One nearly universal experience among women is that our relationships with our bodies are complicated. We’re desired. We’re shamed. We’re immodest. We’re too modest. These mixed messages start early and continue throughout life. But for me, it wasn’t until I began breastfeeding that I felt some sense of control over my body’s use and purpose.

I started to look at my body differently when I was 14. That was the first time I was howled at by a much older man—which made me suddenly feel very unsafe. But, beyond that, I felt embarrassed that my body could draw such unwarranted attention. Shame crept in because it was my body that made this man react. Because of how I looked, I was being taunted and made to feel less-than.

For many of us, our relationships with our bodies can become more complex during teenage years. Many young women quietly compare their physical features, especially their breasts. Being thin and having big breasts and wide hips were what we were taught we needed. Why? Because men desired it. 

Yet, aside from earning jealous looks, a girl also earns an increased level of physical insecurity as her body changes. I had to intentionally pick my clothing to not “show too much.” Otherwise, as society has taught us, I was “asking” for cat calls, objectification and glares. As I soon learned, it wasn’t just my body that attracted this unwanted attention. Most women–no matter their body shape or size–have felt unsafe simply because they are a woman.

Breastfeeding made me confront my relationship with my body

When I first started breastfeeding, the amount of shame I felt for my body was a bit overwhelming. The first few days in the hospital it seemed everyone had a glimpse of my naked body and was grabbing and touching me unabashedly (while I was fully abashed). Nurses and doctors were poking and prodding at me to make sure everything was alright. The lactation consultant, nurses and family members were grabbing and looking at my breasts to assist me as I was learning to feed my new life.  

I understood in my mind everyone was there to help me. I understood. And, yet, I felt waves of disgust. Talking to my doctor about this, we discussed it could possibly be a sign of D-MER and she told me to continue to monitor the feelings over the next several weeks.

What I discovered from tracking my experience was that I did not have D-MER, but I had shame. Shame over my body. This area of my body that I had been conditioned to believe was something to either hide or flaunt based on the environment was now receiving constant attention. The very breasts that I have tried to hide or cover up to be “modest” were now constantly out to either feed or heal post-feeding. I noticed that I felt so uncomfortable just looking at them.

But although this didn’t change overnight, my feelings have evolved in the past few weeks of breastfeeding. I now have a sense of victory when I breastfeed. I’m sure oxytocin is a part of it—still, I believe something greater has shifted emotionally, not just chemically.

My little guy looks at my body as a source of life and nourishment and comfort. When he fusses or cries, my gentle rocking brings him immediate comfort. He leans against me during tummy time to learn how to increase his muscles. The warmth of my body puts him to sleep at night. And when I breastfeed him, he’s fed and nourished. I, with just this body, am able to provide for life. 

What once made me feel like a girl now makes me feel like a woman. What once crippled me, now empowers me. What once made me feel shame now makes me feel like a mother.

I used to feel embarrassed because of how much my body was objectified. Even if I were completely alone with him, I’d still feel those pangs of discomfort as if someone somewhere out there was creepily watching. But having this little man watch my body and not see it as something to warrant a whistle or howl but see it as something that sustains and nurtures him, has shifted everything. Everything.

What once made me feel like a girl now makes me feel like a woman. What once crippled me, now empowers me. What once made me feel shame now makes me feel like a mother.

The very issue of breastfeeding comes with a litany of unwarranted advice, demands, insults and discouragements. A mother is reprimanded for using formula. For not using formula. For pumping. For not pumping enough. For weaning. For still breastfeeding past a certain age. I’ve listened to my friends struggle with not producing enough and trying various remedies to increase their supply to nurture their child. I’ve listened to other women deal with the pain of engorgement but pushing through the pain because they know their child is fed. 

Ultimately, I’ve seen women embrace their bodies for something, for someone, bigger than what society has diminished the female body to. Voices have tried to tell us what our breasts are supposed to look like and now how they’re supposed to be used. But this time, for the first time in my life, those voices are becoming white noise as I sing my son to sleep while he uses my breasts as his pillows. And it feels great.