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.