Like a natural woman: why taboos about discussing the female body are dying

Periods, miscarriage and menopause were traditionally ‘private topics’. A raft of new books is changing that

When comedian Eleanor Thom first decided to write about her life with endometriosis, a long-term and often incredibly painful gynaecological condition, she did so because “I felt that this was the sort of thing I needed to read when I was a teenager.

“There’s a lot of medical stuff out there but it’s very much ‘this is what happens; these are the theories behind it’. They don’t tell you how to live with it day after day.”

By contrast, Thom’s book, Private Parts, which is published this week, is part memoir, part guide. Funny, honest and inspirational, it covers everything from “How to survive Horrible Hormone Treatments” to what to do when colleagues and friends dismiss your pain.

“There’s stuff in there I have never talked about publicly until now, not even to my therapist or family,” says Thom. “It became a really cathartic experience because I’d been holding all these feelings in for years. Then I started talking about them and my world didn’t burn down. That made me think: why wasn’t I talking about this when I was 17? Why did I wait until I was 34?”

Thom is not alone in deciding to talk openly about the sometimes messy reality of her body. This month also saw the publication of Eleanor Morgan’s Hormonal: A Conversation about Women’s Bodies and Nimco Ali’s What We’re Told Not To Talk About (But We’re Going to Anyway), while one of the summer’s most talked about books is Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, which tackles the nature of female desire.

Celebrities have also opened up about their own most difficult experiences. Tennis star Serena Williams has talked about how she nearly died during childbirth, and the model Chrissy Teigen has recalled her struggles to conceive and failed rounds of IVF. Lily Allen, the singer, has written about her raw grief after the stillbirth of her baby.

“I think we’re definitely seeing a movement towards more conversations about how these things affect women’s bodies – although I would stress that no one should feel forced to talk about such things if it makes them feel uncomfortable,” says journalist Lynn Enright, whose recent book Vagina: A Re-Education was partially inspired by the Repeal the 8th and #MeToo campaigns, which she describes as “two massive movements connected to a lack of knowledge of and disregard for women’s bodies”.

“When I was working for [now defunct women’s website] The Pool, I always found that when we ran pieces about bodies – whether straightforward stories such as getting a smear test or more emotional stories about infertility, miscarriage or abortion – we would always get a really strong response, and I do feel that there is an increased awareness of and desire to talk about these issues.”

Certainly it feels as though these subjects are increasingly moving from the sidelines to centre stage, with conversations occurring across all mediums, from public health campaigns and school sex education classes to literature, art and television.

Thus Thom’s book features remarkably honest interviews with novelist Hilary Mantel and writer and actor Lena Dunham about their own experiences with endometriosis, and Morgan’s Hormonal probes the relationship between women’s bodies and their minds, arguing that a failure to talk about everything from periods to miscarriages directly impacts on mental health.

The second series of the TV comedy Fleabag made headlines earlier this year when its opening episode featured the protagonist’s sister having a miscarriage during a family dinner, and TV presenters Kirsty Wark and Mariella Frostrup have won praise for documentaries tackling the silence around the menopause. “I think the growth of social media forums has given women more access to more information, which in turn has led to a more general openness on these subjects,” says clinician and women’s health specialist Professor Anne MacGregor, who works with the British Menopause Society and Women’s Health Concern.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing more of a willingness to talk about things that would have been seen as taboo, such as the menopause. Women in general are asking more questions, trying to become more informed and taking more control over their bodies.”

Kate Panter, a consultant obstetrician and menopause expert, agrees. “There is definitely a sense that the stigma surrounding women’s health is being taken away by women themselves. They’re saying: these are our bodies, this is how they work and society has to make allowances for that because we are half the population.”

Yet while conversation is growing louder, there are still considerable barriers to our engagement with women’s bodies, argues artist Laura Dodsworth, whose film 100 Vaginas, part of her Womanhood project, aired on Channel 4 earlier this year.

“It’s very easy to live in an echo chamber and to think that these ideas have entered the mainstream when they haven’t,” she says.

“What we’re seeing really is two things: yes, women are opening up more about their personal experience, but at the same time they are under more pressure than ever about their body image and how they should behave.

“If you go into a supermarket as a woman, it’s like a walk of shame. Aisles of feminine hygiene telling you that you’re too hairy, too leaky, too messy and trying to sell you products to smooth things, tidy them up, tuck them away. There’s still this sense that women’s bodies remain too much and should be hidden away.”

It’s also worth noting that for all the talk about a brave new world of positive period talk, consent and desire, we’ve been here before, most recently during the 1990s when Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking The Vagina Monologues made headlines around the world. “I am still cautious because we’ve seen these sorts of conversations happen before and then fade away,” says Enright.

“Yes, it’s really important that we are having [them]... but there is still a great deal of work to be done.”

Contributor

Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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