Of Babies and Bodies

A new niece leads to new ponderings on the wonder of women.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. I am almost certain, however, that it wasn’t as wonderful as mine.

This year, the Bonacci family had our own Christmas child. On Christmas Eve at 1:30 in the afternoon, my sister Julie gave birth to a beautiful, precious baby girl named Anna. She is my first niece, and the first child I’ve ever watched come into the world. How that for bringing the joy of the baby Jesus home for Christmas?
And, as if that weren’t enough, I left three days later for a vacation in Cancun. Yes, it was tough to leave the baby. But nine days on a sunny Mexican beach made the sacrifice a little more bearable.

So what did these holiday experiences have in common? I saw a lot of bodies. Over the past nine months, I watched my sister’s body grow in ways I could hardly believe a human body could grow. Obviously I’ve seen pregnant women before, but watching my own svelte sister put on 50-plus pounds was a shock nonetheless. I remember looking at her, a few days before she gave birth, and thinking “There’s no way that body is ever going back to normal.”

Then there was the birth itself. It was nothing like I expected. First of all, thanks to the miracles of modern epidural medicine, there was no screaming in pain. Julie was very calm, very focused, and actually had to be told when she was having a contraction. (My mother, who had four babies the old-fashioned way, was particularly impressed by that.) But what I remember most about the delivery was the first glimpses I got of Anna’s head. I always thought the head would look like – well, a head. But what I saw peeking out with each contraction was a small mass of wavy, rippled skin with little tufts of hair on it. I knew it must be her head, given the hair and all. But isn’t scalp supposed to be smooth? Where was her skull?

I got my answer on the last push, when that wavy scalp suddenly “inflated” and Anna showed her beautiful face to the world for the first time. Apparently, a baby’s skull (still in two pieces – thus the “soft spot”) “collapses” during labor so that the head will fit through the birth canal. Amazing.

Of course, my first thought at that point was “Oh my gosh, there’s a person in there! Get her out where she can breathe!” 

Honestly, didn’t God come up with the wackiest system for bringing new life out into the world?

And can you imagine anything more amazing? My sister, whose own babyhood I remember distinctly, has grown into a woman and has cooperated with God in creating and nurturing this new baby. Anna lived inside Julie’s body, where everything she needed to live and grow and mature was miraculously provided for her. And now that Anna is out here in the world, Julie’s body is still providing all of the nutrients she needs to grow and to stay healthy.

The female body is truly amazing.

All of this wonder came with me to Cancun, where I had a slightly different experience of human bodies. I saw a lot of them, both in terms of number of bodies and in terms of – well, mass of exposed flesh per body. I saw really nice, tasteful bathing suits, and I saw “exposing just a little too much” bathing suits. And, although I was not a direct witness, I am told that at least one woman on the beach opted to forgo the top half of her bathing suit altogether. 

In light of what I had just witnessed back home, I found it all a little bit sad. Women wear revealing bathing suits for one reason – to attract sexual attention from men. They use their precious, beautiful, amazing, miraculous bodies – bodies capable of participating in the deepest of human intimacies and of consequently creating and nurturing human life itself – as mere instruments to boost their self-esteem with strange men on a beach. It doesn’t work, of course. That kind of attention is fleeting. It doesn’t respect the person contained within that body. It just seeks its own gratification.

When I came home, I saw a brief article quoting the Pope’s preacher, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, on the importance of averting our gaze from pornography and images that present people only as objects of sexual desire. They used to call this “custody of the eyes,” and it was particularly emphasized in the moral development of men, who are more visually oriented than women. Quite simply, it means that if you find something (or someone) in your field of vision that stimulates you sexually, tempting you to see a human person as merely a means to sexual satisfaction outside of the total self-gift of marriage, you are expected to look away. That means images in magazines and on billboards. It means sex scenes in movies. It means provocatively dressed people on the beach (or the street).

I always knew that was important. But I’m not sure I fully appreciated why until now.