How to handle the endless chatter about women’s bodies

Our lactation counselor, Sarah Siebold, writes about the intricacies of how women’s bodies are scrutinized and praised, and what we can do about it.

pregnant woman carrying toddler

I spread my legs, feet barefoot in stirrups, at a fertility doctor’s office in early 2016. The ultrasound wand shot its way up my vagina and confirmed that my body had failed me, again. 

Two years earlier, my husband and I consulted with a different doctor, an aged man — the best in the field! — to learn about preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a test to screen embryos for genetic disorders. I feared passing along a severe genetic disorder that runs in my family. To bypass this concern, we opted to retrieve and fertilize my eggs, test the embryos that survived fertilization, and implant only those that were screened and genetically unaffected by the disorder.

What began as a prudent use of assisted reproductive technology led to a disorienting path of doctors telling me that my body wasn’t cutting it. My uterine lining needed to be thick and cloud-like for successful embryo implantation, and it wasn’t. So I went to a slew of specialists for uterine tests, blood work, and acupuncture, and ended up brewing and drinking a biting Chinese herbal tea that was formulated to fix whatever was wrong with me.

Before my fertility journey started, my body had always already felt scrutinized. This is the unfortunate norm as a girl/woman/she. I remember my life before the day body image mattered to me, and the day after. It was quite literally an overnight experience. I went to high school one day, blissfully unaware while eating a turkey burger and fries from the food truck on campus, and left the same day with the realization that none of the other girls actually ate anything at lunch. I vaguely remember someone from my grade asking me how I was able to eat a burger and still have a figure. It was bizarre, and an experience that still clearly resonates seventeen years later.

Just as significant is the memory of choosing my Latin name in 10th grade Latin class. My pick of “Hortensia” morphed into “Hoot-ensia” and then “Hoots” from the boys in class who were admittedly my good friends. “Hortensia” means “garden,” and here I was trying to cultivate some kind of identity that really had nothing to do with burgeoning breasts. But “Hoots” became the nomenclature for the large breasts I’d developed over the summer. This was the kind of scrutiny we were told to want and expect. They noticed my breasts and sang it loud and clear! Coincidence that I chose a career in lactation? 

The dichotomy of scrutiny and praise never ended. I ultimately got pregnant naturally in 2016, the same month the second fertility doctor we consulted told me that my body wasn’t where it needed to be to grow a baby. Months into my pregnancy, I was lauded for looking like a slim pregnant woman, for not “letting myself go.” When I started getting frequent and intense Braxton Hicks (practice) contractions from 28 weeks gestation until I have birth 11 weeks later, I learned the medical term for what I had — an “irritable uterus.” Who knew that organs could be ascribed human attributes. And why was my uterus such a grump? Once I gave birth, I was lauded for getting back to the pre-baby body I had.

The ping pong of scrutiny and praise was dizzying, and I imagine this body image mashup resonates for many others reading this. It feels like a Venn diagram with three circles that partially overlap: one circle represents the praise we receive because of our physicality (“you bounced back after the baby weight!” and “your legs are so skinny!”); the other circle represents the scrutiny we receive because of that same physicality (“your uterus is irritable” and “your breasts aren’t ‘right’ for breastfeeding”); and the overlapping circle that bridges the gap is where body image lives. No wonder I’m/we’re exhausted. 

This dichotomy is nothing short of complex and frustrating, and it bleeds into the work I do professionally. On one hand, my role as a lactation counselor is to empower clients to know that their bodies are capable and hardwired to feed their young. At the same time, my role is to observe and assess where problems may lurk and make suggestions and adjustments as needed. I strive never to make others feel like their bodies have failed them, but to acknowledge the beauty and magnitude of what our bodies can do. It’s about praising our bodies as vehicles of growth and change, not as sources of wonder in and of themselves. This means a shift from the body itself as praise (i.e. “your legs are so skinny!”) to the body as a means by which beautiful things happen (i.e. “your legs helped you run so fast in that race!”). 

As I prepare to embark on the motherhood journey for a second time, I know without fail that our baby girl will learn that her worth isn’t measured by her physicality. Rather, she’ll know that her physicality informs the beauty of her capabilities in specific ways. The more we remind ourselves of this distinction, the more freeing it feels. And the more our kids will grow to know that body image shackles don’t mean much of anything once they’re broken.

 

More on raising confident girls

Raising girls in today’s world is more challenging than ever. See our articles on 10 ways to empower girls and How to raise confident girls by watching what we say.