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The Female Body and Why I’m an Advocate: Complexity, Sexuality, and Strength

Posted by on Apr 15, 2012 in Blog, Uncategorized | 10 comments

The Female Body and Why I’m an Advocate: Complexity, Sexuality, and Strength

Much like the wider society in which we live, the health world is biased.  In the past, this was an overt bias, but today, it’s much more insidious.  It’s hidden, and it’s sneaky.  But it’s there.   Researchers are mostly men.  Doctors are mostly men.   Pharmaceutical CEOs are mostly men.  Legislators in charge of delineating acceptable health care and health practices are mostly men.  And fight their biases as they might– while some try harder than others– they inevitably fail to account equally for feminine health.  It’s understandable, and most of them I do not begrudge because of it.

This bias is also true in the paleo community for a number of reasons.  For example, paleo has a reputation for being a cave man’s diet: it’s full of macho foods that are appropriate for men, but on the other hand are way too substantial, heavy, and masculine for a woman.  Most people in the movement acknowledge that this is a silly notion, but the fact of the matter remains: when those of us who research and believe strongly about the paleo template are reaching out to the wider world, we want women to hear the message.  Sexism in the paleo image makes it harder to convince women to take these ideas seriously.

Moreover, most of the paleo thinkers and writers are men.  Of the “big shot” types, I’d say, and with a fair bit of accuracy I think, that perhaps 15 percent are women.  Of the rest, the number goes up, but not by too much.  Women are not at the forefront of this movement, for one reason or another I don’t quite understand.

Much as these men with voices might care about women, they still speak to a general audience.  It’s very unlikely for them to intuitively and completely empathetically grasp women’s issues, or at least be all that fired up about them.  They can care, certainly, and I’d point you to Chris Kresser’s work on pregnancy and the thyroid as a prime example.  I know that they care.  Yet he has shared publicly that the reason he is so well-read in those topics is his relationship to his wife.  I say this not at all to decry his work, but to exalt it.  And to demonstrate that inevitably our passions for certain things are conditioned by the context of our lives.

Meanwhile, the sad fact remains that while men and women both have specific physiological needs, it’s a fair bit easier for things to go wrong in a female body.   Being equipped for pregnancy is no laughing matter, and the female body works very hard to protect the nutrients, organs, and hormones necessary to carry children.    This is not something that men have to do.  Which also explains partly why so much of the medical research on gender-neutral diseases such as cancer and heart disease has been performed on men.  Studying women introduces too many new variables into the analysis because we have constantly fluctuating hormones.   This makes the intricacies of the female body’s response less predictable.  Men’s bodies are simpler than women’s, no questions asked.

So when people ask: Why women?  Why is a woman’s body special?  And why do you enjoy writing about it so much?  I have three answers  I really love: it’s complex, it’s sexy, and it’s strong.

The female body is complex.  As I mentioned, the female body has tons of needs and specific intricacies that the male body lacks.  Women vary first between each other, and they also vary secondly within their own selves, depending on the timing of their cycles, and also on the time of their lives.  A woman’s body is vastly different between 20 and 30, and 30 and 40, and even greater up at 50, which is not something that can be easily said of men.   Additionally, it varies greatly by whether or not the woman is menstruating, in the follicular phase, ovulating, in the luteal phase, or experiencing irregular menstrual cycles.  The female body is very much constantly in flux.

Because the female body is in a constant state of flux, it is delicate.   The pituitary gland produces a large number of hormones, and they must be present in the blood in proper balance in order for the body to function properly.  Estrogen (in its several forms), testosterone (in its several forms), DHEA and DHEA-S, luteneizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, pregnenolone, progesterone, prolactin… these each work on each other.  Their relative amounts are related, and dependent upon the activity of all of the others.  Some of the means by which this happens are by trading off spots in Sex Hormone Binding Globulins, acting directly on the ovaries with different instructions, and acting as negative feedback signals with the hypothalamus.

Secondly, the female body is sexy.  The endocrine system may have more parts than Europe has crises, but the end result of it all is hotness.  When natural, it’s even more amazing.  I’m not talking about some slim, sticky thing on the cover of Shape magazine.  Instead, I am talking about a woman ripe with estrogen, so that her breasts are as big as her genetics will allow.  I’m talking about a woman swimming in testosterone, so that she has a voracious sex drive.  And I’m talking about a woman with the proper pituitary signalling, such that she ovulates and menstruates and is capable of carrying live organisms that will eventually be real human beings in her abdomen.  This is a woman who is in tune with her body.  She gives it what it needs.  She isn’t a size zero– she’s a size hotness, with fat on her hips, and really I couldn’t be more proud of or more vociferous about natural health precisely for this reason.  Women don’t need society.  We don’t need norms.  What we need is to love ourselves.  What we need is empowerment.   What we need is natural beauty and unashamed sexuality.

Hell yes.

The female body is strong.   The complex system of hormones can go off track.  Relatively easily.  For example, women experience higher rates of depression than men.  We are threatened by higher rates of acne.  And it is easier for us to become overweight.  This is because hormones, in today’s environment, are easily disrupted.  This makes women more susceptible to a whole host of problems.  This is unfortunate.  It’s why I feel so passionately about the issue, and it’s why there is such a vibrant  need for women’s health advocacy.

However, once homeostasis is restored from being off-kilter, a woman’s body is liberated to direct its energy towards maintenance instead of repair.  Maintenance really is pretty powerful.  Think of the loads of women out there plugging away on diets of peanut butter and Ho-Hos without a care in the world.  They may end up being derailed themselves some day (I do not wish this upon them), but the point remains that their bodies have been working properly so far, and are continuing to work properly, such that whatever damage they’re currently doing with the Ho-Ho’s is repaired quickly and easily enough to maintain relative health.   If a woman’s endocrine function can be restored, she’ll end up in a pretty badass, stable state.  Especially if she has restored her system with a natural, sustainable, healthful lifestyle.  She might start out restoring her system with medications, which can help.  But that isn’t a good a guarantee for the long run.  What’s the most powerful assurance of long-term health is restoring a body’s balance with natural methods.

And then what’s going to stop her?

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10 Comments

  1. Wow! Loved it!

  2. I really appreciate the way you stick up for us as women. I appreciate the way you empower us with knowledge and share your opinions on these issues that affect us, especially in the paleo community.

  3. Hi there,
    Just want to say, I find your blog inspiring!
    I’ve been living a healthy paleo for about 3 months now, and feel great :)
    Considering coming off the pill next month, do you have any tips about controlling your hormones and encouraging ovulation?

    Jess x

  4. Stefani, I am so thankful that I found your site. I am the nutritional coach at my local CF affiliate. We just finished a paleo challenge and I have been the one that is discouraged by how I am feeling after eating this way for the last few years. I just turned 40, so I suppose that I need to be ready for some changes, but what I am discouraged about is my hair that keeps getting finer, my skin problems and my smaller boobs. Here’s the ‘ic’ for me…I like where my hips are now. I have a naturally curvy butt, and round hips. What I didn’t like, were the saddle bags that just wouldn’t go away…should I not worry about that? Because when I eat cleanly, they almost disappear. Bread seems to bring them back. I KNOW that this is your point, but adding starches back is kind of scary to me. I don’t want the saddle bags back! However, I DO want to be happy and have good skin and hair and have a sex drive. And I know that I do not have a healthy relationship with food or with my body. I think about food a lot, but more as ‘what is okay to eat, what should I not eat.’ I don’t sleep enough or well; and I project my food issues onto others. Although, no one should be eating regular pizza or drinking pop or eating Joe Louis cakes! And don’t feed that to my kids! (Rant over.) Anyway, that’s where I am right now…I’ll keep reading and trying.

    • Hi Tiffany,
      Why don’t you try adding starches slowly? Do 100 carbs one day and see how you feel, and wait a day or two… or slowly ramp up with 50, 60, g, etc– or if you don’t weigh your food, which you shouldn’t really because that’s ridiculous, go from half a potato plus veggies to a full potato,… etc. If you start feeling uncomfortable, scale it back. But the thing is, I don’t think you will. I’ve worked with a lot of women, and so so so so so many of them find that adding in a reasonable amount of carbohydrate.. usually around 100 g/day but sometimes more and sometimes less, really works well for them and does not cause them to put on the scary kind of weight (or weight at all) whatsoever.
      Sleep more! :)
      It’s interesting to me that you say “when you eat cleanly” they disappear. Carbohydrates ARE clean! Bread is not. Carbs are! So please do not worry… I think inching forward with starches and seeing how you feel could do you wonders.
      Stefani

  5. I am so excited to have found you! I just came over from a bunch of comments on Mark’s Daily Apple’s latest blog post recommending you, and I am so glad I did. I too see food as something so important, so vital and central to who we are as women, and I think that we can really be empowered by it once we stop using it to do horrible things like diet to our bodies.

    I too am concerned about the accidental (or otherwise) bias that is in the health field. As an English woman, it is a problem that I see as deeply rooted in history, but I am full of hope that this can be a time of change if we grasp that right now.

    It is really great to meet someone that speaks my mind so eloquently.

  6. Stef,

    I am jumping up and down as I read this, as I feel so excited that you’re expressing what I, too, have felt. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! There are so many things that resonate with me, but I’ll touch on a few.

    Yes – women’s bodies are vastly different than men’s. We are not just smaller versions of men.

    Yes – why does soecity embrace the idea that a size zero boy’s body (but with large breasts) is the epitome of female hotness? Let’s let women radiate with health. For me this meant being 10-15 lbs. heavier than the weight my ego mind would like to be (and heavier than the women on the cover of Shape.)

    It also meant shifting my motivation. I want my health choices – how I eat and care for myself – to arise from a place of deep, deep love and reverence – not from a desire for control (i.e. – looking for the perfect diet so I could look like the Shape models!)

    I suffered from 20 years of eating disorders and a fixation with having a perfect body. After I healed my bulimia, I thought that if I just ate really, really, really clean (read: perfectly) that I could have that size 0 body that I had when I was bulimic – a body that had so little body fat I wasn’t menstruating. It is absurd, and yet it shows where my mind was!

    Food is sacred. My body is sacred. My womb and breasts are sacred, givers of life. Let me care for my body as the precious object that it is.

    (My heart is sacred, too. And I break my own heart when I turn food and my body into a battle ground, a source of judgment and fear and derision, a way to tell myself “I’m not enough.”)

    I think you are intuitively onto something, as well, that the paleo diet and concepts have been highly influenced by men and a male perspective. I think a paleo diet is fabulous for men’s yang bodies.

    By contrast, women’s bodies are much more yin, and I feel my best when I honor and heed this expansiveness in my body. I feel emotionally and physically dry, empty, barren, rigid and contracted when I become too yang – and that includes from eating too much meat.

    I integrate paleo concepts and a low sugar diet (sugar was my personal nemesis) with what my dear friend Marcia taught me about feeding all the organ systems of the body equally, what she calls 5 element nutrition. This is especially crucial for women with hormonal systems that are deeply intertwined.

    For me, this means eating carbohydrates like yams, winter squashes, red potatoes, green apples, berries, quinoa, or millet every day. I feel much more balanced and healthy when I eat this way instead of eating only meat, greens and fat. I get neurotic and irritable and tense and rigid when I don’t.

    Lastly, speaking of female hotness, have you checked out Nicole Deadone’s work? I thinks she’s speaking your language!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9QVq0EM6g4

    Thank you, thank you Stef for a great conversation.

    In love and care, Karly

  7. Awesome! That post had a powerful effect on me- especially about female bodies being sexy! You are a very eloquent writer. I have the same thoughts and find it interesting how the female body ideal has changed overtime (like paintings from the 17th century versus today’s athletic cover model).

    Body ideals aside, I like to let it all hang out. If my hormones are giving me emotional instability I let people working with me know. Sex, bloating, hormone fluctuations, whatever, there’s nothing about being a women that should be embarrassing or shameful. I like to think of my self as a person first, a person with a uterus second.

  8. Wow! Your articles are really helping me to get over an eating disorder. I feel that I focus WAY to much on body image, rather than on health and wellness. As I allow myself to eat without debilitating restriction, I feel joyful, alive, and well….even though I will gain weight. You have a very refreshing (and accurate) perspective on women’s bodies and health. Thanks.

  9. This kind of speaks to something that’s been bothering me for a little while about the very gendered rhetoric of female health right now…I’d be interested to hear your take.

    There’s a certain idea underlying this of biological determinism, that a woman who’s *not* curvy, not traditionally “feminine”, maybe hairier, maybe more muscular, maybe shaped more masculine, that those things make that person lesser. There are plenty of people in the world who have two x chromosomes but don’t identify as women, or who are masculine women and like it that way. Are those people “lesser”? Less healthy, less successful as humans with ancestral DNA? All the talk seems to really exclude those people (and their opposite numbers on the XY-side of things, and intersex individuals), and invalidate those ways of being, because it’s very focused on a single “perfect” target for what a woman should be…It’s a different target, granted, than the mainstream, but still a single target for success.

    Just some thoughts that have been kicking around in my head–maybe I spent too much time in liberal arts school, but as a Dartmouth grad, I bet you did too. :)

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