Listening to Women’s Bodies

Episode art for the podcast Bodies by Kathy Farthing, 2018

When I was diagnosed with chronic migraines five years ago, I didn’t feel as though I was pursuing a medical mystery, exactly. I had my first migraine when I was five, and they have been a part of my life ever since. What did feel mysterious was why nobody had told me that this mundane, common condition could get so bad—that migraines could transform into a daily, even nonstop event; that they could derail my life. That there was no standard, tolerable, or effective treatment made my attempts to manage the condition feel like a gauntlet, even an odyssey. The other mystery was that almost no one outside of my immediate family—including, initially, my doctors—seemed to comprehend how devastating this was.

In July, audio producer Allison Behringer released her podcast Bodies, distributed by Los Angeles’s NPR affiliate, KCRW. Each episode looks at what Behringer calls “a medical mystery” told through a particular woman’s story. Most of the episodes don’t track unusual diseases, outlying cases, or difficult-to-diagnose conditions, but rather the more humble, routine transitions, breakdowns, and malfunctions of the body. The first episode, for example, is an intimate account of Behringer’s first serious relationship, one that begins to unravel due to unexplained pain during sex. It’s notable not because painful sex is so rare—as we hear, it’s really not—but in part because it is Behringer’s first profound experience of being mystified and disappointed by her body. The intimacy of the subject, and Behringer’s willingness to make herself vulnerable as she seeks answers from doctors and loved ones, sets the tone for the show.

From there, Behringer turns to other women’s difficult experiences. There’s KalaLea, who has painful periods so heavy that she routinely misses work and often avoids going out; Reese, whose anxiety and disorganization persist despite all efforts to get it together; and Vivian, a family doctor with a newborn who refuses to breastfeed. As women find themselves blindsided by what it means to inhabit their bodies, complaints to doctors are met with blank stares, resignation, or pat responses. In the absence of knowledge, guidance, and, in many cases, empathy, each subject wonders what could be wrong—if there’s something wrong at all—and how best to address the problem.

Women’s bodies so often feel unknown even to those who inhabit them. The questions we have about our bodies, because they are hard to formulate and touch on subjects that are private or taboo, become mysteries. As with my migraines, most of the circumstances that these individuals face aren’t extraordinary. Rather, they happen frequently, to many women all over the world. But that doesn’t make them any more comprehensible. If not truly mysterious, the stories Behringer tells are confounding and intractable. They are traumatic for the people who experience them, and vivid and painful—and likely familiar—to many listeners. We listen as each protagonist deforms her life, or her psyche, to accommodate pain, confusion, and dysfunction as she struggles to find relief. Behringer suggests that they needn’t be. Those years of desperation, or bearing physical and psychological pain, might be avoided, she tells us, if we didn’t feel the need to hide.

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Between hiding what we’re told is embarrassing and presenting ourselves to the world to be appraised, women’s relationships to our bodies can be complex, even brutal. As Behringer reminds us in one episode, being a woman only comes with one instruction: “Be beautiful.”

One of the standout episodes of Bodies is “Other Than,” in which we’re introduced to Jeromey, a young women plagued by thick hair on her cheeks and neck. The hair begins to grow at sixteen, during the uncertain molting of puberty, and Jeromey finds herself shut off from any sense of blossoming femininity. Mocked by classmates, unsupported by her sister and mother, Jeromey tries to bear her lot as best as she can: wearing turtlenecks, shaving her face. When she finally sees a doctor, she’s told that whatever hormonal imbalances the hair suggests are likely a result of her obesity—a problem not easily tackled, and one the doctor can’t treat. Later, when she’s encouraged to see a gynecologist, Jeromey refuses. “I just thought my vagina was like this scary place… that there would be cobwebs down there,” she recalls.

Jeromey isn’t exactly proactive about dealing with her body. Instead, for much of her adolescence, she holes up in her small apartment. Lonely, tormented, she sometimes finds herself consumed with violent thoughts, which she purges in powerful poems, stories, and “video essays,” collections of scenes from horror films that she edits together. Many of the horror films are sexually explicit, though they avoid the usual tropes of women as victims, and it’s here that Jeromey begins to access her own sexuality. Eventually, she decides that she wants to be a filmmaker. The episode builds to a description of Jeromey’s senior thesis film, a chilling fable of a woman who loses her virginity and, like a praying mantis, then consumes her mate. Alongside her artistic actualization, Jeromey incrementally attempts to deal with her physical condition. But Behringer’s main focus is the artistic identity Jeromey carves out for herself in the process. As Behringer puts it, “Stuck in a world where beauty begets womanhood, Jeromey creates her own sexuality and power.”

Jeromey speaking, from Episode Four, Bodies, 2018

In other episodes, Behringer emphasizes sharing practical, constructive information. Above all, Bodies wants to help. The show demonstrates the difference between a compassionate, forward-thinking doctor and one who is just going through the motions. It empowers women to do their own research. 

From there, the particulars of each woman’s experience evolve into more political, systemic questions: Is my experience in the range of normal? Should a woman’s discomfort or confusion be tolerated and suffered? Doctors have always treated women differently than men. Since the nineteenth century, women’s unexplained medical ailments have been chalked up to hysteria, a catchall category vaguely associated with a woman’s anatomy and tumultuous hormones. (“Hysteria” comes from the Greek root “hystera,” meaning “uterus.”) Even if hysteria is no longer diagnosed as such, the physical symptoms that women present are often conflated with psychological ones, and health conditions that impact women tend to be less well studied than those that affect men. In her 2018 book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, Maya Dusenbery writes that diseases that disproportionately affect women, like autoimmune disease, migraines, fibromyalgia, and other chronic pain conditions, are under-researched, leaving doctors without the tools to recognize and properly treat them. Women, who are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, are also more likely to be prescribed antidepressants or tranquilizers for pain than men are. Women are underrepresented in clinical research—until 1993, the FDA banned women from participating in drug testing, and there is still little research on the way that medications impact people by sex. Finally, symptoms and medical issues that are considered a natural part of a woman’s life—PMS, birth control, menopause—are poorly studied, with insufficient treatments and few drugs in the development pipeline.

Even when explanations are forthcoming for the women Bodies profiles, that doesn’t always lessen their suffering. Here Behringer gets at a bigger, more existential question: When we encounter these disappointments and pains, whether inevitable or not, how do we go on? With warmth and empathy, she patiently asks her listeners to reconsider what we expect of our bodies, and what we can do to support each other. In the course of our lives, we will all encounter physical pain, moments when our bodies don’t work right, and the grief associated with both experiences. Part of Behringer’s project is to help us accept the fact that bodies fail us. Beyond information and support, that acceptance is part of healing.

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Behringer introduces her first episode with a message for her mother. “Hey, Mom,” she begins. “You did a great job. But why didn’t we ever talk about how sex is supposed to be just as good for me as it is for my partner? Why did I think it was okay to always put myself second?” Over the course of the show, Behringer evades her mother’s questions about her relationship, climbs into her mother’s lap to cry, empathizes with her mother’s losses, and revels in her mother’s triumphs (an active and happy sex life in her fifties). Behringer Sr. (we never learn her name) presents on tape, like Allison, as compassionate, warm, and nurturing. It’s a touching testament to their mutual trust that Allison expects her mom to have taught her all of this in the first place.

Ed Bricker

Radio producer Allison Behringer

Underlying Behringer’s question for her mother is the issue of intergenerational knowledge. In a world where women’s bodies are a vortex of expectations and prohibitions, what collective knowledge exists? What information do we pass down? What responsibility do we have to educate each other? How can we ensure comfortable, routine conversations about our bodily experience and what it takes to be healthy? 

Behringer believes we each bear the responsibility to talk openly about our bodies, to assuage the suffering of other women. In each episode, Behringer calls for us to let down boundaries and to ignore taboos. “Talking about our bodies is about reckoning with our most vulnerable selves,” Behringer says, and revealing those parts of ourselves is the only way to build collective knowledge. In the first episode, she describes how the doctor who finally helps her holds a mirror up during a pelvic exam to show Behringer what she “looks like,” as Behringer puts it. She learns about the vulvar vestibule, the glands inside her vagina, her pelvic floor. She does this all on tape.

Behringer speaking with her mother, from Episode One, Bodies, 2018

This permission to feel and explore the body immediately brought to mind Our Bodies, Ourselves, a comprehensive book about women’s health first published in 1970. Inspired by the second-wave feminist notion of consciousness-raising, the members of the Boston Women’s Book Collective wrote and self-published the book to answer the questions women had about their bodies that they couldn’t get physicians to answer. The book privileges women’s individual experiences over clinical research, and its information and advice is inclusive rather than prescriptive. (One of its mainstays is encouraging women to hold up a mirror to look at and explore her genitals.) Behringer’s Bodies is timed extremely aptly since the collective just announced last year that it will cease to publish updates and new editions of the book. 

The interplay between generations persists throughout Bodies. In the final episode of the season, “Unraveling,” Behringer returns to her mother. Behringer begins with the story of a woman named Lisa going through menopause, who was so disoriented by mood swings, dizziness, and panic attacks that she stopped being able to drive. Lisa’s story piques Behringer’s curiosity about her mother’s experience with menopause, a phase Behringer missed because it coincided with her years away at college. When she asks her mother about it, Behringer Sr. tells her daughter that her menopause transition was colored entirely by her grief after the sudden death of her husband, Allison’s father. Behringer Sr. found herself weeping on many days, and expresses gratitude for a tight-knit group of friends and thoughtful neighbors who drew her out of isolation and encouraged her to see a doctor. That doctor found that Behringer Sr.’s heavy, clotty periods, which Behringer chalked up to the burdens of perimenopause, were due in part to a prolapsed uterus, a painful condition where the pelvic floor weakens and the uterus slips into the vagina. She also gave Behringer Sr. a prescription for Lexapro. Like her daughter, Behringer Sr. is willing to make herself vulnerable in service of honesty and disclosure about our bodies.

Behringer began her podcast by asking her mother why she hadn’t told Behringer what she needed to know to have a happy sexual life. In learning how painful and disruptive menopause can be, Behringer returns to her first question: Why didn’t I know? Speaking to her mother, she says, “Over the course of making this podcast, I’ve been forced to reconsider a lot of things that I just never even thought about, like breastfeeding, when I called you the other day and I was like, ‘What was that like?’ I don’t know anything about that.” She feels embarrassed that she never bothered to ask.

Behringer speaking with her mother, from Episode Six, Bodies, 2018

Her mom’s response is wise and sweet and understanding. She tells her daughter that she’s getting ahead of herself. “You’re not supposed to know that,” she tells her daughter. “You’re not there in your journey yet.” Behringer Sr. reminds her daughter, and all of us, that we can’t know of every possible physical challenge that will come. All we can do is take things as they come, do our best to confront them with grace and tenacity, and find a way to endure.

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When my migraines were at their worst, I spent a lot of time reading about the condition: everything from recent medical research on new medications and related morbidities to advice from migraine specialists to message boards where people shared experiences, treatments, and frustrations. I read memoirs as well as philosophical texts about pain, illness, and the body. Some of it was terrifying—I learned of “migraineurs” who had given up careers or hopes of family entirely—and sometimes I had to take a break to protect my own mental health. But it was ultimately helpful to know that the bewilderment I was experiencing wasn’t unusual or unique.

My migraines are stable now—I still get them, but they’re predictable, treatable, and don’t prevent me from making plans or meeting goals. What’s been most rewarding, though, has been passing on that hard-earned knowledge to others. In October 2016, I published an essay about my chronic migraines, and the wisdom I’d gained from watching my mother, who suffers from her own painful neurological illness. I received dozens of emails and messages, many from strangers who had suffered their own sagas with chronic migraines. Some still had headaches every day, but had managed to make a life for themselves, and were eager to reassure me that I could do the same. Others wanted to share tips and tricks they had learned through years of pain and treatment. Still others wanted advice, and I found myself spending hours, for weeks, sharing all that I knew that might be useful. Dispensing advice and reassurance was as important as receiving it.

I know few women who haven’t suffered from one form or another of chronic illness and pain, mental illness, painful periods or sex, body dysmorphia, or infertility. Behringer’s recognition of how widespread these experiences are has spawned a Facebook group in which Bodies listeners can discuss the episodes as well as their own medical issues. Advertising the group on the podcast, Behringer always advises: “Nothing is off the table and everyone is welcome.” Her project, in addition to a feat of storytelling, can boast another accomplishment: it has created its own community.

Though, to date, Bodies is only six episodes long, Behringer offers something of a formula for confronting medical conundrums: take a mystery and reveal how common it is. Acknowledge how much suffering something mundane can cause. Treat with information and empathy. Repeat. But a couple of times, Behringer breaks from her formula. In one interlude, in which Behringer is not the narrator, the listener gets to spend four bright and curious minutes with Elizabeth, an eleven-year-old who has recently been fitted with hearing aids. Now, Elizabeth’s world is filled with the discovery of sound. Fans, machines, the pages of a book, her father’s voice, her mother’s radio all crowd the sonic landscape, giving us a glimpse of Elizabeth’s experience of being inside her body. The segment is as joyful as it is playful, dealing with discovery rather than loss.

Whether or not she produces another season of Bodies—and I hope she does—Behringer leaves us with a counterintuitively positive thought: “There’s a lot to look forward to as our bodies age.” Behringer ends with a momentary manifesto. She calls for “building a new reality, one with no dark corners and plenty of room for our full bodies, our many-layered selves.” It’s a reminder that, even as our bodies inevitably change and break down from illness and age, they also offer opportunities for discovery, pleasure, and wonder.


Bodies, produced by Allison Behringer, with music by Dara Hirsch, is distributed by KCRW.

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