Let me tell you a story—three stories, actually. Two myths and a difficult truth. The first myth is a sixth-century Sanskrit jataka, a story recounting a previous life of the Buddha. In this story, a bodhisattva named Rūpyāvatī cuts off her own breasts to feed a starving mother who is about to eat her newborn child out of desperation. Rūpyāvatī is praised for this radical act of self-sacrifice, and in recompense her breasts are divinely restored. Thus far, this story is viscerally beautiful and sharply affirming of the feminine: a woman saving another woman from death through the gift of her own life-giving flesh. Life and death edge close together here, almost blurring into one another—the new mother is on the brink of killing that to which she just gave life—until Rūpyāvatī intervenes, and the specter of death is driven away by a gesture of self-sacrificial love.
But the story does not end there. After Rūpyāvatī’s female body is restored to wholeness, she makes a request to “the lord of the gods” to be freed from it altogether:
“O Brahmin, by means of this truth of mine,
Let my sex become male immediately,
For manhood is an abode of virtue in this world.”
As soon as she had spoken these worlds,
She attained the state of a man . . .
. . . And when her two breasts—
Swollen like the frontal lobes of an elephant in rut
Saw just a few beard hairs as dark as collyrium powder
Appearing on that moon-life face,
They immediately disappeared into a broad chest
As if out of shame.
This is a bewildering reversal. Why were her breasts restored to wholeness in the first place, only to be banished again just a page later? A story that seemed to exhibit regard for the female body is suddenly turncoat, sending this clear message: it is better to have a healed female body than a maimed one, but it is better still to become male altogether.
A similar scenario can be found in the story of Caenis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Caenis, “famed for her beauty,” after her resistance to a marriage is raped by the god Neptune as she is “walking / on a lonely shore.” This was apparently such an enjoyable experience for Neptune that he, like some sadistic genii, offers to grant her one wish in recompense:
And Caenis answered,
“The wrong you’ve done demands the great prayer
That I never be able to suffer this again. Make me
A woman no longer and you will have given me all.”
She spoke the last words in a huskier voice
That seemed like a man’s. And so it was,
For the sea god had already answered her prayer.
Both women, when given the chance, ask to be made into men by divine intervention—one, to achieve greater virtue, to reach a loftier state of being; the other to be made invulnerable to rape.
Men do experience sexual assault; I have written about this important topic before. But living with the continual, atmospheric fear of rape—always there, even if it ebbs and flows—seems to be a peculiarly female phenomenon. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to grow up female and not absorb the painful idea behind the myth of Caenis: to be a woman is to be vulnerable, particularly to sexual violence.
There is a new sense in which these myths are coming true in our time. In the past two years, there has been an exponential rise of patients presenting at gender clinics desiring transition, as well as a major demographic shift. In older research, patients were typically natal males in their 40’s. In 2014, a dramatic reversal became apparent, and by 2017, “three times as many natal females” were transitioning, and the median age had dropped to late teens and early twenties.”
The Gender Identity Development Service in the UK provides a clear source of data for these trends. To cite one concrete example, regarding child and adolescent patients specifically: in 2010, 40 female patients were referred for gender treatment. Last year, the number was 1,806—an increase of 4,415% in less than a decade. While there has been a spike in male referrals as well, the rise in female referrals outpaces this by a factor of four. Overall, according to the UK’s NHS, 72% of the patients seeking gender treatment in 2017-18 were natal females.
According to feminist theorist Susan Bordo, the body is a “medium of culture,” a “surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and even metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced through the concrete language of the body.” Bordo’s incisive analysis of the escalation of anorexia and bulimia in the 1970-80’s can perhaps shed some light on this new epidemic of our time. Bordo argues that certain pathologies arise in response to the gendered ideals of particular eras.
For example, she draws a correlation between Victorian ideals of delicate, passive femininity and the rise of feminine hysteria in that period, and a similar parallel between the 1950’s housewife ideal and a corresponding increase in agoraphobia in the adjacent decades. In each of these examples, she writes, “we find the body of the sufferer deeply inscribed with an ideological construction of femininity emblematic of the periods in question.” Eating disorders, Bordo argues, function similarly, as an exaggerated display of cultural ideals of womanhood, as well as a rebellion against them, “a species of unconscious feminist protest.” As part of her analysis, Bordo draws upon Aimée Liu’s memoir of anorexia:
At school, she discovers that her steadily shrinking body is admired, not so much as an aesthetic or sexual object but for the strength of will and self-control it projects . . . As her body begins to lose its traditional feminine curves, its breasts and hips and rounded stomach, and begins to feel and look more like a spare, lanky male body, she begins to feel untouchable, out of reach of hurt, “invulnerable, clean and hard as the bones etched into my silhouette,” as one woman described it. She despises, in particular, all those parts of her body that continue to mark her as female. “If only I could eliminate [my breasts],” says Liu, “cut them off if need be.”
The parallels between this lived description of anorexia and gender dysphoria are striking. Liu does not simply want to rid her body of fat; she wants to erase her femaleness, to have the curves that mark her as a woman shrivel up and disappear.
I am not the only one who has noted parallels between body-image dysphoria and gender dysphoria. Lisa Littman, a researcher at Brown University who published a recent study on “rapid onset gender dysphoria” among teenage girls, describes finding “many potential parallels between anorexia nervosa and gender dysphoria” in the course of her research. In appealing to Bordo’s analysis of anorexia, I am not proposing a totalizing theory that explains all instances of gender dysphoria. But I am arguing that one dimension of this broader cultural phenomenon is a rebellion, a protest, against the hypersexualization of the female body.
The idea that women exist primarily for the pleasure of men has never been more explicit, more omnipresent, than in our ostensibly feminist age. Some feminists have even embraced this, singing the sex-positive praises of pornography and prostitution as somehow empowering for women. And even those willing to name and criticize the pervasive sexualization of women and girls are less willing to acknowledge the ways in which feminism itself has contributed to it. I often find it exhausting—and, yes, infuriating—to watch self-identifying feminists decry the rotten fruits of the sexual revolution while they simultaneously tend the roots.
The female body, in our cultural imagination, no longer signals creation, nourishment, and primal compassion, but rather the prospect of sterile pleasure. Our bodies are tools for gratification. That is what becoming a mature woman felt like—like I was seen as less than a whole human being, and more as an instrument of sexual pleasure.
Because of this, I never liked having breasts. They appeared far too early, for one thing. In sixth grade, I was a monster—a head taller than everyone else and already in a C-cup; the boys in my class made up a clever jingle about my breast size. I was greatly relieved when, in seventh grade, another unfortunate girl sprang into a D-cup, and I was no longer Queen of the Bust. My breasts made me feel exposed; the metamorphosis of my body felt like a betrayal. I wanted to retreat into flat-chested anonymity. I marveled at the girls who seemed to enjoy having breasts, who wanted to call attention to them, to puff them up and present them to the world like freshly baked loaves. I only ever wanted to hide them.
Predictably, growing a woman’s body while still a teenager drew the attention of older males, and I was ushered into the complicated world of sex too soon. It was hard not to feel that my body, especially those breasts, those damned protrusions, were partly to blame for this initiation. There are many times, during those tumultuous years of emerging womanhood, when I would have readily prayed Rūpyāvatī’s prayer, to have my breasts recede in shame and disappear.
That was not a live option for me. Maybe if it was, I would have contemplated taking it. But I was born 20 years too early. Don’t misunderstand: I am not voicing regret, but relief. I am relieved that, when I was in throes of self-discovery in college, the only thing I had to question was my faith and my sexual orientation, not my femaleness itself. That was a given, and so I learned instead to live with breasts, rather than be rid of them. And because of this, I had the gift of experiencing their telos: sources of life and sweet milk for my babies. My chronic dis-ease with having breasts—especially enormous lactating ones—was temporarily suspended in the wordless communion of breastfeeding. Even when I am not lactating (even for the woman who never lactates) I now understand that breasts are visible signs of feminine self-gift, the capacity and call to nourish the souls and bodies—the full personhood—of those who come under our care.
And yet, despite this knowledge, I will admit to feeling relief when weaning time comes, and my breasts become inconspicuous again, withered and discreet.
This is the difficult truth: we are living in an era when our young women are increasingly deciding they would be better off as men. They are warring, understandably, against the objectification of the female body, but in doing so, they are turning against the body itself. To quote Bordo once more, “although we may talk meaningfully of protest, then, I would emphasize the counterproductive, tragically self-defeating (indeed self-deconstructing) nature of that protest.”
While Bordo is writing here of eating disorders, I would apply this statement to the epidemic of gender confusion in our current cultural moment (although no feminist theorist hoping to keep a job in secular academia would risk making that argument now). Shedding oneself of the visible markers of femaleness may feel as empowering for the transgender teen as it does for the anorexic, but these forms of protest are ultimately violent and self-destructive. For Caenis and Rūpyāvatī, as for many young women in our time, femaleness has become an unbearable burden, rather than a gift. And this should alarm us.
Editorial Note: Abigail Favale is a Life and Dignity Writing Fellow with the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity & Life Initiatives. Life and Dignity Writing Fellows are leading experts who contribute regularly to Church Life Journal on pro-life and human dignity issues.
Featured Image: Morocco (film), Marlene Dietrich cross-dressing in tailcoat and top hat, Paramount Pictures, 1930; Source: Wikimedia, PD.
 Buddhist Scriptures, ed. Daniel Lopez (New York: Penguin, 2004), 168.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, 2010), 331-32.
 Susan Bordo, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault,” in Gender, Body, Knowledge, ed. Alison M. Jaggar (Rutgers UP, 1989), 13.
 Ibid., 23.
 Angela Franks observes a similar correlation in her recent essay for Humanum: “the romanticization of sexual expressionism roughly correlates with the spread of eating disorders such as anorexia” in the 20th century.
 Bordo, 21.