In the spirit of Angelina Jolie, I’m going to talk about lady parts.
It is, of course, difficult to talk about reproductive issues without talking about lady parts.
But we live in a society where women’s reproductive organs are, if not shameful, at least not to be spoken of in public. (Witness the Michigan congresswoman who dared to say the word ‘vagina’ on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives during a discussion about access to health care, and the clutching of pearls and reaching for smelling salts that ensued.)
This squeamishness is another barrier to discussing reproductive issues in an open and straightforward way. So I wanted to unpack that squeamishness and see if we can’t unravel it enough to get over it so we can talk about the female reproductive system like adults.
I speak as someone who was totally squeamish for years. When I was first forced to talk regularly about my uterus and ovaries at the Tulsa Fertility Clinic, I felt a warm flush of embarrassment and resentment. Not just because they might have issues, but because they existed at all. I knew I shouldn’t feel that way, but I did, which created cognitive dissonance that caused another kind of embarrassment and resentment.
Finally I stopped trying to fight those feelings and started to examine them. Where had they come from? Why were they so persistent?
During my childhood, reproductive organs were basically unmentionable except by tacky people and bad kids, or as crude or silly innuendo. I was left to figure out how things worked on my own. (Finding a Playboy hidden in a stump in the woods didn’t exactly clear it all up.)
Things still weren’t explained very well in our totally inadequate sex ed in middle school. The boys were sniggering, and the diagrams looked absurd and alien. I couldn’t actually see my ovaries or uterus, so it was hard to associate those weird cartoon drawings with anything in my body. Not to mention I was going through puberty at the time, which was awful and terrifying and embarrassing enough without having to think about it — especially in a class full of boys and a middle-aged teacher. Ew.
Besides, it would be ‘trashy’ (not to mention dangerous) to have sex any time soon, much less a baby. So how was this vaguely shameful, squishy, invisible stuff that looked kind of like a Muppet relevant to me anyway?
If all went well, some day, far in the future, those things would do whatever the hell they were supposed to do, a baby or two would emerge, and I’d never have to think about them again.
As time went on I became more enlightened — at least on paper. I fully believed in women’s equality and would tell anyone who asked that our bodies are beautiful and natural and deserve to be celebrated. But then just a few years ago, when a friend said, “She has some serious ovaries,” the way you’d say, “He really had some balls,” I didn’t feel empowered. I felt squeamish and embarrassed.
Now, why would that be? Once I finally allowed myself ask the question (instead of denying my feelings), I realized the word ‘ovaries’ made me think of a combination of a discontented, adulterous French housewife and a prissy 1950s sewing circle. It made me think of hormones, which made me think of ‘hysterical’ or illogical women. And I couldn’t manage to associate any of that with courage.
(Awful, right? Well, strap in, there’s more internalized misogyny to unpack…)
Furthermore, I was someone who studied physics and traveled the world, and society told me a woman couldn’t do those things, or couldn’t do them as well as a man. So the last thing I wanted to draw attention to was the fact that I had ovaries.
Here’s the thing: Maleness is held up as the default for consequential human beings in our society. Unless you want to be a decoration or a wife or mother, femaleness is basically portrayed as a liability.
For centuries we’ve been seen as weak, irrational, incapable, less than. We’re paid less, we’re represented less, our bodies and hair and faces are constantly judged and scrutinized and paid more attention to than our minds or talents or kindness. Our health is legislated by old Southern white men. We live with a constant low-level fear of being attacked or harassed by men who feel entitled to reduce us to nothing but bodies to be commented on or abused.
And when we dare to try to talk about any of that, we’re accused of hating men.
In my conscious mind, of course, I totally believe women are every bit as good as men, and I believe my body is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.
But whatever you believe, it takes a toll to live in a society that bombards you with certain messages, explicitly and implicitly, from the moment you’re born. Even shows that try to critique or parody these norms can inadvertently end up reinforcing them. Your conscious mind might say, “Yeah, these are the norms we’re railing against!”
But your subconscious mind — formed during our hunter-gatherer days, when a single social faux pas could cost you your life — might stop at, “Yeah, these are the norms.”
For whatever combination of reasons, for most of my life I subconsciously denied or downplayed my womanhood, even to myself. I knew (through cultural osmosis) that women could be successful, but only to the extent they were man-like or fit in with what men approved of and felt comfortable with. Men did not feel relaxed around pretty women they couldn’t have sex with, so one’s options were either to use your looks and sexuality to get ahead (or at least be perceived that way) or mold yourself into a Sexless Serious Person.
I’m caricaturing a bit. But even now I tend to change my Facebook photo to something more “plain” when I’m trying to be taken seriously in a conversation or I’m on a book tour and I think Serious People might look me up.
Regardless of whether a woman flaunted or repressed her sexuality, she was most definitely NOT supposed to have reproductive organs. (Or bodily functions in general.) A woman could have boobs, a butt, a pretty face, and nice hair. She could even have a baby and a cute baby bump. But not reproductive organs. All those bloody or squishy or incredible biochemical details were airbrushed right out. (You could almost feel the dicks wilting when Angelina Jolie was brave enough to talk about her medical issues.)
(I feel bad even writing this post, because I don’t want to reinforce the things I’m talking about. But for me at least, I’ve found that examining some of the worst messaging I’ve inhaled like second-hand smoke for three decades has helped me on the road to overcoming them.)
I tried hard to ignore all these messages, and I felt pretty satisfied that I had carved out a nice middle ground for myself. I’d lived a lot of life by the time I got married at age 33, and I was still plenty young enough to have two kids and get all my trying-to-conceive over with at the relatively safe age of 35. (That was the plan anyway.)
When my lady parts were finally up to bat, I fully expected them to sit down, shut up, and do whatever they were supposed to do without me having to think about them.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. And when I was forced to think about them for long stretches of time, the aversion went from unconscious to semi-conscious, and eventually to fully conscious. And once it was fully conscious, I felt ridiculous. Why on earth should I be a snob about some of the most incredible parts of the human body?
Because at the same time I was uncovering so much internalized misogyny, I was also learning more about the female anatomy. And it turns out, it’s pretty cool.
Whoever you are, from the highest to the lowest, you had your beginnings with an ovary and a uterus.
The ovaries are the deeply mysterious nesting dolls of the universe. Before women are even born, they have all the eggs (technically primordial follicles, which have the capacity to become mature eggs) they’ll ever have — a couple million.
Which means — if you think about it — the egg that created you was once inside your grandmother!
By the time a woman reaches childbearing age, she’s down to less than half a million. So she could populate Tulsa if every egg were fertilized and gestated. (What happens to all the other eggs? They just kinda die off for some reason. The human reproductive system is absurdly inefficient.)
With each monthly cycle, a thousand follicles are lost and only one matures into an egg. Over a woman’s lifetime, a total of about 400 follicles mature into eggs. (And the Duggars only had 19 kids. Psh.)
What IVF does is try to prod more than one of those thousand follicles to become mature eggs. That’s why IVF doesn’t deplete your ovarian reserve. It just recruits follicles that would otherwise naturally die. The idea is that out of those thousand, there may be a best one, but there may also be lots of other plenty good ones. On average, they’ll try to extract about ten eggs per cycle.
As for the uterus, it’s a human-gestating muscle balloon that goes from the size of a light bulb to the size of a beach ball and back again after expelling a new human being.
We don’t have anything CLOSE to technology that can do that.
Our first home is a pretty amazing place.
And don’t get me started on hormones. The more I learn, the more in awe I am of the power of biochemistry, complex feedback loops, and the way a single kind of molecule can do so many vastly different things in different parts of the body (and mind). And how the exact same hormones that do certain things in the female body do something completely different in the male body.
While humans can be swayed by them, though, we most definitely don’t have to be controlled by them. We can influence our hormonal palettes through medicine or mindfulness, even as we respect their power and necessity. It’s fascinating stuff.
There are many more lady parts, of course, and there’s lots more to say, but I wanted to start with those invisible life-creators that I initially had the hardest time relating to.
I don’t know how many other people — women and men alike — still think ovaries are dumb and the uterus is gross and embarrassing. But as for me, due in part to my own reproductive issues, I’ve learned to truly care less about what society thinks about them, or what it taught me to think about them. And I’ve learned to respect my own body much more — not just in words or beliefs, but deep in my soul.
It’s quite a gift.