I follow the THINX blog, not because I have need of their product right now (yay breastfeeding!) but because they keep me abreast (ahem) on the latest in womanstuff.
Which is how I found out about this video, in which a woman demonstrates how to do a breast exam using a man’s moobs.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. The concept that a woman wouldn’t know, from school, a doctor, or her own family, how to examine her own breasts? That breasts are so taboo that we have to demonstrate on a man?
I’m well acquainted with the self-examination process, and have regularly examined my own breasts for years. My mother had a lumpectomy in her late 30s, and we thought briefly that she had breast cancer. Her mother died of breast cancer at 49. I have fibrocystic breasts; I discovered my first lump at 19, and have had several mammograms, sonograms, and aspirations. We talk breast cancer in my family, and I am familiar with all my lumpybumps. It’s no more remarkable than flossing my teeth at this point. It’s just part of being me.
But what of women without my family history?
When I started having periods, my mother sat me down with this fantastic book, WomanCare. It came out in the 80s, and apparently is now out of print, so I will have to seek an alternate source of information for my daughter in a few years. This book really helped me to understand what was going on with my body and why I felt the way I did. It even made the process sound beautiful (which I assure you it is not, especially in those early days).
I knew a lot of girls without the information resources I had. Many of them got pregnant before they were 20, simply due to a lack of understanding of their own bodies. They were called names because of this. But for most, their only crime was being uneducated about…themselves. Because someone at some point decided that the best way to deal with female issues was to not talk about them and hope they go away.
Unfortunately, WomanCare didn’t provide much information on endometriosis. I doubt much information was available then. Hell, there’s not much information now. I know because I’ve done quite a lot of research on the subject over the years. My gynecologist was my ally in all this. He provided me a frank show-and-tell with my laparoscopy photos, and we were partners as I tested various methods of controlling my condition. I tried at least a dozen different birth control pills. Various pain relievers. Yoga. Meditation. Diet modifications. Supplements. I saw my gynecologist more than all of my health care providers combined, including my dentist.
None of it helped me control the endometriosis, but I did gain an awareness of my body and its cycles that most young women do not have. And even with this background, I didn’t fully understand the reproductive cycle until I started trying to become pregnant. It took me a few months to really get a handle on things because of my own misunderstandings. I was under the impression that the cycle began on the day your period stopped, not the day it started. For two months, I started trying to get pregnant a week too late.
Now, if I – a well-educated woman with a reproductive cycle disorder who had plenty of good, frank information at her fingertips and ample access to gynecological care, a woman who has been deeply in touch with her monthly fluctuations from her late teens – if I had trouble understanding how the reproductive cycle works, how can you expect girls (and women!) who have been kept in the dark to understand it?
When I was a teen, I was mortified if my bra strap showed. I wore tank tops under shirts to ensure that such a travesty never befell me. From the age of 11, I wore oversized t-shirts to the pool to try to mask my budding breasts, so ashamed of my figure was I.* I was not taught this shame at home; as I mentioned, my upbringing was open and honest and supportive. This was just how I felt based on my understanding of the world and my place in it as a young woman.
Imagine how a young woman from a less supportive environment must feel.
In my FB breastfeeding group, other mothers talk about the things people have said to them. How “nasty” it is to “let that baby suck on your teats.” Like it’s a sexual thing. Even women who are not returning to work pump freezers full of milk, or worry because they cannot, because to expose your breast in public to feed a child is treated as shameful and wrong. They suffer bloody nipples and agonizing pain in silence, because they don’t know that’s not normal and that they should be seeking medical attention. They don’t know what’s normal. Despite taking a breastfeeding class, talking with lactation consultants, and reading everything I could get my hands on about breastfeeding, I thought that my inability to breastfeed my daughter was a failure on my part until I had a son and finally produced an adequate milk supply. I didn’t know what was normal, either.
Because we only talk about things like this in private. Behind closed doors, in closed FB groups. In hushed conversations, glancing furtively over our shoulders. Like it’s some big secret that female breasts produce food for babies.
I’m a little bit horrified that, at this advanced date, women are still kept in the dark about their own bodies. We treat the female body like one big dirty, shameful secret.
There is nothing shameful or dirty or wrong about the female body. Any part of it.
And the only way we will ever change that perception is to stop hiding and start talking.
*Admittedly, with my family history of skin cancer, this turned out to be a good thing.