Coming to Terms with the Female Body

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I didn’t really have body image issues growing up. I just had body issues. I had an adolescent Gnostic dualism about my body — wanting to live in my head as much as possible, and terribly inconvenienced by my physical body.

I’m the kind of person who Googles scientific excuses for why I can’t exercise. (Small lung capacity, it turns out. A genetic problem. Look it up.) I would go whole days without eating because I was lost in a project. Getting sick was the end of the world, because I had little experience dealing with physical ailments — plus, they made thinking and reading and writing impossible. The worst.

Actually, the worst wasn’t the head cold I contracted from time to time or my burning lungs after a quick jog up to class.

It was my reproductive system.

How I hated it.

Long before it was legal, desirable, or safe to make babies, I got hit with monthly bleeding — and along with it, a set of other pleasant symptoms like cramps, passing out, vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and incurable insomnia. And these are normal symptoms. And they come every twenty-eight days (except for when they take a bit longer and you become convinced it’s possible to get pregnant spontaneously).

It’s just a gross, miserable experience that leaves you waddling around in diaper-like pads. Oh, and on top of that, you can’t tell any male when you’re menstruating, so you go to work and pretend you’re fine even though your insides are about to explode. You lose your moral compass completely and make up the most ridiculous lies to explain your aches and lethargy, just so your professor or casual male acquaintance doesn’t have to know it’s your — ahem — time of month.

But even with all that misery, you can’t quite malign Aunt Flo, because at least she assures you you’re not pregnant (a great boost of confidence after scandalously holding your crush’s hand for the first time). Babies are wonderful, of course, in the general sense, but, in the brutally practical sense, not when you’re unemployed, or single, or right after you just spent nine months carrying and then birthing a previous child, or when you’re in your late forties and had made peace with menopause, or when you’ve got chronic illness, or any number of real reasons why carrying or caring for another child would be difficult.

Your body is oblivious to these legitimate reasons, and really, really wants to be pregnant — except for when it doesn’t, and you walk through the hell of infertility and miscarriage (still experiencing menstruation, of course). So you get to choose from a host of expensive or invasive or mood-killing or hormone-altering or not-quite-effective birth control options, none of which suit your complicated reproductive needs.

And then you’ve got to decide on a philosophical defense for why you picked natural or non-natural birth control, lest you feel guilty, which you already do, and then you subconsciously decide on abstinence and mumble that you’re too tired every time he looks at you in bed.

But eventually you do get pregnant, either because your birth control failed or you got a case of the baby fever or you were too excited about sexy times to seriously remember pregnancy.

And then, there’s pregnancy. Morning sickness, heartburn, insomnia, exhaustion, weight gain, etc.

And then comes childbirth — the brilliant idea of squeezing an entire baby through a 10 cm hole via excruciating pain, mangling your lady parts for at least six weeks and changing your body forever.

And if you’re breastfeeding, you’re on call 24/7, and might get mastitis, or cracked nipples, or just a good bite taken out of you when your baby gets feisty.

All of this takes up a huge chunk of a woman’s life. Maternity leave puts careers, hobbies, and relationships on hold. PMS lowers productivity. Pregnancy limits certain activities and tasks. Birth control can complicate a sex life.

This is the normal impact of a woman’s reproductive cycle, not counting all the things that could go wrong with it — anything from skipped periods to maternal death.

Being a woman doesn’t allow one the luxury of Gnostic body/mind dualism. The female body shows up in large, painful ways throughout most of a woman’s life.

To make matters worse, there is no male equivalent of PMS, menstruation, pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding. Men can pursue their intellectual endeavors and ambitions without Aunt Flo knocking them out every twenty-eight days. There is zero gender equality in reproduction: men get one pleasant role to play, and then they can skip out with no natural consequences.

It’s as if the patriarchalists are right, and women are nothing more than babymaking machines.

***

That’s what I told my mentor when I was first engaged and exploring the disappointing world of family planning: “I feel like I’m nothing but a babymaking machine.”

“No, you’re not!” I was expecting her to say. “Rah rah, hear me roar, you can have it all!” — something along those lines was what I was expecting.

Instead she smiled and said, “You are a babymaking machine. But that’s not all you are.”

***

I’m not a Gnostic dualist. I’m a Christian who believes that matter means as much as mind, that when God said, “It was very good,” he was talking about body as well as soul. Who I am involves the abstract things — my mind, my soul, my personality, my goals, my loves, my dreams — and the concrete things — like my very, very female body.

My female body was created to grow and birth children in a shockingly miraculous (and painful) way. That’s a fact, love it or hate it. And my body is capable of so many other things, too.

And that’s all I have figured out right now. The rest of my thoughts are just questions. In a culture that cares so much about knowing who you are and choosing what defines you, how do I factor in the facts of my female body with who I am and what defines me? How much value do I assign my female body in determining my purpose and my definition of womanhood?

This is the heart of gender inequality — we have always extrapolated from male and female bodies male and female roles. The warrior strength of the man destines him for war, for example; the reproductive system of the woman destines her for the home.

This is the heart of the mommy wars — how much a woman’s body should inform how she conceives, bears, births, feeds, and raises her children.

This is the heart of redefining gender — how much the female body and its reproductive system dictates the definition of “woman.”

Opinions are all over the place.

There are those patriarchalists who would reduce me to my reproductive abilities and decide for me, based solely on my reproductive system, that I am to be a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and a subordinate, regardless of my other personal goals and capabilities. There are those who find it oppressive to involve the female body in either broad definitions of womanhood or personal definitions of womanhood. There are those who don’t desire children at all, or who use medical procedures and pills to stop or limit periods or reproduction. There are those who find it immoral to tamper with the reproductive system altogether or, indeed, with any natural process.

And then there’s the tricky business of figuring out what’s actually natural and what’s marred by the fall — or if we can even use “natural” as a word with moral meaning since everything “natural” to us is not the original, spotless creation.

I’m a babymaking machine, but I’m more than a babymaking machine. I’m more than a babymaking machine, but I’m a babymaking machine. How do those fit together to define womanhood, to define my womanhood?

I don’t know how to puzzle through this one to a fulfilling answer. In fact, I suspect I can’t intellectually puzzle through it. I’ve got to live it, and let my body inform my thinking in ways I didn’t let it before.

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14 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with the Female Body

  1. Monica

    “Long before it was legal, desirable, or safe to make babies, I got hit with monthly bleeding — and along with it, a set of other pleasant symptoms like cramps, passing out, vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and incurable insomnia. And these are *normal* symptoms.”

    I mean, these may be “normal” in the sense of “fairly common,” but they’re *not* a normal part of a healthy cycle, and a good gyn doctor should be able to help you find causes and solutions. I’m not saying you have to–I get that just managing symptoms may be the best approach in practical terms. But you definitely shouldn’t think that this is how your period is supposed to be. Somehow we do a really terrible job of teaching girls what kind of symptoms to expect and accept. :(

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Really? The nurse I talked to said they were normal in the won’t harm you/nothing can be done category, especially since they only happened every other cycle or so. I need to do some studying up on this sort of thing before periods become a part of life again!!

      Like

      • Bethany C

        Yeah, from what I understand there definitely can be solutions. I know you’ve looked into hormonal BC so I’m not trying to convince you, but I had pretty severe periods for several years and the discomfort completely resolved once I got a hormonal IUD (Skyla). No more GI distress or dizziness or awful pain! It’s a fairly common side effect of that type of IUD apparently.

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      • Bethany

        Hm, I’m not sure any of the IUDs will for sure stop your period. I’ve had mine for three years and I was told that it might stop my period, or it might just be lessened, although some women rarely do have worse periods I think. (Paragard, the copper non-hormonal version, definitely can worsen periods.)
        I was so irregular anyway that it’s hard to say–for a number of months I actually had more regular, very light periods, but now it’s hit or miss. I do kind of miss how my period would dramatically arrive, and I’m not stoked to think it may go away completely. But the lack of pain & pregnancy has been definitely worth it for me!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Abigail

    This is something that I’ve struggled with as well, and it’s nice to read a piece which considers the issue philosophically without coming down with a moral judgment at the end. One thing I used to like about complementarian mommy blogs, even though I disagreed with many ideas they represented, was that these women had found a way to appreciate the femaleness of their bodies and did not feel like they had to reject their bodies or children in order to be a “strong woman.” I appreciate how you can combine that positivity with an equality perspective.

    One thing that really annoys me in society is how when a man says “we’re expecting,”‘ people joke about how his work is done and it’s all the woman’s accomplishment. While this acknowledges women’s experiences and is biologically accurate, it makes me cringe, because there’s no need to discourage a man who is excited about and feels a sense of involvement in the pregnancy process. He can’t carry or birth the child, but he can still be deeply involved, and mocking the union of “we” in pregnancy seems to normalize the ideas that dads are unnecessary and that mothers are the parent that counts. Maybe I’m taking it too far, but that’s always bothered me. I like how you were able to address the burden females bear without coming off as critical of their partners.

    Side note: Are soy products part of your life? When I was about fifteen, my mom and I learned that soy tends to wreaks havoc on the female reproductive system. When I removed it from my diet, my cycles evened out and I stopped having horrific cramping all the time. It may not be the answer to your problems, but after experiencing such relief, I’d feel remiss not to mention it.

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    • Bailey Steger

      That’s one thing I do appreciate from my complementarian past — hearing that my female body and its reproductive system was good and contributed to my strength (and that’s especially nice to hear as I’m anticipating the slightly terrifying prospect of labor and delivery).

      That’s awful. I LOVE the concept of “we’re expecting.” Pregnancy is so much more than a physical journey. I’ve seen my husband come to grips with fatherhood during this time too, and his journey and its impact on our child matters just as much as mine….even if I do joke that he gets to be the pregnant one next time. ;)

      I keep hearing worse and worse things about soy, and fortunately, I’ve never been into it. I love my dairy products and peanut butter. :) It’s crazy how something simple like that was messing up your cycles and giving you severe cramping. :/

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  3. villemezbrown

    Everything you say here is true, but I do feel this is a case where perspective is everything. You can say “There is zero gender equality in reproduction: men get one pleasant role to play, and then they can skip out with no natural consequences.” That’s one way to look at it. I say, “There is zero gender equality in reproduction. Women can grow an entire brand new human being in their bodies while continuing to live their lives and care for others and then they can bring that baby into the world and then, as if that were not enough, their bodies can manufacture ALL the food that baby needs for 6 months! Men can … um … squirt out some jelly stuff?”
    This is an exaggeration and not an accurate representation of how I really feel of course. But the ability to have children is pretty darn amazing in my opinion and offsets a lot of discomfort and inconvenience.
    Also, giving birth is painful, yes, but your body is actually designed in some pretty cool ways to give birth. If you don’t use artificial pain medications, your brain will produce chemicals that help you get through it and, afterward, your brain can block out all memory of the pain. Literally all of it. I can remember what the pain of having my pelvis fractured in a car accident felt like, but I cannot remember the feeling of pain giving birth even though the car accident was longer ago. Your mind will also compress time so laboring for hours does not feel that long.
    My daughter said something I really liked on this topic. She was explaining why she preferred the tracking app Clue because it shows a woman’s cycle as a circle and marks things besides the period. She said, “I’m a woman all the time, not just when I’m bleeding.” The period is the most visible part of the cycle but it truly is a cycle (men cycle too, actually, though not as dramatically) and there are times in the cycle when you have heightened energy and are more driven, times when you are more sensitive, which can be a bad thing, but can also help you be more intuitive and more in tune with others.
    I know that being pregnant really, in most cases, isn’t what you’d call fun. It wasn’t for me anyway. It’s uncomfortable and it can feel like your body has been taken over by forces outside your control. I hope that giving birth helps you not just come to terms with your female body, but appreciate, admire, and even celebrate it for the amazing, powerful part of you that it is.
    Adele

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bailey Steger

      I really appreciate this perspective, Adele. I’ve sat longer with the more negative perspective, especially since I’ve been unable to “use” the purpose of my cyclic reproductive system until now. ;) But pregnancy — at least in this last trimester and especially as I’m studying labor and delivery — has been giving me more of the perspective you’re talking about.

      I love your daughter’s comments too. I knew absolutely nothing about how the female cycle affects us in ways other than painful monthly bleeding, until I started researching NFP in college. The beginning of pregnancy was actually disconcerting simply because I was at a loss without that cycle!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • villemezbrown

        Unfortunately, I think in some ways our culture encourages the more negative perspective. :-( I have at times felt very much as you describe in this post, like I must either buy into patriarchal ideas and think of my body as a baby-making machine, in which case why on earth did I start getting my period at 13, or else as a feminist pretend my body is irrelevant and no different from a man’s, a plan that is doomed to failure. I hope I didn’t give the impression I couldn’t relate.
        Also, I was terrified of giving birth when I was pregnant! I know it probably doesn’t help, but your body does know how to do this and it will come through for you.
        Adele

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      • Bailey Steger

        Oh, I didn’t think you were dismissing my concerns and couldn’t relate! I think it’s very difficult to have balanced views of our female body when, for the most part, the male body is seen as the most desirable (work/school doesn’t accommodate women’s cycles or maternity leave, for instance, so not having a period or giving birth looks ideal). The female body is more of nuisance in that way. So you’re right — context and perspective make all the difference in being able to reclaim the female body as good and desirable, even if it inconveniences us a lot in a patriarchal world.

        That’s good to hear. I just want it over with at this point!!

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  4. Lauren

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming married and having a baby (who is going to be 1 next month, aaah!), it’s that women have an enormous amount of power in this area of life… but they don’t exercise it. They’ve been listening to a narrative that comes at them from every possible direction– their family, their friends, the culture, their own experience, their own anxiety, etc. It is possible to determine for yourself how you want your pregnancy and birth to be.

    To spare you the book I could post on here, haha, I’m just going to share one of the quotes I found during my research (I love how she knows it’s better to share her experience as well as her opinion):

    “If you suffer, it is not because you are cursed of God, but because you violate his laws. What an incubus it would take from woman could she be educated to know that the pains of maternity are no curse upon her kind. We know that among Indians the squaws do not suffer in childbirth. They will step aside from the ranks, even on the march, and return in a short time bearing with them the new-born child. What an absurdity, then, to suppose that only enlightened Christian women are cursed.

    ‘But one word of fact is worth a volume of philosophy; let me give you some of my own experience. I am the mother of seven children. My girlhood was spent mostly in the open air. I early imbibed the idea that a girl is just as good as a boy, and I carried it out. I would walk five miles before breakfast, or ride ten on horseback….I wore my clothing sensibly….I never compressed my body….When my first four children were born, I suffered very little. I then made up my mind that it was totally unnecessary for me to suffer at all; so I dressed lightly, walked every day…and took proper care of myself. The night before the birth…I walked three miles. The child was born without a particle of pain. I bathed it and dressed it myself.”

    -Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, wow! Did you too have a birth “without a particle of pain”? Or is Stanton just your inspiration?

      I’m not holding out for a painless birth, but my childbirth instructor agrees that women DO have a lot power over how they experience childbirth. Ever since I started taking the childbirth class, learning more about my body, etc., my view of pregnancy transformed. I was always told that pregnant women were delicate creatures — don’t lift this, don’t do that, here, let me do this for you. Subconsciously, I let go of my independence and physical strength. This only made my fear of childbirth WORSE since I was now an out-of-shape whale who couldn’t even lift a three-year-old off the ground, much less endure an 18 hour labor. That all changed when my childbirth instructor debunked the idea that pregnant women shouldn’t be doing things. “Do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t cause you pain,” she said. I started exercising more and lifting the things I was told I shouldn’t be lifting, and I feel so much better — not only physically, but mentally, because I now view myself as a strong woman instead of a helpless one. Totally revolutionized this third trimester for me, and hopefully it will pay off during labor and delivery too!

      Liked by 3 people

    • JennD

      I would be careful about the whole “pain free” birthing bit. Yes, birthing is amazing and empowering and is definitely affected by your attitude going in, but you can’t control how much pain you are going to experience. Yes its good to be healthy and active but doing so isn’t a guarantee that birthing will go smoothly and be pain-free. I had one long labor that wasn’t extremely painful but was exhausting, and then three short, very painful labors. My fifth pregnancy I suffered the most fear because I knew what I was in for. I knew exactly how it was going to feel and that I couldn’t get out of it. Thankfully I had a good labor with that one, with only about an hour of really intense labor.
      I was able to do each labor naturally but I went into each one holding onto “natural” labor very loosely. I would always say, “I really want to do this without pain meds but I’m not going to say for sure that I won’t want them or need them at some point.”
      My point in all of this is that every person and even every labor is different. We can’t hold on to our expectations too tightly

      Liked by 1 person

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