My fifth grade daughter can fit into my shoes now. Much more developed than I was at her age, Kyra’s ten year old body is already getting curvy, and I can sense that she is nearing her transition into puberty. I recently came home from one of my “Fertile Soul” retreats to find her doing nightly sit-ups. I was appalled that she was already trying to hide the tiny bulge of her developing belly. I had to re-teach her, just as I teach my patients, that our female bellies are supposed to be fuller, and weren’t meant to be flat like men’s stomachs. I had to teach her how to breathe into her belly again, which she had innately known from her first breath until she and her friends started to stick out their chests, suck in their stomachs, and model themselves after their Brittany Spears-like roll models. Not that my role models were all that voluptuous either; remember Twiggy? We baby boomers were so detached from our female essence that we couldn’t accept our inherent femaleness, either. We became depressed when we couldn’t reach the outward appearance to which we aspired; we developed fibroids, endometriosis, infertility, and eating disorders. I remember the day I got my first period. I saw red and after the initial panic subsided, I cried, stuffed some toilet paper in, and pretended it didn’t happen. I knew this meant I was becoming a woman, and I wasn’t ready to enter the shameful world of breasts, bellies, and hips. I exercised more, ate less, and still my body defied my attempts to control it and developed ever so slightly more. I could only cope with my new maturity by acting sexual; not at all in line with my Scandinavian Lutheran upbringing. Add a little more shame, poor diet, cigarettes, alcohol, and the stress of medical school, and voila – premature ovarian failure. My body turned against my own reproductive system. I treat many women like myself, with endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, fibroid tumors, and a multitude of hormonal and emotional issues which prevent the full expression of their fertility.
Perhaps how we view ourselves as women needs to change so that our reproductive health can improve. In a recent Calvin Klein add, you almost can’t tell the gender difference between the emaciated female model and her male counterpart. What happened to the days when women celebrated their reproductive coming of age? I am reminded of the Renaissance paintings picturing naked large bellied, large hipped women surrounded by cherubs, and I’m certain those models didn’t cry when they first saw their own blood. There was a time when our menstruation was celebrated as the root of all life. It was precisely a woman’s reproductive essence that made her so powerful; in fact, according to The TaoTe Ching,
“The Doorway of the Mysterious Female is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.”
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the first menstruation is seen as a gift from the heart which houses our spirit, to the uterus. The gift that pronounces, “You have entered sacred womanhood. Your body is now in tune with the tides of the moon, and with nature. You may now produce life.” A woman who received these messages respected herself and honored her childbearing potential. She took care of her reproductive essence. She listened to the deeper messages of her body: how much sleep she required, what kind of foods her body needed, and how she was to express her spirit in the world. When her childbearing years were over, the uterus bestowed its gift of life blood back to the heart. Menopause represented a transition into a woman’s wisdom, when she became revered by society.
TCM views the body, mind, and spirit as inseparable from each other, and ultimately from nature. As a part of the natural world, we abide by the same laws as the rest of the living universe. Just as atoms consist of protons and electrons, everything else is composed of opposing positive and negative forces, yin and yang. Yin energies are feminine - quiet, subdued, dark, and internal. Yang energies are masculine – loud, bright, energetic, and external. Neither yin nor yang is preferable, yet in our society the yang attributes are accorded far more worth. We are not encouraged to go within and care for ourselves. Melancholy moods are not allowed, and a sense of quiet is rarely achieved. Most women’s physiologies desire a time of rest and turning within every month. Yet we are rewarded for pretending we don’t menstruate. Use a tampon, take a Midol, and go to work. In fact, then go grocery shopping, and then to the gym. Make dinner afterwards, too. Our lifestyles scream for a break. Yet we are encouraged to go, go, go; beyond stress, beyond fatigue, beyond our inner sense of knowing. We have become too yang, and this has created a disparity in our health and in the world. The physical consequences of this imbalance cause us to enter puberty earlier, develop endocrine ailments, fertility disorders, and psychic conflicts all through our reproductive lives.
The demands of our externally focused, fast paced lifestyle don’t encourage us to live or eat healthfully, which underlies the development of most modern day disorders. Our bodies begin by sending us subtle signals like migraine headaches and back spasms, and when we don’t pay attention to the faint messages, they will become more obvious, like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Chinese medicine views diet as the foundation of our health and well-being. Yet most of us in the West devour a quick snack for taste and instant energy; not for what our bodies truly need. Most of us know what our bodies need; we just haven’t been encouraged to pay attention. We are too frantic to listen to our internal messages. A cup of coffee and a donut is easier than a spinach omelet with a side of fruit. Yet knowledge about health isn’t limited to ancient Chinese secrets; dietary wisdom is a part of our past, too. In fact, it is almost instinctual when we pay attention. Here are some examples:
- Our grandmothers recognized that Chicken soup was good for a cold. They knew our bodies became so depleted from fighting germs, that the bone marrow (from which blood cells are produced) deeply replenished our immunity. - When we have a sore throat we are inherently drawn to warm liquids like hot lemon with honey. - Warm milk before bed contains L-tryptophan, which helps us to relax and sleep better. - People with liver disease develop an aversion to fried foods. The body knows that the liver is under stress, and can’t break down fats.
We all have access to dietary insight when we listen to the deeper parts of our beings that truly know what we need. At our retreats, women are guided to reestablish their mind-body communication and tune in to their deeper wisdom; improving their fertility, general health, and emotional well-being.
I choose to pay attention to the wisdom of my ancestors and change the patterns of the messages that aren’t congruent with health. Kyra is learning to eat when she is hungry, and to pay attention to what her body truly needs. And when she gets her period, we are going to celebrate. We will buy fancy red underwear; we will go outside to look at the sky and see what phase the moon is in; I will teach her to rest, and to honor the needs of her sacred body.