“Aunt Krysia is coming today,” says her mother, but Magda is unresponsive. She doesn’t like her aunt. Her mother has a few sisters, but only competes with Krystyna, when it comes to who is more important, who knows more. Krystyna, however, always has the upper hand: above all, she has a husband, whereas Magda’s mother is raising two daughters on her own. Krystyna is doing well, whereas Magda’s mother isn’t, really: two salaries are better than one after all.
Krystyna is always pleased with herself. And she likes to show that she’s better. And since she considers herself better, she gives herself the right to interfere in Magda’s mother’s life and in how she raises her daughters. She goes as far as commenting on the girls’ appearance. Magda most often gets the brunt of this. It’s because she’s not a small child. She’s bigger than the others. She doesn’t consider herself a “fatty” either, but she is certainly bigger than other six-year-olds. She gets tired quicker, doesn’t like to exercise, usually lags behind the rest of the group.
That day, Aunt Krystyna came with Magda’s uncle. They sit in the kitchen - Magda, her mother, and her aunt and uncle. Her mother puts on the kettle. Her aunt points at Magda,
“I can’t get over how fat she is.”
Magda and her mother don’t react. Her aunt goes on,
“How’s it possible she’s so huge. Come here and take a look,” she says to Magda’s uncle. “A child’s not supposed to look like that.”
Her mother remains silent. All Magda wants is for the ground to open up beneath her. Her aunt says,
“Madzia, go to the living room, bring me a piece of elastic from the drawer, the kind you use for pants, a stretchy one. We have to measure you, you can’t be that fat. We’ll measure the thickness of your thigh and mine, and then compare the size.”
Magda looks at her mother, seeking help in her eyes, but she doesn’t answer. The girl fetches a piece of elastic. She’s always polite and does what she’s told. She thinks, however, that it’s not fair because the elastic is stretchy, so they can trick her, stretch it out and say whatever they want. They can even stretch it so much that the size of Magda’s thigh and her aunt’s thigh will be the same.
Magda hands over the elastic and her aunt and uncle measure the width of her thighs.
“I told you so!” her aunt shouts triumphantly.
Since then, Magda has hated her legs. She only wants to wear long, preferably wide trousers. She never wears a skirt. She never uncovers her legs, not even in the summer. In kindergarten, during a June performance, her mother put a pair of tights on her legs. When Magda grows up, she wears combat trousers for ages. She’s ashamed of her body and keeps thinking about this shame more and more often. She can’t talk to her mother about it, even though she tries. She resents her mother for that time with her aunt, when she felt helpless and abandoned. Her mother didn’t react.
“Measuring a child’s thighs with an elastic to prove how fat she is, is torture,” she confesses.
Her mother doesn’t want to talk about it with Magda. She says she doesn’t remember anything, that Magda’s exaggerating, and that she doesn’t show her legs either because she has varicose veins and you don’t show such things. Just like you don’t show your big thighs.
When Magda gets her period, her mother gets emotional, hugs her for the first time, shows tenderness. Magda is surprised: her mother has never behaved like that. Magda knows what menstruation is, she reads a lot, she knows a lot from her sister, she grew up in a women’s household, with a sister who’s eight years older than she is and in which pads are kept in view.
When her mother kisses the 12-year-old Magda, the girl thinks she’ll be fine now, that they will be able to talk normally, honestly, like a woman with another woman, that there will be a better connection between them. But nothing changes after that moment.
Her mother doesn’t talk, she doesn’t explain anything, she just throws in short remarks such as,
“Your eyebrows are too bushy. You have to do something about them. Your hair is growing too thick, and it’s all over your body. You can’t look like that.”
She hands her a pair of tweezers and the girl has to manage on her own. She clumsily tries to pluck her eyebrows. They come out all crooked. The changes are basically irreversible.
She always has to do everything by herself. She doesn’t remember it ever being different at home and until she moves out, she grows up in shame.
It will take her a very long time to accept her body.
As an adult, she becomes involved in the BDSM scene. She realises that she wants to experience the pain mostly in her legs. “It’s the pain you inflict on yourself for therapeutic purposes in order to feel them,” she says. “When I feel this pain, I know that what’s hurting is the pain of a harmed and ashamed child.”
She’s now 32 years old and even though she’s been having sex for half the time she’s been alive, she’s only just beginning to consider her body to be sexy. She didn’t know how to uncover this feeling before. Now she no longer stands with her legs crossed, one foot placed on top of the other, because she’s ashamed that she exists and that someone can see her legs.
But it takes years for Magda to start trusting other women. In the end, however, she manages to find those she can talk to about shame in her surroundings. She becomes involved in the body-positive movement. She feels that it strengthens her. She also becomes a confidant for others. Women like to confide in her, because she doesn’t judge or criticise. And she appears liberated. Because that’s how she wants to feel. When she’s on her period, she doesn’t wear pads or tampons. She only uses a towel. She works from home, so she can do this.
While menstruating she wants to feel her body, she doesn’t intend to inhibit or block anything. She stops feeling disgusted by herself.
One day at a party, while dancing, when she’s all grown up, she feels her legs for the first time. She runs to the bathroom, takes off her trousers and looks at them. She thinks, “You’ve taken me to so many beautiful places, how could I have hated you so much?”
Don’t expose us to the sight of blood
Ola starts bleeding a week before her 12th birthday. She knows nothing about menstruation. It’s hard to believe. After all, menstruation is talked about a little in the media, it’s already present in commercials.
They talked about it at school, but Ola wasn’t there that day. She doesn’t remember why she didn’t go. But she’s sure that the day before her mother had decided to give her a boyish haircut, almost a buzz cut.
“You won’t have any more problems with your hair, you won’t have to wash and comb it too often,” she explains. Ola cries, she doesn’t want to live with short hair any more, she doesn’t like it. Her brothers and her mother don’t understand why she’s crying, she looks good for goodness sake. At home, you need hands to work, not someone constantly looking at themselves in the mirror.
Her mother always makes decisions about her body. Ola has no say in the matter. She doesn’t know what she likes or dislikes. She doesn’t know which clothes are hers and which are her brothers’. She wears jackets that are too small for her, sweaters that are too tight or too large, and clothes that aren’t appropriate for the weather. She doesn’t mind. She never complains that something is pinching or scratching her. From a very young age, her sweatshirts, trousers and even socks were given to her by her mother. She has absolute power over the girl. Once she started changing her 11-year-old daughter before choir rehearsal in the middle of the room, in front of everyone. Ola didn’t react. She didn’t feel that she had her mother’s permission to cover herself up. Ola now thinks it was then that she stopped feeling her own body. It was her mother who was supposed to feel it for her.
Even today (she’s now 23 years old), when she has to cut her hair, she thinks what her mother would say about it.
In second grade, she would tell Ola,
“You should cover up ‘that spot’. Remember, when you’re wearing a skirt and aren’t wearing tights, all the boys will want to see what’s between your legs.”
Ola is supposed to cover not only that spot, but preferably her whole body. Her household is a religious one. It has strict rules. You don’t talk about “those things”. That’s why she doesn’t know anything about menstruation.
She gets her first period on a trip with the Oasis Movement which she went on with her aunt and uncle. She has no idea what’s happening to her. She remembers something about a particular ailment that women sometimes have but can’t remember what it was all about or what it’s called. She doesn’t think something bad is happening, but she feels she has to hide it. She doesn’t know how long the bleeding will last. She puts toilet paper in her underwear. She’s ashamed. She thinks she should tell her aunt and uncle, but how should she go about it? Nothing is hurting her, so she thinks it’ll be easier to hide it. But it only seems that way to her. She’s actually leaving a trail behind her. A drop of blood in the bathroom. A stain on her clothes. On the chair, on the sofa.
When the trip is about to come to an end, there’s a big party for campers downstairs in the common room. Ola’s uncle is growling at her. Her aunt’s upset. They’re sitting with sour expressions on their faces.
“Is something wrong?” Ola asks.
“You’re doing everything wrong! You don’t say what needs to be said and you don’t do what needs to be done!” her uncle screams at her.
“We need to talk,” her aunt says and they take the girl to her room. They look annoyed and they look down on Ola. Ola feels that something she’s done has ruined their whole trip.
In the room, her aunt screams at her, “Do you even know what’s happening to your body?”
Ola doesn’t know what to answer: if she says she has no idea, they won’t be happy, she can see from their reactions. She says the first medical term she can think of. She can’t remember what it was, but it definitely wasn’t “menstruation”.
Her uncle starts pacing quickly up and down the length of the room. Her aunt takes her panties out of the drawer and starts counting them,
“One, two, three... five pairs of dirty pants! Five pairs stained with blood! Do you even know how this makes us feel? How uncomfortable this is for us? Do you even know what you’re putting us through? What you’re making us look at?”
Ola remains silent. She has no idea.
Her aunt pulls three pads out of her handbag and hands them to her. And the conversation ends there.
At home, the girl sees a pack of pads in the bathroom. So, her aunt already called her mum and she knows. But she’s not talking to her. She doesn’t ask how she’s doing. She just says,
“When you use one up, go to the boiler room and burn it in the furnace, don’t throw it away in here so the boys won’t notice.”
Ola has two brothers and she knows that they can’t find out about it. But sometimes her mother asks Ola in front of everyone without any embarrassment,
“Are you on your period today or not?”
“What are you telling everyone for?” Ola asks.
She’s embarrassed when she hears this and so are her brothers. Her mother thinks it’s funny.
Ola begins to mature, her breasts grow, hair starts growing under her armpits and on her legs. The other girls tell her she should have started depilating ages ago.
“At this age you have to!” they tell her.
But Ola feels she should have her mother’s permission. She’d never ask her father because his opinion at home doesn’t matter. But she’s afraid her mother will scream at her. There’s enough work to be done at home and out in the fields, without Ola bothering her mother with such trifles.
When she’s about to leave for her next Oasis Movement meeting, she gathers her courage. She asks quietly (because she usually whispers),
“Mum, can I shave my legs before I leave?”
She expects her mother to scream at her. But all she does is laugh,
“Sure, why not shave your fanny as well while you’re at it.”
Ola doesn’t shave her legs for years to come. She wears long trousers in high school and wears two pairs of tights for school celebrations. She’s so ashamed that someone will notice her hair. One day she finds old razor blades in the house and removes her hair. She’s had enough.
There’s only one person she can turn to: her aunt who she can always call, have a heart-to-heart with, talk to. She’s the one who gives her strength and support. She’s the one who praises Ola for wanting to go to therapy because she can’t cope with accepting her own body and because she doesn’t believe in herself.
Ola moves to another city to study.
“Come home,” her mother pleads.
“I didn’t go back. I gave her a therapist’s contact details. I was surprised she went. Maybe it will never be good between us, but it might get better,” she says. She knows her mother hates her femininity. This is how Ola’s grandfather raised her mother: he wanted to have sons but only daughters were born. Her mother was taught that she was defective.
“I know she was hurt, but so am I and I have to think about myself,” Ola confesses.
Now she’s learning to overcome her shame. She still has a little bit of it in her: she feels ashamed when her blouse’s sleeves are too short. It makes her feel exposed, naked. She doesn’t wear anything with exposed necklines or skirts that are too short.
She’s still getting to know her body. She already knows she doesn’t like pads because she’s afraid something will leak. She uses a menstrual cup because you have to work with your body when using one: learn how to put the cup in, unfold it, check if it fits right. That’s how Ola is learning to regain control over herself. She likes cups because the blood in the cup is clean. You can’t feel it like you can on pads. She doesn’t have the best memories of pads.
You’ve been feeding too long
The internist: “The child is already six months old, you can slowly start thinking about weaning.”
The gynaecologist: “He’s a year old now. Why are you still breastfeeding him?”
The psychiatrist: “I won’t prescribe your medications. You have to wean your baby. He’s two years old, there’s no point any more. Why are you still doing it?”
The orthopaedist: “You’re still breastfeeding such a big child? I’m not going to give you the ointment then. It’ll filter through to the milk.”
She’s heard that she’s breastfeeding too long a million times from a lot of doctors. Ever since the boy was six months old, they’ve all had their opinions on the subject. That’s why she stopped telling them about it.
She’s heard she shouldn’t breastfeed any more. She’s heard she’s only doing it for her own benefit. She read somewhere that women who breastfeed three-year-old children derive pleasure from it. That they sexualise babies and that she should be ashamed of herself.
But Kaja has no intention of being ashamed. She breastfed her older son for three years. She got pregnant again and didn’t stop feeding. She finished feeding Staś a week before giving birth to Ignaś. She didn’t say a word about it to the gynaecologist.
“I know what I’d hear. I know her opinion on the subject. I didn’t admit that I was breastfeeding, because I figured that if there were any problems with the pregnancy and the doctor told me that the baby was in danger or forbade me from doing sport, it would be obvious that I would stop feeding then too. But nothing like that happened: the pregnancy was a healthy one. Sure, I’d prefer to have a relationship with my doctor based on honesty, but I didn’t want to hear that I’ve been breastfeeding too long again and I’d already made my decision. I took the liberty of keeping it to myself. I didn’t feel like changing doctors, it wasn’t very convenient for me,” she says.
What is the reason for pointing out to women that they’ve been breastfeeding too long? Why do people make them feel embarrassed? Kaja thinks it’s out of ignorance. Our generation relies heavily on what it hears from older women, from the generation before which only breastfed the baby up to a maximum of six months. Kaja reads everything she can on the subject. She believes that many doctors don’t know about the reports released by the WHO which recommended that mothers breastfeed for the first two years.
Kaja refuses to be embarrassed. Her advantage is her knowledge and confidence. However, she realises that there are plenty of women who feel embarrassed when they hear, “You’ve been breastfeeding for too long, what do you think it looks like?” And they give up.
That’s why she supports them. She is active on the lactation forum and fights against the feelings of shame and guilt which nursing women are pushed into. Because they’ve been breastfeeding for too long, or not long enough. Because they publicly expose their breasts instead of finding a bathroom. She had a similar situation herself. She was sitting in a shopping centre once, feeding her baby.
“Cover yourself up! There’s a bathroom over there and a room for mothers,” she was told.
The problem is the mothers’ room is sprayed all over with perfume so you can’t smell the full nappies left there and her son cries instead of eating. Who cares if she sits on a bench, so what if people pass by her?
Once she even breastfed in a cemetery. She came to visit her grandfather’s grave, her son was only two months old at the time. He was thirsty. She sat down on a bench and took her breast out. She’d never seen such an outrage before.
“In a place like this! Have you no shame?” people said.
“He’s hungry, I’m going to feed him,” she replied.
“Nobody says anything to parents who give their baby a bottle to drink from. They’re outraged by the sight of part of a breast,” says Kaja.
A lot of women are ashamed of breastfeeding because they’re embarrassed by nudity. That someone will see a little bit of their bust, that they won’t feel comfortable with it. It’s hard to tell someone, “don’t be ashamed”. This is something you work on for years.
When did Kaja start feeling more comfortable with her body? When she started doing sports. Before that, she thought her body was ugly, battered, she didn’t like it, and she was a bit ashamed of it. She started doing Taekwondo. She noticed that her body could be strong, flexible and capable of a lot. She gained respect for it. The second breakthrough moment was childbirth. She started looking at herself differently. She used to go to the beach only in one-piece costumes that covered her belly. After giving birth, her stomach was covered in stretch marks but she decided to wear a bikini to the beach. She figured that her belly was not a cause for shame.
Childbirth changed something in her mind. She knows she’s the exception, many women feel bad about their bodies after giving birth. But she felt free. In the postnatal room, she would air her crotch, even when a family member would come to visit her friend from the next bed over. She would express the milk because she had to.
She has a lot of support in her family: her mother fully accepts her decisions. She might not be a big fan of breastfeeding for so many years and she doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s so beautiful!” but she respects her choice. Her mother-in-law boasts to everyone that her daughter-in-law breastfed one child for three years and is now breastfeeding another. This makes it easier for Kaja to bear what she hears from strangers, because at least she doesn’t have to fight with her family.
They regret being women
Her research shows that, as a society, we know nothing about what adolescent girls are experiencing. We don’t know what shame they’ve been struggling with since childhood. We think that it’s 2020 and it’s impossible for there to be teenagers who don’t know what menstruation is. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Marta Majchrzak, a sociologist, started conducting projects concerning under-age women, their adolescence and menstruation. She was most shocked by a conversation with 14-year-olds who said that when they’re on their period they regret being women. It’s difficult for them not to envy men, because they are so sore, so ashamed, and so often humiliated by their own physiology that they hate it.
“It takes a good couple of years for girls to accept the fact that they’re on their period, that it’s natural. The youngest ones aren’t reconciled with it,” explains Marta Majchrzak. “This just shows how much harm we do to children by introducing Family Life Education so late, that’s the first thing. Secondly, it shouldn’t be subject to any ideology, but it is.”
One of the girls confessed to the researcher that at Family Life Education lessons, the catechist said that using tampons is sinful, because touching yourself inside is sinful, and that all intravaginal measures spoil life, hinder pregnancy and childbirth.
“Such behaviour should be publicised and punished,” says Majchrzak.
As a researcher, she had the opportunity to talk to some experts who deal with the topic of femininity. She asked them at what age they thought girls developed shame with regard to their femininity. They would all say 10 years of age.
“When either the breasts of the girls in your class have grown and yours haven’t, so you’re ashamed that your chest is flat, or yours have already started growing and you have bigger nipples and you’re ashamed of that instead, or that you have too much body hair. Being 10 is a time in girls’ lives when you’re screwed because you’re always standing out, you’re always ashamed, and there’s very little talk about that shame. The level of embarrassment towards yourself affects your identity. Very early on in our childhoods we distance ourselves from our own bodies. We feel that it’s failing us, that it’s different than we expected. Boys have it a little easier in this respect – also because the traditional perception of femininity doesn’t include physical fitness. Girls often care less about it and, unless a girl comes from a home in which this physical effort is important and the parents encourage it, there isn’t even much support from their own bodies, they can’t be satisfied that e.g. they play football well. Physical effort could be a source of satisfaction that the body is agile and we don’t even have that. Boys have a better connection with their bodies. They also encounter problems, of course, but they play basketball, football or volleyball more. A girl on the other hand isn’t supposed to sweat because then she looks ugly,” she explains.
10-year-olds realise that they are slowly becoming women, so they start focusing more on what femininity is, how to pursue it and what its patterns are. Their environment redoubles its effort to direct it – the most frequently suggested pattern is the traditional one. You should look nice, smell nice, not burp and not talk too loudly.
“The body-positive movement works well for older girls, already familiar with the Internet. Young children are left stranded,” explains the sociologist.
A lot of young girls are embarrassed that they are insufficient as women. Not only don’t they understand what’s happening to them, but they also feel that they are hopeless at becoming women. They are embarrassed in front of each other and in front of boys that they are failing. They all observe each other and always compare themselves to each other. They feel better than someone and worse than someone else. If you care too much about your appearance, you can be judged as “shallow”, if you don’t care, you’re “slovenly”.
“When I listened to it, I had the impression that we were talking about a labyrinth with no way out, that whichever door you’d knock on, you’d get hit with a pan. Either by a friend, or by a boy, or by yourself or by your mother. Femininity is a game in which you’re losing all the time. That’s why these young girls are already learning that it’s safest not to stand out,” explains Marta Majchrzak. “When I hear these stories of shame from women who are entering adulthood, I know these are stories of suffering. Both mental and physical. It applies to menstrual pains and to wearing uncomfortable clothes or either flattening or push-up bras. This suffering is only related to the fact that we are women.”
Neither home nor school helps in channelling these emotions. Parents don’t talk about adolescence with their children at all or talk about it very little.
Of course, there are mothers who tell their daughters: “celebrate your femininity, celebrate your breasts, show them your potential”, but this can also embarrass the girls. In both traditional and progressive environments, children are not heard out. They have no one to share what they feel, no one to acknowledge their shame and tell them that shame is natural when one grows up.
Majchrzak says that the key is to raise boys and girls in such a way that they respect and understand each other. Boys should learn as much as possible about girls and vice versa. But this requires systemic changes.
“I sometimes hear from mums and grandmothers that they are ashamed that they didn’t manage to prepare their child well to like themselves and to live their lives in their own way, that they made their daughter or granddaughter feel ashamed of herself, and in adulthood it’s difficult to overcome this shame,” she adds. “I hear it from both progressive and traditional women. That’s what they have in common: everyone would like the children to be happy and to grow into people who don’t have to be ashamed of themselves forever.”
What do you call “it”?
Maja realised she never had had a vagina in her family home. She had a butt which would be a reference for everything. And since her vagina had no name, it didn’t exist. No one would talk about it at home. She once called it “butt” when talking to her partner and he was very surprised. “What? That’s not a butt!” he responded.
Maja knew it wasn’t biologically, but she didn’t have a name for it. Or she was ashamed to use it.
She still has trouble naming it. Pussy is a diminutive, it sounds childish. She tries to get used to the word, but it’s unnatural for her. There are words she likes more, but they aren’t natural for her either.
“If I didn’t say ‘soda’ instead of ‘pop’ when I was a kid, I’m unlikely to say it now. So if something so neutral to me is so hard to get past, then how am I supposed to deal with ‘pussy’?” she says.
She likes “yoni”, for instance, but she can’t imagine being in bed with her partner and saying, “my yoni hurts”. It just doesn’t sound natural.
“I don’t have a word I could use without feeling embarrassed, just like I say I have a headache,” she confesses.
Maja doesn’t come from a puritan family at all, but such things were simply not talked about. Apart from being told she’s flat-chested – she’s heard that often enough. Her breasts started growing late, the kids in the class would laugh about it, “Concave chest! Flat front, flat rear, that’s how God created you, dear!” One time, she was trying on one of her older sister’s dresses when she had to go to a concert at her music school. It turned out to be too baggy on her. Her mother and sister both quipped, “Your boobs are too flat.”
And that’s what stayed in her mind.
To this day she has trouble finding clothes that will fit her. They hang loosely around her bust, under her armpits, which makes her look bad in almost anything. But now she’s an adult and she knows that it’s not her body that’s the problem, it’s the fact that clothing manufacturers don’t take her body type into account.
She managed to overcome this shame of small breasts on many occasions. She walks around the house naked. She started to go to work without a bra, because wearing any kind of bra bothered her, it was a nuisance. At first she wasn't at ease, she was uncomfortable because the clothes didn’t fit her well. She doesn’t wear bras any more. And she thinks the whole pandemic situation has done a lot of women good. She has a lot of friends who have given up wearing bras altogether or have switched to wearing sports bras.
“I don’t feel less feminine because of my small breasts. I have no problem with what anyone will think,” Maja says. “Same with my body hair.”
She used to have it waxed for years, then she just stopped.
She was at a meeting with friends once, they were playing board games. When she won, she raised her hands in the air. Her boyfriend’s friend was struck dumb. He saw hair under the girl’s armpits. He was speechless.
“Let guys find out that girls have armpit hair,” says Maja. “This year, I was able to put on a short skirt with my legs unshaven. If someone has a problem with that, tough. I have no intention of feeling shame.”
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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