A few weeks ago, an established patient of mine brought in her teenage daughter for the first time because she was complaining of dysmenorrhea and irregular menses. The young woman, aged 16 years, was not sexually active. However, she and her mother requested oral contraceptives to try to regulate her periods and treat the dysmenorrhea.
No exam was needed, so along with the contraceptive counseling, I spent the visit providing patient education on self-breast exams, safe sex practices (for future reference) and proper genital hygiene.
As we talked I was impressed with how much the young patient knew about her body and her menstrual cycle, as well as normal physiology. I asked her where she learned so much, and she smiled at her mom.
“My mom makes sure that my sisters and I know what’s normal and healthy for our bodies, so we don’t freak out like some other girls. She wants us to be proud of what our bodies can do and to respect ourselves,” she said.
I applaud this mother. So many of my adolescent patients know very little about female anatomy or the normal functions of the female reproductive system. I often have adolescents tell me that their vaginas are gross and their periods are a curse. Often times these patients’ mothers are sitting in the exam room agreeing with them.
Parents, and mothers especially, can have a huge influence on a young woman’s body image. I was very slim growing up, but my mother warned me that I would struggle with my weight some day because I was built just like her. Despite being a fit and active adult woman today, I still fret over every extra pound. I know my mom’s intentions were not to have me obsession over weight, but her words still affect me to this day.
Centuries ago, women were revered and honored for their ability to bring forth and nourish new life. Our society seems to have lost that appreciation. There are so many images and ideas that reinforce a negative, unrealistic or unhealthy body image for young women in our culture.
I’d love to see a movement that emphasizes not how women’s bodies look, but the amazing things our bodies can do. Mothers are usually the first ones to discuss puberty with their daughters. This is also the perfect time to educate them about the remarkable female body.
Robyn Carlisle, MSN, CNM, WHNP, works as a full-scope midwife at University Doctors and Kennedy University Hospital in Sewell, N.J.