We were brainwashed as children not to talk about our bodies. It was uncouth and vulgar to do so. We did not even have words for our private parts. I remember the shocked silence in Washington’s National Theater, when Eve Ensler, standing downstage center in her famous play, listed thirty names of the female genitalia. I thought the prim lady next to me in the box would faint. Eve went on to say that her mother would instead use the pronoun ‘it.’ That struck a chord for me, for in our very articulate family, even in a medical emergency, we spoke of a private part as ‘it.’
That is where our education stopped, despite the occasional purple passage we would find in some novel, for we had no real or visual understanding. My friends, who are primary-care doctors, tell me that some young, eager couples come to them with problems that are both sad and hilarious, and spring only from abysmal ignorance of male and female bodies.
Among my school friends, I emerged as a hero, for I had found, in my father’s library, secreted behind Shakespeare and Tolstoy, volumes of Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes. They were not easy reading, but I persevered, and finally figured out what Lady Chatterley was really doing with her robust gardener. I now drew diagrams that I had seen in the Stopes volume and stunned my classmates with my expertise.
Of course, it was nothing of the kind.
I understood very little of the physical aspects of coupling. Worse, I understood nothing of its emotional aspects. Surely, I was not unique in my appalling ignorance. People who go through a process called education often get to know little of what is going to affect their life so much.
Yet it was not for want of interest. We were dying of curiosity. We wanted to know why adults always talked about some things in whispers and tried so hard to keep us out of hearing. We were eager to know what certain words and events in the newspapers meant, especially as the adults clearly reveled in talking about those. We simply wanted to know. But nobody told us anything worth knowing.
Trying to learn about our bodies from Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes is like trying to learn language by scanning Facebook and to learn music from a couple of pop albums. You can go away, as I am sure I did, with a lot of wrong assumptions and suppositions. Growing up, I did not encounter Japanese or Korean women, and I nurtured the silly notion that a woman with almond eyes or a button nose simply could not be pretty. I was lucky to sit in a seminar next to a stunning French-Chinese girl and experienced a severe case of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ a conflict between my idea and an undeniable reality. I was young, and my hormones quickly told me the truth. Swiftly, I shed my naive assumption.
I am all for people looking their best, but it does little good, to men and women alike, to grow up with the idea that they normally look terrible and must resort to desperate means to come to par. Nor does it make great sense for people to spend enormous amount of time and money to achieve the perfect eyebrow or select the right color and switch for their hair. I could have done without the feeling of inferiority that the modes of the time foisted on me. I can recall the time when I ran to the mirror, the moment I left my bed, to make sure that my hairstyle was appropriate. What a relief it was, alas far too late, when I started shaving my head as well as my cheeks.
We live in our bodies. It helps to know of those abodes. It helps also to have that knowledge without acquiring false ideas about some standards our bodies need to meet.