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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle