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.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad