overboard).

        What bothers me about it is that I can’t fathom how it could be true, and thus arming children with this is in a way dishonest and potentially harmful. I’m a real stickler for truth (and maybe their is no truth here, or that it’s far too subjective to quantify), but as we’ve both pointed out, the statement is standing alone and without the exposition and context meant to support it, so perhaps I should just track it down and see how it digests.

        • Hi Critical Cat – of course you did not make a jerk of yourself, your comments have been perfectly respectful. I’m very eager for honest dialogue on this site, so please speak your mind! That’s great that your family was able to present bodies/bodily functions in a non-shaming way. It sounds like your feminist friends agrees, though, that your experience was outside the norm. The idea that sexism stems, in part, from men’s fear of women’s power as child-bearers is an unconventional one for sure. The contradiction that man feels at having been born and having to die gets projected onto the mother who takes the blame for both. Thus woman as mother is both hated and loved and individual mothers are hopelessly caught in the contradiction. This doubled and contradictory operation appears in all feminine myths, thus forcing women to unfairly take the burden and blame for existence. This is from a description of one small aspect of The Second Sex, a massive existentialist work packed full of feminist goodies. I don’t think I was really talking about “arming children” with these ideas, but rather, whatever the causes of misogyny and female-shaming in the culture, those ideas are inevitably passed down to, and in many cases acted out by children, whose developmental “job” is to practice the adult behavior they see modeled.

        • Wow, I forget what a strange subculture I live in. Periods are ever seen as anything but a bodily function? What? Why? Don’t you just teach kids anatomy and how that stuff all works ahead of time and how to put pads in their panties and that sometimes you can get cramps and that ibu and hot water helps? For boys, anatomy again erections and ejaculation and wet dreams..I read a blog where this poor guy thought he broke his penis because his parents didn’t tell him about puberty. I thought that was just for creepy religious freaks and neglectful parents.

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