I’ve struggled with body image my entire life. At an early age I, like most of society, realized how the female body is objectified and often taken advantage of. Women are introduced to shame early on even in moments of security. I recall when I was about 14 years old I was sitting passenger in my mom’s minivan as we were heading to the store. She and I were talking and laughing and I look up and there’s a large 18-wheeler truck next to us. The driver was looking down on me and was howling at me while making obscene gestures and noises. I was sitting safely next to my mother and immediately felt unsafe. That moment of security as a teenage girl simply enjoying time with her mother was stolen by a man who saw me as something to warrant his lust. I suddenly became so aware of my body. Not just aware, but ashamed. Shame crept in and taunted me through this man. Because of how I looked, because of my body, I was being taunted and made to feel less than.
It’s not a secret that I struggled with my weight. I’ve messed around with diet pills and other unhealthy tools with the hope and dream that I could be thinner. I’ve compared my body to almost everyone else’s. I’ve looked down at what I have and felt disgust towards it: disgust that it wasn’t attractive enough and disgust that it could be lustfully desired. It was a double edged sword threatening me everyday.
For a teenager I was rather developed. It was this bitter irony. Other girls made jealous remarks of how they wish their breasts were bigger. It was something that I was taught to champion. Yet the reason this area of my body was a trophy was because it could attract men. Because that’s what we as young girls were taught – our bodies were designed to attract men. Being thin and having big breasts and wide hips were what we were taught we needed. We needed it because men desired it. And those who had it earned envious loathing. One doesn’t need all 3 either. Having one or the other is enough. Yet aside from earning jealous looks, a girl also earns an increased level of unsafety. I had to intentionally consider my clothing to not “show too much” otherwise, as society has taught us, I was “asking for it”. Asking for cat calls, asking for howls, asking to be objectified, asking to be watched or followed. The list goes one. Most women – no matter what their body shape or size – have felt unsafe simply because they are a woman.
When I first started breastfeeding, the amount of shame and embarrassment over my body was a bit overwhelming. The first few days in the hospital it seemed everyone had a glimpse of my naked body and was grabbing and touching me unabashedly (while I was fully abashed!). Nurses and doctors were poking and prodding at me to make sure everything was alright. The lactation consultant, nurses, and family were grabbing and looking at my breasts to assist me as I was learning to feed my new life. I understood in my mind everyone was there to help me. I understood. And yet I felt waves of disgust. Talking to my doctor about this, we discussed it could possibly be a sign of D-MER and she told me to continue to monitor the feelings over the next several weeks and that it was completely normal.
I continued to track how I felt over the past few weeks. What I discovered was that I did not have D-MER (something very real and something you can talk to your OBGYN about), I had shame. Shame over my body. This area of my body that I had been conditioned to believe was something to either hide or flaunt pending the environment was now receiving constant attention. The very breasts that I have tried to hide or cover up to be “modest” were now constantly out to either feed or heal post-feeding. I noticed that I felt so uncomfortable just looking at them.
In the past few weeks or so I realized that those pangs have not only disappeared, but I now have a sudden feeling of victory when I breastfeed. I’m sure the oxytocin is a part of it. But something greater has shifted not just chemically, but emotionally.
My little guy looks at my body as a source of life and nourishment and comfort. When he fusses or cries, my gentle rocking brings him immediate comfort. He leans against me during tummy time to learn how to increase his muscles. The warmth of my body puts him to sleep at night. And when I breastfeed him, he’s fed and nourished. I, with just this female body, am able to provide for life. I used to feel embarrassed because of how much the woman’s body is objectified. Even if I were completely alone with him, I’d still feel those pangs of discomfort as if someone somewhere out there was creepily watching. But having this little man watch my body and not see it as something to warrant a whistle or howl but see it as something that sustains and nurtures him, has shifted everything. Everything.
What once made me feel like a girl now makes me feel like a woman. What once crippled me, now empowers me. What once made me feel shame now makes me feel like a mother.
The very issue of breastfeeding comes with a litany of unwarranted advice, demands, insults, and discouragements. A mother is reprimanded for using formula. For not using formula. For pumping. For not pumping enough. For weaning. For still breastfeeding past a certain age. I’ve listened to my friends struggle with not producing enough and trying various remedies to increase their supply to nurture their child. I’ve listened to other women deal with the pain of engorgement but pushing through the pain because they know their child is fed. Ultimately I’ve seen women embrace their bodies for something, for someone, bigger than what society has diminished the female body to. Voices have tried to tell us what our breasts are supposed to look like and now how they’re supposed to be used. But this time, for the first time in my life, those voices are becoming white noise as I sing my son to sleep while he uses my breasts as his pillows. And it feels great.