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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt