“If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.” Dr Gail Dines
“In a society that profits from your self doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act” Caroline Caldwell
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde
At about 14 or 15 years of age, I remember examining my vulva with a tiny handheld make-up mirror, at night, with my bedroom door locked, in the semi-dark and feeling like I was doing something shameful. On the one hand I was fascinated by what I was seeing with my new adolescent eyes. It was like discovering the existence of my vulva for the first time, as if somehow I simply forgotten it existed. On the other hand I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt, like I was doing something dirty and secret that no one could find out about.
As the older sister of two brothers with very liberal parents, at the age of six I probably new my body better than any of my friends or cousins. I felt no shame nor need to hide it. I could accurately name my vulva and vagina. So what happened in those intervening years to make this awareness and comfort with my own body slip so profoundly out of my consciousness so that I became a weight obsessed 14 year old that did everything possible to hide her newly developing body? A girl who explored her body in the dark accompanied by the nagging fear of ‘what would people say’ if she was ‘caught’?
Body hatred begins at birth
From age zero most women receive multiple and consistent messages that profoundly shape our relationship with our own bodies. Our natural curiosity and freedom to explore ourselves is suppressed day after day by both overt and subtle messages such as: ‘don’t touch’, ‘don’t look’, ‘don’t mention’, ‘don’t ask’. For many of us a wall of silence surrounds our ‘private parts’. Our strongest impressions from childhood may be that ‘down there’ is dirty and shameful and not to be talked about.
As we start to develop and grow puberty brings along a new host of things we cannot talk about. Breasts begin to appear, hair starts sprouting in new places and we begin to bleed from our ‘private parts’ every month. If we experience physical or emotional upsets as a result of ‘the curse’ Ibuprofen or the Pill are the go to solutions. When we buy towels or tampons they are hidden under the rest of the shopping or handed to us in a discreet paper bag. We are bombarded by images of the perfect woman – white, blond and skinny – in magazines, in film and TV, and our newly developed bodies often feel woefully inadequate. In school our bodies are monitored by the length of our skirts and whether we are ‘exposing’ ourselves. Fat and ugly become the worst insults for girls. Latina and Black girls face further discrimination, harassment, sexual objectification and violence as a result of the hyper-sexualistion of their bodies.
When we begin to experience our first feelings of attraction or arousal we get caught in a web of contradictions: If we act on them we will be labelled ‘sluts‘ but if not we are ‘frigid‘ or ‘prudes’. If we find our attraction is towards other girls we face the prospect of bullying, harassment, exclusion, discrimination and violence. If we step outside the narrow boundaries of ‘acceptable femininity‘ or we are gender non-conforming we may also face these kinds of threats, violence and social stigma.
Masturbation is possibly the worst thing you can do. No one threatens any more that it makes you go blind, but when I was a teenager it was commonly known that only ‘degenerates’ masturbated. At the same time everybody does it, in secret and often accompanied by guilt. No one really explains why it is so bad to indulge in self-pleasure, but no one dares to admit that they do it either.
Sexual education, if you are lucky enough to get it, focuses the mechanics of human reproduction and the prevention of diseases and pregnancies. Mostly though, it uses terror and shame tactics to discourage young people from engaging healthy sexual activity: “You WILL get pregnant and/or contract any and all of the following diseases: chlamydia, ghonorrea, syphilis, and HIV.” There is no mention of sexual violence, abuse or rape. No discussion around consent. Little allowance made for other gender identities or sexual preferences. And nobody mentions the most basic element of all: pleasure.
With this legacy many of us enter the world as young women already marked by a profound disconnection to our own bodies. A disconnection that is often expressed as body-hatred, in eating disorders, hatred of our menstruation cycle, as low self-esteem, in depression, in dysfunctional relationship patterns, in a lack of awareness about responsible gynecological care and many others. We are woefully underprepared to negotiate the world of dating, relationships, casual sex, contraception, sexual violence, everyday sexism, visits to the gynecologist or STI clinic, and the multiple and intersecting oppressions women face under patriarchy.
Sisters doing it for themselves…
But it’s not all bad news! Feminists since the 1960’s and 70’s have been working and campaigning to recover our instinct for pleasure, curiosity and exploration by promoting self-care and self-knowledge as an essential aspect in reclaiming our bodily autonomy and in the struggle for women’s rights. You could call it a feminist, pro-choice, pro-period, pro-bodies, pro-equality, pro-diversity, pro-autonomy, pro-knowledge, pro-consent, pro-love, pro-sexuality, pro-liberation movement made up of a diversity of women across multiple territories. It is a movement encouraging women both individually and collectively to take our health, sexuality and (non)reproductive choices into our own hands. It is a direct challenge to the patriarchal structures of the state, the church, the medical system, the pharmaceutical industry and the beauty industry who profit both politically and economically from our repression, submission, ignorance and self-hatred.
It wasn’t until I truly discovered these currents within feminism in my late twenties that I realised that exploring my body with a mirror was not only ‘OK’ but were actually recommended as part of a responsible self-care routine. At first I was pretty much ignorant and without many resources. But as I began exploring alternative ways to address my menstrual health a whole world began to open up where I encountered women who actually loved getting their periods, charted their whole cycle, practiced herbal medicine or yoga to deal with cramps and PMS, used menstrual cups to collect their blood and then painted with it or used it as plant fertilizer. I began to address my body hatred. I began questioning how I was living – or not living – my sexuality to the full. I re-discovered feminism in a much more profound way. I learned that masturbation could be revolutionary. I started doing self-exams, taking gynecology workshops and exchanging these new discoveries with friends. I have joined womb blessings, red-tents and full moon circles. I became a doula, accompanied friends through their pregnancies and births and I am now on my way to becoming a midwife. And I began reading everything I could find about women’s health, sexuality and reproductive rights.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery of all has been to realise just how much material is out there if you start looking and how long feminists have been writing about this. Barbara Ehenreich and Dierdre English wrote Witches, Mid-wives and Nurses in 1973. Betty Dodson wrote Sex for One in 1974. The first edition of Our Bodies Our Selves came out in 1984. Nevertheless it feels like these gems of feminist wisdom rarely reach women outside of specific feminist circles. If you take a visit to the average bookshop you will not find these titles in stock. In the women’s health sections of Irish bookshops I have rarely seen titles dealing with topics beyond PMS, fertility and pregnancy – as if these topics encompassed all of women’s ‘issues’. You have to go to a kick ass feminist bookstore like Bluestockings (NYC) or Word Power in Edinburgh to find these and other gems of women’s health, sexuality, relationships and reproduction on the shelves or you have to order them online.
Thanks to the internet and Youtube we currently have wonderful resources like Laci Green and Scarleteen. Nevertheless, it feels like each generation of women grow up in a vacuum of empowering and honest information related to their bodies, sexuality and (non)reproduction. The wisdom of Dodson or Ehrenreich or the Boston Women’s Health Collective, seemingly still occupying a marginal or niche position in the women’s health movement, is not passed down to us. Each generation seemingly has to ‘rediscover’ these gems for ourselves, thanks to feminist networks and websites, and ‘relearn’ self-care and bodily autonomy. These are not trivial questions, bodily autonomy and control over our reproductive rights and sexuality is as essential to feminism as the right to vote and equal pay.
“Loving ourselves, in all places, at every border and periphery, at every heart centre, everyday as our hearts beat in millions of different ways, on our cold days and our days full of uncontrollable, rebellious fire, loving ourselves and each other, caring for ourselves, so that the revolution is full of life.” Mujeres al Borde – Colombia