Women’s Health: Ideals vs. Reality

This isn’t news to any of you I’m sure, but people are always trying to tell women what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.  Maybe because we house the mechanism for the continuation of our species?  Perhaps this makes people think they have the right to be laying down these absolute edicts about how we look, how we care for our unborn and then born children, how we birth those children, how we attract (or don’t) attract mates.  Somehow it’s all public domain, and of course everyone has strong opinions on whether you are doing it right.

The reality of the matter produces a difficult situation: listening to the contradicting–and often disapproving–messages leave us constantly questioning ourselves.  We don’t need studies from hygiene products’ marketing departments to tell us that this becomes harmful to our self-image very quickly.  When it comes to women’s health there are pervasive ideas about how a woman’s body “should” function.  These expectations produce damaging results when our bodies and images don’t comply with societal norms. Most damaging results of these expectations  is that if our bodies don’t comply with these societal norms, the assumption is that we are somehow responsible.

I think this concept is most obvious in giving birth.  Many women (myself included) want to have a “natural birth”, this means giving birth without any interventions or pain relief.  There are tons of books, articles and websites out there coaching and preparing women to give birth “naturally”.  Many of these sources also blame ill-informed or indifferent doctors and uneducated mothers for the high rate of births that need interventions.  The hope is that if you do all the right kinds of stretching and mental preparation and you have a great birth plan with your doctor/midwife that you will reduce the risk of infant mortality and have a beautiful drug-free  bond with your baby and you will feel like an Earth Goddess.  I strongly believe that the original blueprint for the female body has a really great system for bringing a baby into this world.  But we live in a world full of imperfections.  Our bodies fail us in all kinds of ways from dry skin to anxiety to common colds to asthma (the list obviously goes on and on and on).  Why would we not think it’s realistic to expect imperfections in carrying and delivering another human being?  One of the most stressful physical feats our bodies will ever undergo.  And this seems obvious (to me at least), but the first assumption when something goes sideways with women’s health, is that the woman is responsible.  Needed an intervention when you gave birth?  Well, did you try spinning babies to get your infant in the optimal birthing position?  Did you do this, or that, or this?

Somehow the blame always comes back on us, like we could have prevented this.  Like we should have prevented this.  It’s the same with breastfeeding, pregnancy, weight gain, weight loss, aging, you name it.  If you are a woman and your body cooperated (easy pregnancy, successful breastfeeding, met fitness goals) then it’s easy to think that everyone should be able to attain the ideal, because well you did it, so can everyone else.  The worst is healthcare providers or partners who also witness one woman who was successful and then holds all other women to the same standard.  OR you see that many women aren’t able to attain the ideal and decide we should eliminate an ideal all together in order to level the playing field.  This follows the logic that women have lots of expectations and pressure put on them as it is, why add any additional stress?

I know it’s really unsexy to be balanced and pragmatic, but how about this.  What if we all shoot for the ideal, BUT also educate ourselves and each other about the realistic road blocks we may encounter?  It is good and healthy that we strive to do the best for ourselves and our families, we should be striving for an ideal!  I recently framed my thoughts this way to another mom who was upset at the prospect of having to supplement breastfeeding her child with formula, “Be kind to yourself Mama! You are amazing! Take the pressure off yourself to be perfect, love yourself for wanting to give your baby everything you can, and then continue to love yourself when you reach your limit. We all have to ‘supplement’ in one category or another.”  Humans are complex creatures, and we can house in ourselves the ability to strive for an ideal, fail, reach out for help, but love and respect ourselves for wanting the best.  We don’t have to kill the ideal in order to practice self-love.  What we absolutely need to do is set realistic expectations for ourselves and other women.  We need to assume that others are doing their absolute best until proven otherwise and support them in their goals as best we can.

Today’s women face really interesting challenges regardless of what they want to do.  The social structure that used to house gender norms has been entirely upset.  As a result we have a lot of freedom, but often not much support.  And on top of that, everyone has an opinion on what we should be doing.  It is good that we have healthy science-based discussions with each other on best practices for all realms of women’s health and it’s also good that we respect each others’ preferences and circumstances.  What’s making it harder for us to stand together and bridge rifts is when we project our own experiences onto others and hold them to unattainable ideals AND when we think discarding the ideals all together will make everyone feel better.  Neither of these options will inspire us to reach for the best option and be better to each other.  We can help each other by being honest about the challenges we face with women’s health.  This includes difficulty getting pregnant, miscarriages, terrible pregnancies, traumatic deliveries, difficulty breastfeeding, issues with contraception, and the list goes on.  When a woman you trust and admire puts a face and a heart to one of these issues you are much more likely to be kind to yourself because you remember being kind to her!  We don’t have to avoid tough topics in order to build solidarity and feminine community.

I still believe that the ideal birth takes place without drugs or interventions.  And I can truly never know if I would have prepared better/differently in my pregnancy whether I could have had that ideal.  What I do know is that during pregnancy and delivery my body didn’t do what it was “supposed” to do and it needed help.  I live in a day and age when that help is available (how great is that?) and I took it with both hands.  I could worry endlessly whether I did everything I should have to get the best result possible (and I did for a few weeks after my daughter’s birth).  But at the end of the day I live a life with an imperfect body and imperfect circumstances.  To think I can control all of that is harmful and counterproductive.  Thankfully I had an incredible birth class instructor who prepared us for both for the ideal set of circumstances and the less than ideal set of circumstances.  I plan on trying the whole pregnancy thing at least once more and I’ll shoot for the “ideal” again, but I will also forgive my body it’s imperfections and love myself for wanting the best if it all goes south again.

Love yourself when you succeed, love yourself when you fail, and make space to share your experiences with other women.


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