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Sexuality, Biology, And America’s Relationship With The Female Body

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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A woman prepares to breastfeed her child. (Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images)

A woman prepares to breastfeed her child. (Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images)

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NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (CBS Connecticut) - This month, several seemingly unrelated stories combined to cast a spotlight upon the ever-pervasive idea that Americans, generally speaking, are uncomfortable with the biology of a woman’s body; it’s an idea that contrasts with the seemingly-steady stream of images featuring the scantily-clad female body on multiple forms of media.

First, an advertisement entitled “Camp Gyno” – about a delivery service called Hello Flo that’s designed to send a menstruating girl or woman a care package of sorts every month, depending on the cycle of the recipient – was both lauded and criticized for its use of scientific yet unconventional language for feminine product commercials, including the word “vagina,” after it went viral.

Soon after, coverage of National Breastfeeding Month, a support and awareness campaign spearheaded by the United States Breastfeeding Committee, brought national discourse regarding the maternal act into headlines once again.

For some, public discussions and displays of female biological functions are inappropriate at best and obscene at worst. To others, the hypersexualization of the female body is far more offensive than candid discussions regarding what it does naturally. The discrepancy has led to larger debates concerning not only the existence of American societal discomfort with the biology of the female body, but also, the potential negative implications of national discourse on the matter.

“While it’s true that we see an overabundance of hypersexualized female bodies in American society today, there still exists a prevalent hesitance and/or reluctance to talk directly about the realities of the female body,” Dr. Terri L. Russ, an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. told CBS Connecticut. “Instead, what we tend to see is the female body being talked around. It is hinted at, implied, or suggested but not directly engaged.”

Dr. Christine Smith, an associate professor of women and gender studies, as well as psychology and human development, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, agreed.

“On the one hand, we see a lot of the female body, literally. And yet we are uncomfortable with women’s bodies as they are naturally,” she noted to CBS Connecticut. “Breastfeeding is a great example. We are a culture obsessed with breasts. [Yet] when we have women using breasts for exactly what they’re intended to be used for, they experience discrimination and discomfort from others.”

She added, “It’s interesting, our relationship with female bodies.”

Not everyone observed the same cultural phenomenon, however. Heather Munro Prescott, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who specializes in both public health and women’s history, told CBS Connecticut that the hesitance exhibited today in our society’s willingness to discuss female biology in frank terms pales in comparison to that which past generations displayed.

“Yes there still is some discomfort about biological functions, but much less so than in the past,” she observed. “The advertisements for menstrual hygiene products today are much franker and explicit than the ones from … the 1970s.”

However, others noticed not only continued displays of discomfort, but hypocrisy and mixed signals as well.

Claire Mysko, the director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, highlighted several examples of both regarding breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding pictures get removed [from] Facebook, but there’s a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old on the cover of Time magazine,” she said. “At both ends of the spectrum, whether censored or out there in a big way, the public discussion is usually about people’s discomfort with these images, the ‘weirdness’ of breastfeeding, when in fact it’s a perfectly healthy, normal bodily function.”

Imagery displayed to the public also has a tendency to skew reality, according to some experts.

“[W]e can look at commercials for feminine hygiene products. What is noticeably absent from these is any discussion of the reality of menstruation,” Russ noted. “[W]e never hear a mention of blood, nothing about bathrooms, but [rather] lots of happy swirling women in white clothing who are often on beaches.”

This idea of national reluctance to acknowledge and discuss the female body as a natural being – to the point where aging and exhibiting signs of pregnancy after childbirth are also regarded by some as taboo for women – could possibly have several negative side-effects on women in America.

“One of the detrimental effects of this discomfort is that it stokes shame and insecurity in girls and women,’” Mysko noted. “We end up feeling that we need to hide the realities of what our bodies do, that we have to tiptoe around and exercise ‘discretion.’”

Added Smith, “Women become uncomfortable with their real bodies … [which] have scars, stretch marks, ‘cellulite.’ We rarely see those kinds of images. When you’re given an image that actually doesn’t exist in real life … and you’re comparing yourself [to it], you will always lose.”

Smith, as well as Russ, observed several dichotomies at play on the subject.

To Smith, our culture puts at odds the natural, “more animalistic” facets of the female body and the sexualized definitions certain parts of it have come to assume.

“Breasts are food, but they are sexualized,” she noted. “We remove nature and replace it with sex.”

Russ, meanwhile, felt the issue brought forward an older double standard applied to women.

“There are undoubtedly many potential reasons why we see these things, but to me it seems like an extension of the virgin/whore dichotomy,” she said. “Women are expected to enact and appear hypersexualized – the whore – but at the same time be pure and non-sexual beings – the virgin.”

She added, “At best this presents a paradox that can never be resolved; at worst it fosters an environment of shame and silence such as that we see in the (lack of) discussion of the female body.”

Not everyone viewed the situation in such dire terms, however. Prescott, for one, saw more danger in different parts of American culture.

“I’m not sure there is that much hesitance about discussing bodily functions. There’s no doubt there are hypersexualized images of women in the media that are really detrimental,” she said, pointing to an especially salacious performance by singers Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke of the latter’s hit song “Blurred Lines” during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday as one example. “[But] I’m not so sure that the word ‘vagina’ is all that shocking anymore.”

She additionally noted, “I think the diet and exercise industry is more detrimental to women’s body perceptions than any lingering discomfort about menstruation and other bodily functions.”

Still, experts expressed concern regarding the toll such imagery and national discourse might take women of all ages.

“Young girls grow up surrounded by images of sexualized women while not always understanding or grasping the implications of what it means to be a sexual being. We teach young girls that they should avoid being raped and provide tools to help them help themselves; yet we don’t teach young boys not to rape,” said Russ. “On the opposite end of the spectrum, we spend little time talking about the realities of menopause. Menopause is the stuff of pop culture jokes – hot flashes, crazy mood swings, etc. – but women going through it are often left to figure it out on their own.”

Smith agreed.

“It isn’t just young girls. Clearly we want to raise young girls with healthy body images,” she stated. “[But] everyone is held up to that standard – the best case scenario is you meet that standard for a short period of time in your life.”

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