Until I became a mother, I didn’t realize how much about my body I didn’t know. That statement doesn’t seem overly shocking, how can you really understand the birthing experience until you go through it, right? Except I’m not talking about giving birth. That was rough, trust me. But, most of giving birth was expected (even if it didn’t go as planned). Sex ed portrayed conceiving, carrying, and delivering another little human as a serious consequence of sex and less as a truly incredible method by which we continue our species, but that was kind of ok with me since procreation comes naturally to most every organism on this planet. What is reserved for our class of organisms is lactation! Lactation is incredible! The benefits to mother and child (even ignoring the hotly contested research results) are truly astounding. What I knew about lactation before becoming pregnant was this: my mother breastfed my brother and I despite various infections and inconveniences, and it was important enough to her that she persevered (which meant that it was important to me from a young age), and on a very intuitive level breast feeding seemed “right”. That was it. I didn’t know the basic mechanics of how the milk comes out, I didn’t understand how the body produced milk or what of a woman’s self or diet ends up in the breast milk. Nothing.
Let me tell you what I did learn in sex ed. I learned about sperm and ovum, and we said “penis” and “vagina” until no one giggled. I learned how babies are made, and I even learned about the vas deferens and cowper’s gland (and somehow that knowledge survived), in addition to names for my own gender’s anatomy. Honestly, I know there was a video about a birth that was definitely filmed in the late 70’s or early 80’s, but other than that, I remember very little else.
And from my perspective there is something very wrong here. There is a really gigantic missed opportunity that could positively impact a woman’s life from when she is 13 and taking her first sex ed class through adulthood, whether she decides to become a mother or not. Why teach about sex and birth, but not lactation? Perhaps because sex is something in which both genders participate. Birth is the consequence of both genders participating. But lactation, that is something that a woman does without a man* (unless her baby is a boy). It is an exclusive female activity.
A woman can choose to continue breastfeeding, or she can choose to stop breastfeeding at any time. It is entirely within her control. As such, well-timed education about this activity has the ability to positively influence body and self image. Well meaning feminism of the last several decades has told us a variety of things: girls can be strong, too; love your body regardless of how it looks or compares to magazine covers; and no one has jurisdiction over your body but you. I understand the well-intentioned nature of these statements. However, they still don’t strike the right tone to me. Girls can be strong, too? What it tacitly acknowledges is that female strength is always relative to male strength. Love your body regardless of how it looks or compares to magazine covers? What if we don’t talk so much about what our bodies look like and more about what they are capable of? We can redefine beauty a thousand times to mean a thousand different things, but at the end of the day whether you weigh 90 pounds or 290 pounds, by focusing on aesthetic over all else, the value of the body is sexual. No one has jurisdiction over your body but you. Amen sister! And I think understanding lactation is a rarely used, incredibly valuable foothold in respecting our bodies.
I’m thinking back to myself at 13 when I took sex ed. I was already an independent and strong-willed person. If I had learned what my body was capable of at that age? It would have astonished and delighted me. I really think I wouldn’t have gone through that stage where I ate ½ gallons of ice cream in one sitting and wore huge sweatshirts to hide my body because I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Despite my “strong woman” bent, I still evaluated my body based on its ability to attract a boy/man. It’s how my friends and female classmates evaluated their bodies. According to television, it was also how the media evaluated celebrity bodies. As far as I knew, this was the value of a body: that it was desirable. And if this body was desirable enough to someone else, well then you could end up with a baby!
But what if instead of only seeing aesthetic and sexual value in my body, I instead saw mind blowing utility!? What if I learned, that whether I carry and deliver a baby or not, I can feed and sustain life for an infant? What if I learned that my body is capable of whipping up a fresh and unique batch of milk every few hours that is tailor-made for my child’s exact nutritional needs? What if I learned that my body will produce antibodies to protect my child’s immune system even if I haven’t been exposed to the virus? What if I learned that while breastfeeding, my body’s temperature will adjust up to 2 degrees to warm up or cool down my baby to the perfect temperature? What if I learned that breastfeeding significantly lowers my risk for breast cancer and post-partum depression? What if I learned that during nighttime feedings the breast milk has higher levels of serotonin to help my baby (and me) go back to sleep?
If I knew all of these things then I would see myself not just as something pretty (or not), but as sustenance, as medicine, as comfort, as powerful, as beautiful because I am capable. And as a result, I would respect my body and myself more. How do I know? I don’t only know these things about my body–now I’ve seen them! Men and women are both capable of incredible things. But I am so PROUD to be a woman. I am strong. I am powerful. I am worth more than a pretty face or a nice ass. I am comfort, sustenance, medicine, and affection to my child. I am a mother. I am a woman, and I want every teenage girl, whether she plans on becoming a mother or not, to know what her body can do. Because when you value your body as more than what it can evoke in others, you respect yourself, you care for yourself, and you are confident. Isn’t that something every teenage girl needs in spades?
*While breastfeeding is a female only capability (barring extreme survival situations), it greatly benefits from male support. I am blessed enough to have a husband who supports me in all things breastfeeding-related from budgeting for a visit from a lactation consultant when money is tight to washing my pump accessories when I’m exhausted from a long work day. You may also be wondering, what do those 13 year old boys get from learning about lactation in sex ed? They learn to see a woman’s body as more than an object for them to desire. Couldn’t that be the start of something amazing?