Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Health’
Earlier this week on Good Morning America there was yet another story on the body image crisis affecting our pre-pubescent daughters.
We all know our society is hard on girls and women. It values thinness and “beauty” above all else, and propels our girls, at younger and younger ages, into understanding their worth as indiscriminate, sexually objectified things. Infant bikinis, thongs for tweens, sexually over-the-top pop stars…
First of all, thank you to the women who wanted to express their realities and help other women by participating in the Women’s Realities Study in response to my “Calling All Women” post. The study’s open indefinitely, so anyone who’s interested is welcome to jump in.
These are the questionnaires Huffington Post readers completed, with the ten most heavily trafficked listed first:
Relationship with Your Mother
Not Having Children by Choice
Inability to Have Children
Being a Mother
Thoughts on the Marketing of Beauty
Relationship with Your Father
Relationships with Men
Relationships with Adult Girlfriends
Relationships with Childhood Girlfriends
******************My plan is to go through this list over time in my blog and share the anonymous quotes of Huffington Post women as well as those from women in the general public. In each I’ll try to pick up a thread connecting the responses, then offer a psychological and emotional contextualization of it. So here we go with the first topic.
This is the questionnaire with the highest response rate in part, I think, because it’s first in the chart of questionnaires, but also because it’s perhaps the most unifying feature of being female, so women feel safer telling their stories about it.
Because of its ordinary nature, there’s an almost mundane quality to menstruation. But what interested me in the responses from women (ages 19-105) was that 65% of them wished they’d been taught about it differently. And this is what appears to be the essence of that sentiment: At its heart, our initiation to menstruation has largely to do with the quality of our mother/daughter relationships. There were mothers who really came through for their daughters around this life change, but mostly, even when daughters were taught about it by their mothers, it wasn’t necessarily satisfying, and many were left completely on their own, or farmed out to other sources entirely.
The 105-year-old woman I interviewed said that after she got her first period, about which she knew nothing beforehand, her mother sent her off to “lectures for young ladies” at the Women’s Club. A 72-year-old woman I interviewed was told nothing, got her first period and thought she was hemorrhaging to death. Even now as you’re reading this and probably thinking, well that’s to be expected of women of a different generation, I’m sorry to bear the news that women currently in their 20s report having been left to the school nurse, health teacher, or their girlfriends.
Some remember this being an embarrassing conversation, and other women noted they were taught the mechanics but wish they’d been given far more texture and color to help them get a fuller understanding of what it’s like to live with your period. Many mothers presented this material in a clinical one time, brief encounter. Like an inoculation.
The responses reflect that when girls were taught, they got the anatomical basics and were shown sanitary products, but rarely given much to contextualize it physically, sexually, emotionally or relationally. Even though girls can only absorb so much life altering information, the tone set in even the simplest explanations tended to be antiseptic and awkward. I think this is one of the reasons it’s difficult for women, even today, to assimilate our sexuality into the whole of who we are.
There are societally reinforced splits in the perception of female sexuality. We don’t think of mothers as sexual, for example, although mothers usually have sex to end up that way. When many mothers taught their daughters, or left them to glean information on their own, the mother’s discomfort was read by, and absorbed by, the daughter. Often mothers gave them reading material on menstruation but then never discussed it with them, let alone augment it with their own sense of its meaning. Very few women referred to an emotional quality other than embarrassment in these moments, and the girls whose mothers weren’t embarrassed, were far less likely to feel uncomfortable.
So this seemingly mundane condition of being female hints at the fissures in our core vulnerability: we’re not fully comfortable welcoming our girls into womanhood because we ourselves aren’t fully permitted to be comfortable there.
I do wish my mom had spoken to me about it. Not because I needed the information, but because I craved to have a bond with her as a woman and as her daughter.
I wish it had been taught to me in a way that made me feel excited and proud rather than anxious. I wish that we’d been given a whole book about it, giving us all the details about what to expect so we wouldn’t, despite the pamphlet telling us that we were normal, think something abnormal and wrong was happening when some detail about the whole process was not exactly how it was described to us.
I wish my mother had sat me down, somehow revealing in the warmth of her face (which isn’t actually warm) the complex magic and pain in the ass experience that menstruation is. I wish it had felt for both of us like a shared rite of passage.
The next two are from women in their mid-30s.
My parents handled it all so poorly — it’s really shocking. I was completely mortified of my body — for most of my life — it totally started me on a path of disconnection with my sexuality.
I feel betrayed because my mother should have prepared me for this. I was very young to start yet she should have seen the signs.
These next two are from women in their 20s.
Nothing was explained to me. My mother threw the pads on my bed. That’s how she knew I had my period. I read the strip on the pad to know how to use it.
The day I received my period, my mother gave me a pad and told me never to let boys play with me ‘down there’.
And lastly, a sweet one:
I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Then my mother told me about it one summer night when she tucked me in.
Yesterday afternoon I had occasion to be hanging out with my two favorite sixth grade girls while I had a coffee and they sipped a chocolate drink the consistency of concrete. They agreed to be quoted on the condition of “like, total, anonymity.” I asked how they felt learning about menstruation, and in a mixture of giggling, gravity, and eye rolling, this is what our sisters in the field had to report. One said, “No offense, but sometimes what I read about it is cheesy. If I talk to my mom, I like her to talk to me one day, then stop. Then wait for me to come back if I have questions.” The second said, “I love talking to my mom…but not for, like, hours and hours and hours and hours!”
Every mother/daughter relationship is different, and for those that are lacking, thank God for girlfriends, and literature written on our behalf. There are obviously many helpful ways to approach the topic of menstruation, but maybe the best place to start is to not think of it as “the talk,” but as the beginning of a life long dialogue between mothers and daughters, and women new and old.
My daughter believes in the Tooth Fairy. At 45, I believe in The Cornstarch Fairy, who visits me once a week and adds a teaspoon of her thickening agent to my body while I’m sleeping. I’ll come back to the pertinence of these age appropriate fantasies in a minute.
As a psychoanalyst who works mainly with women, I hear lots of amazing and upsetting stories of all kinds. But over the last 20 years, there’s only one type of suffering I can honestly say I’ve heard reported every single day I’ve practiced. My female clients reveal it explicitly and implicitly, and my male clients regularly refer to it when talking about the women they love: women at odds with themselves due to some form of self loathing. What’s come to sadden me the most about these stories is that we learn this self-loathing from the women around us, most destructively, our mothers.
Throughout our history women have been undermined and restricted in movement by men, and having been so steeped in that mindset, we’ve learned to undermine not only ourselves, but our girls.
Historically, conventional beauty was, in some ways, attached to survival. If a woman were beautiful she had a better chance of securing a husband who could afford her things she couldn’t access on her own, like financial security and real estate. Today beauty is obviously still an asset, but women continue to chase physical perfection with a fervor that belies the strides made toward the equality of the sexes.
How women feel about their bodies physically, sexually and with regard to age, expresses itself on a continuum from mild to severe, from casual self-deprecating comments like “I hate my hair,” to the devastation of eating disorders. How we see ourselves in our own bodies, and how we see the physicality of women and girls around us precludes the fuller appreciation of who we are.
We teach self loathing to each other and our daughters through comments we make about ourselves and other women, and through our conversations with each other. And we do it all the time without thinking. I’ll give three examples of how this gets played out (all real with slight changes to protect anonymity).
1. An actress in her early 20s is at the premier of a movie she’s in. The film has been critically acclaimed by The New York Times, and she feels excited and proud. Her mother comes up to her when the film is over and says what a shame it was that her outfit in the movie made her look so heavy. In that moment, who the daughter is in the world evaporates. Her mother doesn’t see her. In those few words we see a mother who can’t access the fullness of who her daughter is, and a daughter who’s denied access to the fullness of her mother.
2. A woman in her 30s says that even though she loves her family, it’s hard to visit because she knows her mother will focus on her weight. This feeling is common in women and becomes tied in with the attendant fantasy any of us would have: I would be more loved by my mother if I were thinner. The mother wants her close, yet she drives her away.
3. I’m having breakfast by myself in a quiet hotel restaurant. There’s only one other person there, a middle-aged woman who tells the waiter she waiting for someone just as another middle-aged woman enters to join her. It becomes clear it’s a business breakfast, and that although they’ve had a phone relationship, this is the first time they’re meeting in person. As they greet each other, one of the women refers to being in town for her daughter’s college graduation. The other woman exclaims, “You don’t look old enough to have a daughter that age!” to which she responds that she has an even older daughter who just had a baby, so she’s a new grandmother. Again, the woman comments in an exaggerated tone, “You’re kidding! You don’t look old enough to be a grandmother!” Age takes center stage and everything else disappears. There is no acknowledgment of her experience of the graduation or the birth.
We each have chances to change this legacy, and it can be done in the minutia of the day. When my daughter looses a tooth, we can revel in it as a rite of passage, or I can make her self-conscious about the gaps in her smile. I can complain in front of her that aging has only to do with an intensification of self-loathing, or I can teach her that it’s a normal shift in living we all make.