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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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.