The Misogyny of the Menstrual Narrative

When it comes to thinking about your menstrual cycle, I wonder what kind of story you have around yours? For me, it was just another thing to conquer to prove that I was not so lame as to be affected or held back by in my post-feminist life, full of possibility and ambition. For my Mum, I’m sure it was a story of discretion, of private business, something hidden with no need of discussion, apart from here’s your pad, welcome to womanhood, now go get on with it. In some societies – very, very rare societies - menstruation has been appreciated for what it is: a spectacular bodily symphony that allows for the creation and growth of life and in that context, it holds power. It’s been source, it’s been shame, it’s been a blessing, it’s been a curse – all dependent on the see-sawing gender power plays, almost always governed by the patriarchy, that determine our societal views around women, equality and freedom.

For the vast majority of geographies and cultures, menstrual blood has been dialogued with disgust, particularly in the context of religious text or philosophers where menstruating women could apparently destroy an entire crop simply with her vile presence, as documented by Roman misogynist Pliny the Elder who wrote:

 

“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison”

 

I don’t know about you but I’m fairly sure that the blood from my uterus has no more obliterated a beehive than blood from any other part of my body. My feeling is that Pliny was simply another horny arsehole who resented this most natural of fluids for turning him away from the vaginas he wished to ply, inconveniencing his demand for sex. The smell perhaps wreaking havoc with his bland sensory palette, causing the horror of flaccidity that he would rather put down to the horror of the bleeding woman as opposed to his own feeble constitution and faulty phallus. But where are we at right now? How far have we really come? What is our perspective, our conversation in 2019 around this most important cycle for life? How much has changed and how much do we all know beyond what women and men were told 20, 40, 100, 2000 years ago?

Without doubt, the fog of knowledge around the intricacies of our menstrual cycle, along with the downright sulky attitudes of men such as Pliny, go hand in hand with oppression. Insulting the fundamental make-up of one genders physiological workings – ensuring that the negative dialogue of women was inseparably interwoven with what biologically defines them – was as masterful a stroke by the patriarchy as it was utterly absurd that any of us would lap up such speak. But lap up we did. When carried through the literature of something as powerfully brainwashing as religion or false academia, it was ensured that the very essence of what gives woman the height of her value in the context of continued humanity – the power of life to recreate itself – would be stripped away. In concealing this immense value, even from women themselves as well as in fact, utilizing it as confirmation of female weakness, we created a monologue of misogyny deeply inseparably interwoven into a woman’s very identity. Just take a moment to absorb that.

More than 80% of women that I see in clinic or in workshop about their cycles, who have problems with menstruation or anywhere else in the endocrine system, do not even know that there are four distinct phases of their own inner hormonal composition. I was one of those women until about 5 years ago. I was 39 years old. I am at times torn to pieces in reflection of all of the torment I endured emotionally in not understanding the song of my hormonal cycle; of not knowing, not just the nuances, but the big sweeping hormonal strokes that were directly affecting the pituitary gland – the Queen of my entire endocrine system sitting in the throne room of the emotional centre of my brain. I can’t help but wonder how many young female lives have been affected with self-harm, even suicide, simply because they did not know that in a week they might have a better foot hold on the strong emotions swirling within them and then in that follicular time they could do the work to get them through the next luteal phase that may also be coupled with adolescent depression? The decisions that have been made about relationships, jobs, family members, living arrangements without clear understanding of the role of my own reproductive hormones on my emotions? Or on my energy levels?  The sheer volume of utterly misplaced inner self-doubt and negative self-talk that would have been avoided in the knowledge that my progesterone is doing this, my estrogen is up to this and therefore I am like this.

That we are still having to have the conversations around basic anatomy and physiology of the female body with young women in this special way, outside of their education systems, should act as a guide as to how far we still really are from this idea of equality. The way the world is structured from inflexible working hours, to holiday gaps, to sick leave are still very much a man’s way or the highway. Yes, there have been some steps toward greater job opportunity and closing the gap on wages but really where are we if negative language is still the NORMAL around one gender’s most natural physiological function? Just imagine a world where women held their power because we had convinced everyone globally that a testicle was a most putrid of possessions, that one glance or certainly one touch could sicken, kill or mame almost any living thing that happened to be exposed to it’s horror. That men learned to move through the world with such a curse by adapting every part of their lives to make sure no-one talked about the testicle, no-one touched the testicle, that if non-testicled people were coming to stay in their house, they would sleep in the stable, they would accept that the testicle made them weak and therefore they should get paid less and certainly should not be making big decisions about the world – how could they when they were clearly deformed, so ghastly that butterflies and beetles would die if just one testicle walked through their field, let alone two! That we could become so entrenched in that negative language that even the gender possessing that physiology embraced the same kind of rhetoric! Of course this is a most ridiculous and weak comparison but the levels of ludicrous are no lower than what most women have accepted as the norm about their own cycles – the mania of the follicular, the whore of ovulation, the neurosis of the luteal and the downright dirty of the bleed!

Ultimate equality is when a woman gets to be a woman as is the nature of her system, and this means with all the fluctuations of what’s happening in her body – that at some times she will have all the ideas in the world along with all of the energy to implement every single one of them and at others she will need to be more inward, more in need of rest and in contemplation. The fluctuations of a woman’s system – which is inseparably linked to her emotional centre – is not neurosis. It is not mania or inconsistency. It is THE natural. The consistency of a woman in her menstruating years IS the ebbs and flows, the peaks and the troughs and equality is recognising, acknowledging, educating and RESPECTING these absolute fundamentals of the cycle.  The expectation that the way a man’s system functions with very little hormonal fluctuation as reflected therefore in the male emotional expression, is the way we should all be, and that this sameness is the definition of equality, is misogyny. Full power and representation of the future of feminism is no longer seeking what men have but in having access to all of these same opportunities and sculpting them to suit the fundamentals of the female. It starts with every woman knowing her own menstrual cycle and all of the attitudes, gifts and atmospheres that it comes with, knowing her own journey through perimenopause and her metamorphosis into the second spring of menopause, and working with this symphony within to schedule everything that happens in all other areas of life. This is the future of feminism.

The Evolution of Post-Natal Love

At different times of our lives, under different phases of the moon and at different times in our cycles, little can be done to keep hidden the deep calderas as well as the majestic mountains of the heart. The shine of a full moon or the passing of an egg, turning the inner gaze glaringly headlong toward the emotional centre with its truth and its scars, as well as the ecstacies and the desires that guide and shape us along particular parts of our story.

Last night whilst I lay in bed, and my husband was busy chipping away at the administration of life that keeps the fiscal wheels turning, the now softer effects of a recent luteal phase passing with the relief of blood arriving, revealed a great epiphany to me about the love that sits within me and the nature of the relationship that I was in.

Shane (my darling husband) and I first met 19 years ago. At that time he was with a beautiful woman called Norz and I with a lovely gent called Ben. Both of those relationships obviously came to an end for each of us (although all the friendships remain) and it would be 10 years before Shane and I would see each other again. In that 10 years we both deeply explored adult relationships - we married, had children and then waded through the murky troughs of those relationships ending having to then morph into the much more interesting dance of the co-parent/ex-partner relationship.  As anyone who has taken on someone else's children (and therefore someone else's ex) will know, that dance is not just one of the clumsiest of all but to the new relationship it can also be one of the greatest challenges. Within the immense discomforts though of course, exists the enormous opportunity to grow deeply as a couple, as well as individuals, as you explore all the sensations that arise in that dynamic.

Partly because of this complex family arrangement, three years ago Shane and I decided to have a baby. We were both 37 at the time, Shane had three children, I had two so what we were proposing was preposterous but it felt indisputably perfect at a time when our lives were changing so deeply, so positively. We decided it important to give our blended family a greater definition of connection; to link us all together in a way that was both beautiful as well as easily understood by even the smallest members. And for us, it was the giving to each other the amazing gift of raising a child together in a beautiful loving relationship - no consultation with any other party outside our own sanctuary, just the two of us (and our ahem...5 other children) making decisions together cohesively, lovingly about the present, as well as the future, of the child we shared.

It's been a wild journey ever since. Full of elation, struggle, exhaustion, endless house-meetings, celebration, laughter and concern. The greatest quantity of the latter based around the shifts in our relationship; this consistent feeling of simply never being able to get back to where we were pre-bubba. Never being able to find time for those previously abundant quickies in the walk-in wardrobe, not even a civilized cup of tea and a pash on the porch! Conversations became all about strategy, gone were many of the creative and philosophical daydreamings, the melting embraces, Friday night dance-offs in the kitchen - things had gotten serious! Although deeply happy with where we were, there was a sense of sadness and loss in 'us', we stretched ourselves thinner and thinner trying to reach back to the place where we perceived our relationship was the most perfect picture, whilst still trying to stay firmly grounded in the present and all that had to be done with a small child and so many others. We remained at peace with where we were, never any doubt in the certainly of our togetherness, we simply both missed what we believed the healthiest version of 'us'.

All of a sudden though last night, as all the cogs in my cerebral slot machine shifted into the perfect sequence for the penny to drop, I hit the relationship jackpot! The light bulb went on, the machine began to sing it's winning, carnival ditto - all of a sudden my relationship was perfect again. I realised that what had come before bub was over, we weren't that anymore. But that didn't mean we were partially broken. That phase was purposeful for Mother Nature to successfully entice us to do once again what we do well, breed, but that's not where we are any longer. Our relationship isn't failing, it is simply different. It is in fact, so much more. We share a child, we are older, we are better. Our relationship is new again, on a different level. In letting go of that old picture, in that idea that we need to keep working to go back, I could instantly see what was right before my eyes! My gorgeous best friend, Father of my child, Stepfather to my children, my rock, my confidante, my partner in a relationship that is utterly perfect absolutely as it is in it's utter imperfection and as it always will be no matter what perceptions we place upon it. I have never felt so much freedom, so much elation. This is relationship territory I have never before entered, with the wisdom now of understanding that our 'us' may continuously look different. As a restless Sagittarian, basking beneath the sensual new moon, I could not be more excited about this new found realisation of an ever-shapeshifting future as our circumstances and ourselves change to create continuously new versions of our 'us'. Of course, my wise and very stable Cancerian partner knew this all along, simply waiting patiently for me to catch up and take his hand.

What a liberation in letting go of this incredibly stale idea of harking back to something from a different time. We might not be as dynamic or as vibrant right now with our gigantic brood as we were before but we are growing successfully older together moment after moment and I am more in love with my husband today than ever before. Look at your relationship for all that you are right NOW, understand that your hormones are in a different groove for now, accept this about yourself and help your partner to accept it to. Be graceful during this time and continue to feed the creativity and passion in your life and in your relationship with simple touches and caring gestures, so when your little person becomes a little bigger and the mojo roars back to life you're not going to have to spend time re-opening your heart, you can instead get straight to the business of re-opening your vagina.

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Making Peace with Impermanence

Throughout all of the texts of yoga, weaving back and forth, in and out, from this angle and that, sits the concept of impermanence. At the most subtle level the intricate heart of the teachings tell us of two most important components: of purusa - that which is static and unchanging, the inner dwelling seer and of prakrtti - which is everything else; all matter, all that births and dies, all that is always, forever in a constant cycle of flux.

In recent weeks, my husband and I have sat simultaneously at the extreme ends of the scale of impermanence - we’ve cried smiles of hello as we’ve sobbed streams of goodbye - no doubt, as many of you reading this have also: because that is the very nature of life. Impermanent, changing, dying and birthing.

At the heart of the yoga practice, as we age - for as many hours, days, weeks, months or years as is our own journey in this lifetime - the deep intention must be to bring us to a place where we can be at peace with impermanence. Slowly overtime ceasing the struggle of trying to anchor things that are finite and in doing so lessening our own suffering. The ultimate state of that is being at peace with death, knowing that there is no beginning or no end to purusa (that unchanging flame of source within us all) only to the ever-changing nature of matter (prakrti). This pertains powerfully to the passing of our own body. If you reflect for a moment on the question 'how do you in this moment feel about your own death?' - what rises for you? How attached are you to this body, knowing full well it is not a permanent home for you?

The Yoga Sutras are clear about the continuing nature of our experience, referencing karma in relation to 'this birth or any other', but we become so deeply attached to this body that we suffer because of the attachment. And of course between those most polarising earthly moments of birth and death, there is an immeasurable quantity of impermanent moments which we are deeply attached to - from the most trivial superficial action like a daily cup of tea or an object such as a trinket we deem precious, to those more powerful like our homes, freedom and people that we adore. The yoga goal is moving us toward a place where we can become more accomplished in our peace with impermanence as it relates to ALL things - those things that make our hearts sing as much as things that bring us great sorrow. For all beauty is the flip side to sorrow, all sorrow the duality of beauty. The more wonderful the experience we have with someone, the more we mourn their departure. The more something makes us suffer, the more our eyes open to beauty as the suffering subsides. For even with the highest celebration - like the birth of a brand new baby, comes the absolute certainty of death. This is the nature. Every parent has, in making the choice to birth a new body with the flame of purusa within, has also chosen the guarantee of that body's inevitable end. This is the nature. We cannot have one without the other. Whilst this may seem grim, it is actually where the heart of all joy can exist. Be HERE. NOW. When we have this peaceful relationship with impermanence, the knowing that everything is fleeting; be it across one minute or one lifetime, accepting each moment spent with matter is nothing but an infinitesimal spec in the scheme of the totality, then we can truly be in that moment to the full extent of it’s poetry. Whether we are standing at the most Easterly point of Australia watching the sunrise or whilst sweeping the house, for each of these infinitesimal moments are presenting for a depth of reason we often cannot quantify at the time – so look at every one of them like art.

Can you imagine? Imagine that whenever you leave anywhere, anything or anyone – be it a beautiful or painful exchange, that you take none of it with you, you mourn no loss or suffering but when you are there with something or someone, they are your whole Universe? This is just one result of a good understanding of impermanence – being wholly in each moment but being able to move effortlessly from one to the next without any residue.

When we are in suffering we often lose sight of this lifeline of impermanence and instead we create a false and often very strong belief that this pain is forever, that we will never wade our way out. If this continues for too long, we start to bond with the suffering and assimilate it as part of our identity. Then the very notion of letting the suffering go can propagate a new suffering – the suffering of losing what we have come to identify as self. We cast out this story and many other stories about self like anchors, in the hope that we will arrest the ever-changing tide of impermanence yet it is this very resistance that sinks us deeper into pain.


When I reflect on these things - as these past few weeks have compelled me to do once again - I can see there still sits within me some fear (abhinivesa) – fear for the pain that my death could cause my children, so from that reflection I am motivated to deepen my discipline toward a place where at my death, if it comes in a way where I have time to reflect, I can hold my space of peace with the impermanent nature of this particular body and in doing so perhaps create a possibility of immense peace for those around me. What a project! It is always a wonderful reminder in the texts of yoga that no living being is defined by matter; that it is our joyous work to come to see a little more each day the difference between the matter (prakrti) and the flame of purusa within us that does not flicker. With this seeing, the more at peace we become…and can there be a more magnificent thing, in this wild human experience at this time, than peace? Explore this acceptance - whilst beauty may end, so too will suffering and on again it will go.

 

When the Matriarch Passes...And It's Not All Love and Cookies

Last night, I held my Nanna’s hand as she took her last breath; a precious moment suspended in time, one that you can feel coming but even in it’s inevitability cannot prepare you for it’s finality. It was a vulnerable moment of the highest order, for anyone, but for us in the lineage of this fierce matriarch it was finally a chance to see her soft. Albeit, it wasn’t a chance taken by her own choosing but instead the effects of the morphine, but it was nice - for us at least - to see our head matriarch just simply being serene, to be able to have her hand held and hair stroked, as we convinced ourselves that if she were conscious she would not have beat us away with her walking stick.

Through my life, I had always known there was a hardness to my Grandfather and as I grew the realisation of the extent of that hardness also grew. There were unspoken violences, relationship riffs between the children and the parents and always for us, the grandchildren, a knowing of our place. We never saw the conflicts, there was a very deep knowing that certain things were not to be spoken of, but we could feel them. The children, who were our adults, our parents and our uncles, trying to navigate their adult years off the back of brutal childhoods in working class England, where even the weather could provide satisfactory torture for the children if their parents saw fit.

Up until my thirties, I worried for my Nanna - how did she fit into all of this? As a strong, independent woman I would imagine the oppression she lived in under the iron fist of this very strong man. Then during my thirties, a strange shimmering of my version of events started to occur. Some things happened at family bbq’s, words were said, sparks of aggression were witnessed and it began to become known to us - the granddaughters of the lineage - that the General of viciousness was not our Grandfather alone but our Nanna too. The older that she got, the more difficult it became for the presentation to remain and the true behaviours began to reveal more and more and more, until the day before she died reaching an undistilled crescendo of fever and vitriol; our Granddad having to be removed from her hospital room for his own physical and emotional safety until she could be sedated and all in the room could be beyond the reach of her swinging stick and her unbridled rage.

As I sat there in the room, with my Grandad stroking her face (for perhaps the first time), Dad, his wife, my two sisters, my daughter and my niece - all members of the same limb on this expansive family tree - watching Nanna’s last moments with prana in this lifetime, I couldn’t help but feel my Nanna’s whole life’s wrongs being brought to the fore in one suffocating, desparing detail - the absence of her other two sons. As I sat there and looked at this powerful being, this mother, grandmother, wife now so frail and small, I wished her boys would come for their own sake, just to see her in this way and let this be the last memory. A memory to eradicate the years of tyranny and fear, to gift themselves their adulthood from this point forward in seeing her vulnerability, just for the most fleeting of moments. I wanted them to just grow up in that instant and show this woman some respect, although, at the same time, I didn’t live their childhoods - I could understand the confusion and the pain of such an event upon them.

Looking at Nanna, I thanked her for the immense strength that she passed down to us women in her line, I thanked her for being a rebellious woman, I thanked her for the questions about love that she raised for us all as we tried to figure that out in the context of a Dad who had never received any from his own Mother, I thanked her for showing me the things I didn’t want to be but at the heart of that again and again, I came back to thanking her for her strength - imbued with her nastiness it was of course weakened - but a strength she passed on nonetheless. She taught me to not judge cruelty by gender, because for us, it has always been the women who have been the most ferocious. She showed me the good in my Dad, who I always lamented for being so distant, until I learned that he stayed distant out of wariness, in only knowing the patterns of parenting that he experienced and cautious he might perpetuate a cycle.

As three sisters born down the line from a viciously strong Nanna on one side and a powerfully stern Nanna on the other side and thankfully a somewhat softer Mother in the middle, we have taken some good, some bad. For me, the rage used to be ever present. Not justified by provocation, just something that seemed to sit like a toxic speck in each cell of my body - I’ve had to learn about softness, what it means to be a woman, how I can move beyond my sense of righteousness as a modern ‘feminist’ and be less hard, to explore the power in being deeply loving and the supernatural strength of kindness. I have learned through my own children, the well of love that exists within me, and as I become a Nanna myself in coming weeks, I look forward to being a powerful matriarch who laughs a lot, has crinkly eye corners and sneaks my granddaughter the best cookies of the batch.

I was so pleased when another of your sons did arrive last night, becausee at the end of it all, you were his Mum and whether good or tragic, anything we have in our lives comes down to one undeniable point - that without all the lineage that came before, we would not be here in this way, in this lifetime. From that springboard we make our choices, We step into our lineages because they are the ultimate part of our spiritual requirements - sometimes they show us qualities that inspire us and sometimes they show us qualities we learn directly are qualities best left by the wayside. Thank you Nanna for all the great memories you were able to give to me, as well as the scary ones that remind me to be soft. I wish you could have been so much kinder to my Dad so we all could have fasttracked our journey about love but you were on your own journey too. Nanna, you were a cantankerous, cheeky, terrifying, anarchic, overlord of the lady variety and I love you.

Short Hair, Hairy Pits, No Boobs

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At the beginning of the year I spoke with a lot of students about coming into this year with a much greater, warmer and loving embrace of the yin, in line with the feminine qualities of the goat year we now find ourselves clip-clopping along in.

For me this meant no longer denying these strange and foreign qualities of love, patience, nourishment and nurturing that were rising organically within me, despite my many resolute years as a strong and fiercely independent woman. I began to think that perhaps, these were innate qualities of the yin, as opposed to what I had always previously believed, that these qualities were in fact conditioned in us by a male dominated society, who wanted us to stay home and mind the bubbas. Possibly these qualities – which were sadly long suppressed by the feminist fight, women having to become more yang to be seen as equal, as opposed to equally powerful and capable but vastly different – were the characteristics of ‘woman’.

This search for equality (which was absolutely essential) led to a flattening out of distinct yin/yang characteristics, causing confusion in fierce ladies as these feelings we associated with being ‘weak’, began to surface all on their own.  It also effected relationships. Unable to acknowledge the difference between the genders, we at times sadly see our fellas as just hairy, naughty versions of ourselves instead of very different creatures altogether.

All of these questions and ponderings, have lead to an exploration within me of ‘woman’, that has somehow distilled into a philosophical musing about hair. Yes, hair. Hair seems to be one of the most distinctive areas of aesthetic difference remaining between man and woman. I look around at 99% of my gorgeous lady friends and I see these manes of colour and curls, waves of shimmering locks, tussles of softness on the heads of very powerful women. I look around at 99% of my gorgeous male friends and I see varying degrees of short dos merely differentiated by the degree (or lack thereof) of tidiness. Most of my lady friends shave their legs, wax off the majority of their pubes, have glistening underarms, pluck their eyebrows and even remove the slightest wisp of fluff that may appear on the top lip. Most men I know, do none of these things.

I didn’t shave my legs or my underarms until I had to interview Josh Homme (lead singer of QOTSA) when I was 29, not even doing it for my first wedding. The reason I did it then was because I thought he was hot and we are all conditioned to think that it’s a much sexier look, I wanted to impress him with my errrr….shiny pits. Without any emotion, it is worth acknowledging that that conditioning to this look in women is so deep in western culture, for most people (including myself), it’s very difficult to distinguish conditioning from truth. I like shiny legs and there’s something so fresh about shaven pits, although I rarely do my own – it’s not political, it’s just not a priority for me.

So I wanted to investigate this further.

For the last few years and for the first time in my life, I’ve had long flowing beautiful hair. The kind of hair that people commented on – I was pretty!! I did feel different, more feminine.  It got me thinking that perhaps I’m actually hiding my still very yang personality behind my soft, wavy locks. Was it slackening my quest for a softer, more nurturing heart because my appearance took care of the vast portion of first-judgement? What is it with us ladies and our long locks?

The only way I was going to find out, was to cut mine off.

As I sat in the chair, scissors at the ready I became surprisingly nervous. Why?? It’s just appearance! It’s just protein filament pushing out of follicles in my dermis! What’s with the weird emotional attachment?? As the clippers came out, I began to realise that soon I was not going to be able to hide. My thick mane, acted as a small but significant barrier between heart-me and external-me. It made me look good in Spell playsuits and confirmed my bohemian ethos. But couldn’t my personality do that? Who knows? It’s only been 24 hours since I put all my hair and all it’s old attachments in the compost bin but one thing’s for sure, there ain’t no hiding now! I am a woman with short hair, hairy underarms and no boobs. Now I get a chance for the real femininity, that which rages in my heart and in my core beliefs, to lead. To be sexy, without the conditioned aesthetic assistance. I look forward to extending my feminist and feminine heart out into the world with nothing more now but my eyes, my swagger and my touch. It’s going to result in either a great challenge or a great hat collection…

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