Unhappy periods and delivery room poos - let's tell the truth about women

The assumption that women are too fragile to fart just upholds an expectation that women are mostly decorative.

Periods. Periods, periods, periods, periods. We all (read: us two) have them. And, as hilarious commentator-on-life Richard Neill astutely pointed out back in October on the Bodyform Facebook page, they don’t usually match up to the depictions we’re shown in tampon ads. As the disappointed Richard - a previously unknown person who briefly catapulted to fame for telling it like it is about the week when the painters come in - described, there is "no joy, no extreme sports, no blue water spilling over wings and no rocking soundtrack." He had been led to believe that the shedding of a uterine lining came hand-in-hand with laughter, increased sociability, and skydiving. And then he got a girlfriend.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Richard’s viral comment was tongue-in-cheek - and, in the spirit of the intention, Bodyform "replied" with a video apologising for misleading men across the country. There’s not actually such thing as a "happy period", they explained, thus spectacularly trashing their own tagline. Most people, with and without vaginas, are of course already pretty familiar with that home truth. The emotional side of PMT is a worn-out cliché; if you’re a woman, you’ve probably encountered the age-old putdown that it must be "your time of the month" at some point in your life when you were angry, upset, argumentative, or otherwise busy distinguishing yourself from a piece of the furniture. Meanwhile, the physical side sometimes doesn’t even bear thinking about - but if you really want to, then this week’s article on the first period after childbirth in Jezebel is enough to solve the overpopulation crisis once and for all. One read and we guarantee that you will never, ever want to entertain thoughts of procreating again. 

Why do period ads mislead us with over-the-top shows of sexy chicas just freakin’ loving it during their monthly visit from Aunt Rose? An actor playing the CEO of Bodyform explained that men "can’t handle the truth", so feminine hygiene companies had stepped in to protect their sensibilities. And while the conspiracy (probably) isn’t real, there might be something in the suggestion that too many people feel uncomfortable about women having normal bodily functions. Which is pretty damn unfortunate, because childbirth surely qualifies as the most involved bodily function that humans are capable of, and so far, it’s only the gals who are doing it.

We live in a strange and complicated world, where make-up artists now put up tips on "how to look cute during labour" (don’t believe us? Google it) and pregnancy websites refer to "delivery room glamour". Meanwhile, as programmes like One Born Every Minute have proven to us once and for all, the reality is that most women during childbirth are both figuratively and literally shitting themselves. We spend one week every month bleeding, and the apotheosis of all this suffering is usually a very public turd on a delivery table, probably in front of a few of your nearest and dearest and almost definitely in front of someone who has had sex with you. Admittedly, you get the kid too. But it’s not coming out without a big, bloody, mucus-laden fight.

Since we as a female community push human beings out of the most sensitive part of our bodies on a daily basis, it seems downright bizarre that we’re often considered delicate little flowers who can’t discuss bodily functions and probably don’t even produce them. Holly was once told by a Genuine Adult Male at university that "girls don’t fart", and old movies involving hospital scenes often feature a kindly male doctor asking the visiting female if she "faints at the sight of blood." Considering the whole "monthly bleeding" thing we all seem to have going on, the suggestion that we’d actually lose consciousness over the sight out of our own tampon is absurd. But people used to seriously believe that female constitutions were far too dainty to handle a bandaged wound. We bleed from our fannies on a regular basis, and everyone was running around worried about showing us a broken leg.

As convenient as it is that some people are downright unwilling to accept that the ladies are a farting, vomiting, pooping, bleeding part of the human race (these kinds of people are ideal for when you’re trapped in a lift with two men and a dodgy stomach), the social effect can be destructive. Even if it’s not a terrible hardship being excluded from the "weirdest sounding fart" conversation amongst male colleagues at post-work drinks, you only have to read the comments section from the Jezebel article on periods after childbirth to realise that we’ve been keeping way too quiet about something that happens to a huge chunk of the population. Comments were split pretty much equally between people who had actually experienced the dreaded bloodbath documented - and wrote in to thank someone for saying it out loud - and people who hadn’t experienced childbirth, but were considering it in the future and had no idea that this was likely to happen afterwards. Childbirth has been happening since the dawn of humanity, and parts of it are not even common knowledge. They are literally mentioned so rarely that people write publishable articles about them. How did we get here? 

Everyone might be totally fine with keeping poo taboo, but keeping things under our hats about labour isn’t doing the pussy patrol any favours (and yes, we’re reclaiming "pussy patrol" as a term for people with vaginas, rather than a term for people looking to stick things in them). The underlying cultural assumption that women are too fragile to fart just upholds an expectation that women will act like sweet, ethereal creatures, walking around in a perfumed haze and exercising their primary function of decoration. So long as we’re colluding in the idea that our bodies don’t respond naturally to the environment that we’re in, we’re holding ourselves to ridiculous standards. And those standards imply that men are the humans, with all the morning breath and BO that comes along with humanness, and women are nice-smelling little add-ons who nibble on salads without excreting them afterwards.

We need more articles that shout around about lady parts, or we’ll still have people who actually got pregnant without knowing that their first period after they pop out the baby may well be a traumatic experience. And we need a bigger cultural acknowledgement that we don’t all sweat out Chanel No 5, ASAP. Because if we’re big enough to swallow that there’s no such thing as a "happy period" nowadays, we can surely start to fully and wholeheartedly accept that everybody poops.

The physical side of having a period sometimes doesn’t even bear thinking about. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.