Like many women, I grew up hiding things. I also allowed people to hide things from me. It was just how things were done — especially if you were female.
Basic truths were not to be acknowledged. If they absolutely had to be, it was done so in a way that was roundabout and ridiculous, or coded and hushed.
No, I did not have a vagina, vulva, labia, and the rest of it. I had a “front bum” that was only referred to in a whisper.
Bras and underwear were purchased out of necessity, but hidden in the bottom of the shopping cart along the way, and then covered by some other large purchase while taking a ride on the conveyer belt toward the cashier.
Periods were The Thing That Shall Not Be Named. Period supplies were also hidden when purchased, and then hidden once more in the bathroom. Any evidence of those period supplies that needed to be discarded were then to be hidden in a thick wad of toilet paper, buried in the bottom of the trash can, and expertly covered by multiple other items.
And talk of my innermost feelings — particularly unsavory ones? LOL. No; those weren’t allowed, either.
Basically, the message I received on loop for much of my younger years was something to the effect of: HIDE THE FACT THAT YOU ARE FEMALE AND HUMAN, OMG NOBODY SHOULD KNOW THIS INFORMATION — SHHHHH!
The thing is, I went along with most of it for years — that was just the way things were. It became a habit to hide my reality, my natural biology, my natural emotions.
Needless to say, I’ve changed a lot in the last 20 years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the shame women feel about themselves lately, and I can’t help but focus on the fact that that shame was created and fed to us during our childhoods. Because for most of us who came of age during the ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s, our parents thought nothing of teaching us this habit of hiding.
Hiding the accurate, clinical words for our genitalia.
Hiding the fact that said genitalia usually does things like create fluids and get excited and bleed approximately once a month if there’s no baby tucked inside.
Hiding the truth of how we feel about things around us — the ones we see and the ones we witness and the ones that happen to us, because we’re so used to being quiet that we don’t quite know how to use our words when they do.
Motherhood smacked me into awareness of how much we all hid. I was lucky enough to connect with a group of women who were brutally honest about what to expect with our bodies and feelings during pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond. I was grateful for these truths, but it also concerned me that many of these women did not share these experiences in such detail with the men they were having children with. All of these things were completely natural, yet the thought of speaking them out loud to the people they were married to was a horrifying thought.
“No way!” many gasped. “He’d never look at me the same!”
Some of them were probably right. We ladies were so used to keeping our truths a mystery that it likely would have been quite shocking for these men to know all the dirty details. Kind of like when I was little, and used to think humans had a straight tube with a small pouch in the center that ran directly from their mouths to their butts — all because I once saw it drawn that way on a cartoon from the ’60s. When I finally came across an anatomically correct illustration of the human digestive system in an issue of National Geographic, I was completely blown away. Everything was so much more complex than I had ever imagined.
I stumbled away from the magazine having a hard time believing the new information. Though there was no reason to doubt it, it took time to sink in; because on its way down, all sorts of other questions floated up. What else was I completely in the dark about?
And so, I decided a long time ago to not only share my truths with my husband, but to raise children who were given facts and answers rather than cover-ups and hushed refusals. There would be no “boys know this” and “girls know that.” It was important for me to raise my children to believe that all genders were equal. And to do so, I had to do more than simply let them play with the same toys or wear whatever color they felt like wearing. They had to receive the same information in the same way and be held to the same expectations. No more hiding.
When my toddler son asked questions about body parts, I answered with the proper names.
Heavily pregnant with his sister, I did not feel hurt the day my young son calling me “big.” Instead, I clarified what was happening to my body.
My uterus is stretching to fit your growing sister, who’ll come out of me when she’s ready. That’s why my back hurts and I grumble a lot more often.
As my children each got older, I also became more honest about my feelings.
Sometimes I needed help, was confused, didn’t have all the answers. I encouraged them to be comfortable with telling me when they felt the same way. Sometimes I was deliriously happy or proud, and didn’t hold back telling them so. The favor was often returned.
Through it all, I did not pretend I was someone I was not.
My kids have seen the puberty videos — both the ones made for boys, and the ones made for girls.
In my bathroom sits a tall, clear container of menstrual products for any girl who needs them. I’ve shown both kids how the products work, pointed out the instructions for tampons in the bin, and encouraged them to let friends in need know they are there.
We don’t make fun of one another’s bodies for doing what they naturally do. We don’t make fun of one another’s bodies for what they look like.
Cellulite, skinniness, scars, size, hair, double jointedness, birthmarks — none of it is something that must be hidden away. Mine can be seen in warmer weather or in bikinis at the pool.
I’ve repeated these things over and over again, not hiding my own truths or brushing away at theirs.
Some people have made it clear that they think these moments of instruction are a bit much; others have been startled by hearing proper anatomical words come from a 4-year-old’s mouth.
That’s fine with me, because so far it seems that neither of my kids feel shame about their bodies or the inclination to make fun of other people for theirs. They see all people as equals, and are open with their thoughts, feelings, and questions. These are the habits I want them to have as they begin to navigate the world beyond my reach. And I’ll never hide my joy at seeing them flourish because of it.