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Why we should ditch the 'perfect woman' myth

This month, countless women resp...

Posted: Jul 23, 2018 1:52 PM
Updated: Jul 23, 2018 1:52 PM

This month, countless women responded to former Glamour editor Cindi Leive, one of the latest women leaders to urge others speak out and say they are among the #oneinfour women who have had an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

But despite this cascade of stories, and the incredible work done by organizations like Shout Your Abortion and We Testify to destigmatize a woman's right to choose, there are still many who stay silent or hesitate to talk about their experiences. Why is the story of our reproductive health so hard for us to tell? And when is that going to change?

This question is deeply important to me, professionally and personally. I've never had an abortion. But I have had a series of miscarriages. And I have never felt less perfect -- or more flawed -- than I did at age 36 when I had my first miscarriage. Until I had my second, and then, this year, at 42, my fifth.

It took me years to start talking publicly about my fertility struggles because, being bound up as so many women are in the perfection trap for so long, I was concerned about what those failed pregnancies said about me.

Having a miscarriage to me was an infinitely more painful version of when I got rejected from law school (more than once) or lost my election for US Congress. Failing so publicly during my run for office started to free me from my fear of imperfection. Everyone knew what had happened, I only needed to learn to accept that it was done. But my miscarriages were deeply private. I was paralyzed by the fear of being judged that my body -- that I -- was doing something seemingly so natural, so wrong.

I've spent the last several years studying, speaking and writing on women's punishing pursuit of perfection. From an early age, whether overtly or through invisible but potent micro acts, girls are taught to look pretty, get straight A's and be universally liked. Rewarded for perfection all our lives, and so in love with the praise we get for doing everything right, we're conditioned to be terrified of failure.

Nowhere does the pressure on women to be perfect -- to avoid failure -- play out more prominently than as mothers, whether that role is potential or realized.

According to the toxic narrative of perfection many girls face, being a "successful" woman necessitates effortlessly navigating the journey from girlfriend to wife. It demands a stirring of the maternal instinct at the appropriate time and when one is with the appropriate partner, has an abundance of eggs, a normal 28-day cycle and a culminates in a full-term, healthy pregnancy.

In this narrative, ambivalence about having children, infertility, unplanned pregnancies or the decision to terminate them are imperfections, flaws, failures. This narrative is more than wrong, it's discriminatory and psychologically destructive.

The shame -- and subsequent silence -- around deviations from the so-called norm doesn't stop with abortions or miscarriages. When was the last time you got an out-of-office autoreply that read: "Hi, I'm having my eggs frozen and retrieved today, I will be slow to respond to email?" It's simply not done. And yet more than 20,000 American women have had their eggs frozen, a process that requires time-consuming and intensive treatment before, during and after.

For many, admitting we are imperfect is tantamount to saying we are worthless. So we hide all the ways we "mess up." We hide our stories. But the longer we stay quiet about our reproductive realities, the more they -- and we -- are pushed to the margins. The less often we talk about our abortions, the more often -- as Ms. Leive wrote -- those who deny us our freedom can do so without looking us in the eye.

And those freedoms are on the line now, perhaps more than ever before. Pending confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate, Judge Brett Kavanaugh will likely replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. His opinions to date offer a small window into what kinds of votes we should expect of him as an associate justice. In 2017, Kavanaugh ruled against an undocumented teenager seeking an abortion while in federal detention. He wrote, in his opinion for that case, that "the government has permissible interests in ... refraining from facilitating abortion." In 2015, Kavanaugh took the position that employers have the right to deny employees health insurance coverage for birth control.

The perspectives of those in power impact our policies -- and in turn, our culture. We need politicians putting their full weight behind issues such as paid parental leave, health coverage for fertility treatments, and better support for mothers breastfeeding in the workplace. Until they do, we'll have a long way to go towards truly shifting attitudes and empowering society at large to discuss these topics openly and without repercussion.

It's time for us to speak up, in our tweets, on our blogs, at our kitchen tables. Because women will have children, we will have miscarriages, we will have abortions. These are not imperfections or flaws or failures. These are our realities, our choices, our bodies. By telling our stories and sharing our experiences, women are tackling taboos --- and pushing back on a standard of perfect that's harmful to our health, our happiness and our success.

In this fight for a more perfect union -- a union where all people are treated, valued, cared for equally -- we must start by discarding outdated, dangerous notions of a more perfect woman.

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