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Birth Defects
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Absence of a vagina is very rare; such birth defects are called congenital anomalies. One in 5,000 baby girls is born without a uterus; a few baby girls have only one functioning ovary. In even more rare cases, there can be two uteri and two vaginas, which are the result of an incomplete split of the fetal tissue.

Nowadays, these congenital anomalies are discovered early at the post-birth checks on an infant. The presence of a vagina is checked, and if there is any cause for doubt concerning the other internal reproductive organs, an ultrasound scan can detect if they are present. There are successful surgical procedures for constructing a functional vagina. Skilful plastic surgeons can sort out the problems of a malformed uterus and/or vagina. Hormone therapy assists in problems of non-functioning ovaries.

Turner Syndrome

A baby girl born with Turner Syndrome has either no ovaries or small streaks which do not function. This condition occurs in about 1 in 3,000 live births. It is 40 times more common in spontaneous abortions. Usually, there are other defects which give the physician warning signals that something is wrong. In obvious cases, the neck is very short with a web of skin from the ears to the shoulders. In other cases, the neck is not webbed and the other signs are not so obvious, so an early diagnosis of Turner Syndrome is not always made. The girl's IQ is usually normal; in some cases, there is trouble with space perception and numbers.

At puberty, the girl does not grow tall. If short stature runs in the family, the condition is only detected late in puberty. The absence of breast development, periods and so on, alerts parents that something may be amiss. The girl is put on estrogen therapy, and all the signs of puberty begin. Though she cannot have children, she can function sexually as other women. However, some women with Turner Syndrome have had successful pregnancies with donor eggs and in vitro fertilization.

Self-esteem

It seems desirable for most cultures to help children develop a solid sense of self-esteem. This is defined as "a favourable impression of the self; self-respect; self-worth." Apart from loving the child, the bedrock of self-esteem lies in being honest and honourable, in not breaking promises, and in the satisfaction which comes from personal achievement. If a child watches these values in parental action, and can achieve them (for some of the time) by about age seven, it develops a deep and lasting sense of self-worth.

Most parents nowadays understand the value of fostering self-esteem in their children. Yet some parents are unsure how to manage this effectively. They wish to praise, encourage, and respect their little girl's identity and achievements, yet fear that they might be raising a querulous, demanding, persistently disobedient child. Minor infringements are to be expected (and secretly applauded); a child who is too compliant may be living in terror of parental wrath, or of withdrawal of parental love.

The "Me Generation" was high on material achievement and worldly success, even if this involved telling lies, breaking one's word, cheating at work, acting with honour only where there was risk of dishonourable deeds being found out. White collar crime soared, and the results of high-level financial cheating still reverberate throughout the nation. It can be argued that it is not only in parental self-interest, but in the interests of the culture as a whole, to develop self-esteem in children.

The virtues of antiquity were honour, stoicism, and courage in the face of adversity. Little boys are taught to admire these virtues; they try very hard to acquire them. Little girls try as well, if they are encouraged to do so; if they perceive their adult roles as strong and effective achievers. This is not to "masculine" girls.

The Scouts and similar organizations foster these qualities. Children are taught to believe in themselves, to trust their own abilities. Moral training is important for all children, but particularly for girls. The social model they must fight as they grow up is still one where women often have to manipulate men to gain self-esteem. Many women say that they do not feel worth much when on their own. They only feel good about themselves when in the company of men. Not only does this distort the male ego, it leaves women very vulnerable to male approval. In extreme cases, any man's approval is better than none, even if it involves violence, providing that she is told she is wanted and needed after the blows. On the basis of female health and safety alone, it is essential that all little girls are encouraged to build self-esteem.

Lack of self-esteem drives people crazy. The different genders tend to respond in different ways. A man who lacks self-esteem may respond by fighting or drinking, whatever makes him feel that he is somebody or can achieve something. Because of the social model for women, there can develop a desperate need to acquire a man, any man, because this is unconsciously perceived as achieving. If the man leaves at some later date, there is more than the natural grief of loss. There is the double whammy of loss of self-esteem.

The point to understand about self-esteem is that it cannot be acquired through others. It can only be gained through a satisfactory opinion of the self.

Nature or Nurture?

One intriguing concept about self-esteem is that, in general, the female ego appears to be more fragile than the male. One study found that girls and boys as young as two years old responded to success and failure very differently. When boys succeeded at a difficult task, they showed more pride in their achievement than girls. When girls failed, even at a simple task, they reacted with more shame than boys. Girls who did poorly on a test were more likely than boys to permit that single performance to affect the way they felt about themselves, their schoolwork, and their whole potential.

Much of this difference probably stems from the different ways that little girls and boys are treated by adults. Yet there remains a crucial question: do inherent gender differences play a role? Some psychiatrists believe so. For example, most infants ages 9 to 18 months cannot tolerate being left on their own and a study of infants ages 11 to 12 months found that when the mother left the room or put the baby to bed, the girls became withdrawn; they seemed sad. The boys became hyperactive, thrashing around. Obviously, this did not happen in all cases.

At 17 to 18 months, another difference becomes apparent: girls display greater facility with language. At 18 months, most girls can put two words together; this occurs 2 months later in boys. Girls accumulate a vocabulary and make complete sentences earlier than boys. Boys develop a better perception of space. If children are left in an ambiguous situation with ambiguous markers, the boys' chance to find the direction out is better as early as 2 years to 30 months.

It is not yet possible to answer the nature/nurture question. Parent/child relationships are very subtle. Birth order is likely to affect gender responses too. A discussion of inborn femaleness or maleness requires a definition of terms, and no such terms have yet been satisfactorily defined. While researching for this chapter, one factor arose over and over again. Little girls have, or seem to have, more pressure put on their behaviour at home than boys.

The Cult of Thinness

Are the virtues of stoicism, fortitude, and courage in the face of adversity now focused solely on cookie-avoidance? It would be funny, were it not so sad. Anorexics literally starve themselves through dieting. Bulimics gorge on food, and then force themselves to throw up and/or purge themselves with laxatives. Both are psychological conditions involving an abnormal fear of obesity. Both demand the virtues of stoicism, fortitude, and courage.

"In many respects, it's a critical brain drain we have. Female energy and intelligence are trapped in concern over weight loss," according to one expert. The film's point is that women, struggling to balance careers and families, are desperate to gain control over their lives. This leads them to avoid the feminine aspects of soft, round contours, and emphasize the lean, masculine ideal. By constant dieting, "we are reassuring the culture that it still has the upper hand over us and over nature."

"All You Need Is Love..."

A pre-anorexic personality is described as well-behaved, a highly achieving, pleasant, well-adjusted, compliant, perfectionist, rigid. The last three are the key words. Eating disorders are an issue of control. Their roots start in early childhood, when life feels very unsafe, and the child is not made to feel safe in ways which really matter. Primping a little girl's hair and making her pretty for Daddy is fun and delights the heart, providing the child feels perfectly secure when her hair is mussed up. It is unwittingly cruel if she feels insecure, because being mussed up, being unpretty, makes her fearful of losing male approval.

Most parents love their children desperately. A few think that this is enough. Sadly, love on its own can fall short. It requires the backing of profound trust, an understanding on the child's part that she can depend upon the parent, come what may. Yet plain little girls are openly worried over by some mothers. Others are told they will grow up into a beautiful swan, just as the ugly duckling did. Little boys do not get hammered with such undermining messages; they do not learn that adult approval depends mainly on their looks. They are out there practicing the manly virtues upon which they base their self-esteem.

The Security blanket, beloved of all children, shows parents the extent of a child's need for familiarity, for security. When, as an adult, the woman feels insecure, she searches for some familiar object to help her feel safe. Food, which is readily available, is often the answer. This starts her on the spiralling down slide of eating binges and crash diets. She cannot help it. The very object upon which she depends to make her feel secure is the very object which is most disapproved of: weight.

Control

The irony of eating disorders is that they are about control. They demand self-denial to a very high degree which, in turn, demands courage, stoicism, and fortitude. The first refusal of a cookie is not easy. The second, fifth, and twentieth can be even more painful. Only a great deal of practice allows this unhealthy form of self denial to strengthen the will sufficiently until it becomes easy. At that stage, food is the enemy. The girl has turned away from growth, from blossoming, from all within the human spirit which yearns for happiness and love.

She is seeking control. She needs to know that there is one area where she can achieve, where she can gain self-esteem. Her body is her own, and can be used for the satisfaction which comes from personal achievement. She is bombarded with messages of the new myth of thinness, and imagines that she is more appealing by losing weight. Eating disorders provide satisfying rewards; the bathroom scales show a noticeable loss of weight. The more she practices and develops her extraordinary skills of self-denial, the more her self esteem depends upon her body image.

The point to understand is that lack of self-esteem in early childhood can create tremendous problems for parents at puberty. Even if a girl is not slim and has a normal body weight, problems can arise if her self-esteem depends to a great extent, upon her looks. Then, the only way she can gain the rewards of personal achievement is by gaining the approval of boys. A pubertal girl in this insecure condition can seek male approval by early sexual activity, with all its attendant risks.

Studies show that the lower a girl's self-esteem when she enters puberty, the more likely that she will become estranged from her parents later. Reward a little girl's achievements in spheres other than her looks, and gain the rewards of a healthy, happy adolescent.

A healthy baby's appetite is voracious. At the toddler stage, appetite normally drops for a while. Parents may believe that their little girl has become a finicky eater; this is rarely the case. Imagination is developing, and some foods look frightening or disgusting: the wrinkly skin on milk or tomatoes; the vivid colour of carrots; the strange texture of vegetables; the chewiness of meat. The greasiness of fried foods cannot be easily digested by young systems. They should be avoided on a further count; they are rich in animal fats which provide a high level of cholesterol, and can damage the heart. If the child is not forced to eat what she dislikes, appetite picks up again by school age. Providing the diet is varied, a little girl can eat more or less what she chooses.

At pre-puberty, a daughter can seem to have "hollow legs." No matter how heartily she eats, there is always room for more. This is due to the pre-pubertal stage of rapid growth in both height and weight. If she is active and within the normal weight range for her age, avoid undue worry that she is eating too much. She needs this food to sustain her daily activities and to build her future curvy frame.

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