The Happy Girl’s Guide to Being Whole

This is the book that asks, ‘Could the natural world be the guidepost for us on how best to discern what is right, what is true, and what will lead to happiness?’

Cover of ‘The Happy Girl’s Guide to Being Whole’
Cover of ‘The Happy Girl’s Guide to Being Whole’ (photo: Lumen Press)

While an eighth-grader at a Catholic school in the 1970s, my class was the first in the school to receive a formal course in sex education. But it lasted only 20 minutes. Although it was meant to teach the “facts of life,” it was also an attempt to counter, according to the signs of the times, the sexual revolution then surging due to the increased use of the pill and cultural slogans and behavior touting “free love” and so-called “safe sex.” 

Seated in a room with the other girls in my class, I watched as the short film displayed diagrams of female and male anatomy while the male narrator, speaking with little inflection in a matter-of-fact tone, explained the basic facts of puberty, intercourse, pregnancy and the birth of a child, all within the context of marriage. I appreciated learning a few more details about human anatomy. Yet, no joy was expressed in the film. There was nothing to inspire awe about God’s design of the natural order of our reproductivity and how it affects our overall health. As the film ended, then, and we walked back to our classroom, I overheard girls near me mutter comments like, “I knew all that” and “kind of dumb.” 

As an uplifting shift in approach, Teresa Kenney, a women’s health nurse practitioner, and a wife and the mother of eight children, has written a new Lumen Press book called The Happy Girl’s Guide to Being Whole: What You Never Knew About Your Natural Body. Women will be drawn into Kenney’s enthusiasm as she explains their reproductive design in a manner that co-editor and founder of Guiding Star Project, Leah Jacobson, describes in the book’s Introduction as “one girlfriend to another.” 

A wise “girlfriend,” Kenney guides women to first reflect, proposing cultural influences to consider that might be harming their health and hindering happiness. “We can simply accept the messages communicated to us through social norms and media,” she says, “or we can examine for ourselves what sort of life would be worth pursuing.” She suggests questions to ponder such as “Who are we at our core? What are the masks we wear? What is (or should be) the life plan?” and “How can we become the persons we want, and are meant to be?” Readers will be moved as she shares her own testimony of struggling during her college years with a poor body image, and find hope, learning that she recovered after seeking professional help. She cites quotes about life’s meaning and purpose from mentors, including Socrates, Albert Einstein, psychologist and author Daniel Gilbert, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and Pope John Paul II, and then proposes the question most pertinent to the theme of the book: “Could the natural world be the guidepost for us on how best to discern what is right, what is true, and what will lead to happiness?” 

Kenney is convinced the answer is yes and helps women to understand why as she guides them through the rest of the book, providing information to consider as they look toward making choices in the future about relationships and health. Her explanations about both the female and male reproductive designs highlight in a special way the hormonal complementarity between the two sexes, ordained by nature to a relationship of love and the procreation of a child. The stages of pregnancy and delivery are explained in positive terms, and readers will learn, perhaps for the first time, contrary to our current culture’s contraceptive mentality, the benefits of Natural Family Planning. Kenney not only explains NFP as a benefit that works in concert with a woman’s natural monthly cycle, but also shares examples of couples who have used NFP and discovered a deeper bond of communication not centered on sexual intimacy alone. 

But for me, the most important and much-needed section in the book was the chapter on artificial birth control. At a time when some 72 million women in the United States alone are on the pill, Kenney diagrams the complete list of synthetic hormones and contraceptive devices in use, with a corresponding list of harmful side effects, the details of which — including blood clots, depression, stroke, perforation of the uterus and ectopic pregnancy — have been “silenced” by the media and downplayed by organizations like the World Health Organization and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

For instance, in a sidebar feature called “Did you know??” — with a second question mark to draw readers’ attention — she writes, “The pill has been classified as a class one carcinogen for breast, liver, and cervical cancer.” The pill, she says, deadens the normal function of a woman’s menstrual cycle, and results in a chemical bleed instead. As she put it, commenting on the disturbing go-to preference by practitioners to prescribe the pill not only for birth control, but to treat many other women’s health issues as well: “Is there any other area of medicine where the treatment is to shut down the normal function of that system?” 

Kenney gives firsthand witness by sharing her experience in college of being prescribed the pill and Accutane at the same time to treat acne — a combination that brought about mood swings, bloating and weight gain. Once she ended the pill and continued only Accutane, the side effects ceased and her acne cleared up. She also tells the story of Haley who, at age 14, was forced by her mother to go on the pill to avoid pregnancy. Six years later, while at a conference for young adults and listening to Kenney explain how a woman’s body functions both on and off the pill, Haley was shocked, realizing she had never had a “real period.” Tears of joy then flowed down her face as she spoke with Kenney afterward and learned she was free to advocate on behalf of her own health and go off the pill. “It is truly exciting,” Kenney reassured her, celebrating, “that for the first time in your life, you will get to know the real hormonal you!” 

The “real” you. That is what Kenney desires for every woman. Although she is a strong pro-life Catholic and a frequent guest speaker at pro-life conferences, she includes no explicit reference to religion in the book, wishing rather to reach women of all backgrounds, just as she treats women from all walks of life in her medical practice. Still, her conviction that the natural law is a “guidepost” toward truth and self-fulfillment is in exact accord with the law of Christ as articulated through his teaching Magisterium, and in whom he reminded us of the same through Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Correcting those who deny the competency of the Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law in areas pertaining to marriage, contraception and birth control, Pope Paul reiterated:

Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the Apostles His divine authority and sending them to teach His commandments to all nations, constituted them guardians and authentic interpreters of the whole moral law, that is to say, not only of the law of the Gospel, but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, is an expression of the will of God, and it likewise must be observed faithfully to obtain salvation.

Kenney, then, encourages us with a message of hope and a call to conversion:

There is a new feminism emerging, one that views the female and her natural biology as healthy, whole and good. Instead of a narrative that tells women in order to be happy and successful, you must alter and suppress the natural feminine design, we should create a culture that cultivates their feminine gifts, and a society that seeks to support her to thrive and remain whole.

Toward that goal, The Happy Girl’s Guide to Being Whole: What you Never Knew About Your Natural Body is certainly an educational step in the right direction!