Famously, the trick to good writing is bleeding onto the page. Hemingway is meant to have said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ Perhaps this is why women are such good writers. Our lives prepare us for bleeding. What kind of blood would you like? Period blood? Pregnancy blood? Childbirth blood? Miscarriage blood? The monthly fail of not-pregnant-again blood? Blood-in-urine from a kidney infection? Menopausal blood? Let me know, I’ve got oceans of the stuff and it just keeps pouring out.
Writing is clearly what I should have been doing with it all these years, instead of trying to keep it in. Stuffing bleached cotton into my vagina to stem the flow, padding my underwear with wads of toilet paper hoping not to leave marks on the white seat covers of my friend’s couch, sticking on the night pads ‘with wings’ hoping not to leak on some man’s sheets, or rip off too much pubic hair with the surprisingly secure adhesive strips. Covering up with ‘period pants’, those unloved dingy underwear choices pulled out from the back of the drawer every month. Sure why would you wear your lacy numbers when you’re bleeding? That’s not sexy. And all along, I was wrong, I should have been sitting down at my desk and spilling it across the page, a shocking red to fill the white. Don’t tell me it’s meant as a metaphor.
I was twelve when I got my first period and I hated the sight of it. I was in geography class at school and when we stood up at the bell, my friend leaned over and told me that the back of my dress was wet. I looked at him in astonishment, as the other kids stood back silently to let me pass, leaving a pool of blood on the plastic chair. I didn’t want any of this blood. I dreaded the ‘becoming a woman’ conversation that I’d heard about. I scrubbed out my pants. I shoplifted tampons. I scrunched up wads of toilet paper (been doing that for a while, then), trying to avoid detection.
There’s that weird moment when you see blood coming out of you for the first time and you know not to scream, à la Carrie, but just get on with it. Wipe, insert, pad. Repeat. At twelve, I felt a lifetime of bleeding ahead of me. The blood meant that my body was fertile. And this knowledge, this rhythm, which I have spent my life in tension with, is a fecundity I both wanted and didn’t want. The blood meant an extra physical awareness, sometimes a burden, sometimes barely noticeable. That is, barely noticeable to me. All I hoped, ever, was that it wasn’t noticeable* at all* to other people.
Blood is private. Blood is secret. Even though everyone born with a biologically female body will bleed at some point, it still feels taboo to admit to the blood. To get caught out and have to ask another woman for a tampon, to have to dash to the loo (more wadding), to have to unfurl a lint-ridden old super from the recesses of a handbag. It doesn’t, unlike the flow, come naturally.
As a teenager, I said no to swimming. I said no to gymnastics. I said no to sleeping at a friend’s house. And all my life I’ve said I felt fine when I was really in pain from cramps, from lower backache, from the feeling of despair that comes with PMT. I recoil with horror from the idea that I might take time off work because I’m bleeding. How would that out-of-office reply go? Sorry I can’t respond, I’m too busy hugging a hot water bottle for dear life. Though I would probably get a sympathetic response from colleagues, male and female, if I took a sick day when I felt poorly because of my period, I would hate that they then might associate me with weakness. And I imagine, most likely wrongly, the flash of fear that might go across a male colleague’s face if I even mentioned my period, shamefully summoning the mysterious, bleeding female body into the workplace.
So as an adult, I try to be all conquering and I go swimming and do yoga and ignore the fact of blood. But I have, on more than one occasion, said no to sex. Because I’ll exchange all sorts of bodily fluids with you but God forbid I’d let you in on the secret of blood. There are men of course who are into sex during menstruation, excited at the idea of a woman who is already wet, but in my experience that’s not the norm. There’s the guy who sees blood on his penis and freaks out, running for the shower, afraid he’s dying. Actually dying. There’s the guy who says he’s ‘fine with it’, but gets you out of bed as soon as he’s come so he can wash the blood from the sheets. Sperm stains have never seemed as urgent as this blood. Not so fine, then. There’s the guy who nods and says yes, but stops you at the crucial moment to ask if you’re okay because there’s ‘rather a lot of blood’. I’m fine, I’m just bleeding! There’s the guy who offers to call you a taxi since you’re ‘in your flowers’. There’s a ton, a shit ton, of shame. That’s why, after all, you keep it secret.
So here it is, on the page, my blood. The blood that runs out the side of the pad, the blood that stays wash after wash in the crotch of my jeans, the blood spots that drip on the floor because I forgot to replace the tampon. Splat, they sound.
I have always been sqeamish about blood. Not the sight, or feeling, or smell of it. But the saying of it. ‘I’ve got my period.’ Where did I learn that these were shameful words? I can’t have made this phobia up all by myself. Maybe it was in school when we (the girls) were sent to ‘Education for Living’ classes to talk about periods and pregnancy. The boys in my class simply vanished, to extra sports it turned out. Education for living, we learnt, was about using hand cream, and not wearing too much make-up. About how to apply foundation, and when to shave your legs. About eating an orange in segments, like a lady. I’m not joking. And about other less public signs of our female bodies. When a girl asked, perfectly reasonably, what we should do if we got our period in the middle of class and had to ask to go to the bathroom, the teacher said, ‘Tell your teacher that you’re menstruating’. She placed great emphasis on the last word. We stared at her. I wondered then, and now, if that woman had ever tried saying that herself. One time a boy asked me if I was ‘blooming’. I didn’t know what he meant, but then the penny dropped. I was embarrassed. I wasn’t bleeding, but I said ‘Yeah’ to avoid taking my pants off.
Blood is dirt. Isn’t that what the label ‘feminine hygiene’ tells us? I internalised that, along with the idea that blood is embarrassing. Though I don’t recognise the blue liquid that tampon and sanitary towel ads use to demonstrate their absorbency as like anything that has ever come out of my body, I recognise only too well the assumption that blood is too taboo to be shown publicly. I remember cringing on the sofa when one of these ads would come on TV, sitting next to my mum, who must also have bled, fervently praying that she wouldn’t use this as an excuse to ask about my period. I’m not sure it’s so much better now when tampon and towel companies advertise their products with uplifting rock songs and clear-skinned smiling teenagers. Whether it’s maxi-pads for middle-agers or compact tampons for teens, the message is that we should be having fun, and ignoring all the inconvenient, unclean blood. Well, yes. But what if your hormones are flooding you, maybe even drowning you, then leaving you high and, literally, dry? What if you’re doubled up in pain, what if even the idea of standing for any length of time leaves you feeling faint? Where is the rock ballad for that experience?
And what is the threshold for complaint? I mean, how does this pain measure up? If you have a headache, it’s strain from too much thinking (I’m so brainy, I’m so busy). If you have a sore back, it’s from over exertion (I’m so fit, I’m so active). A stress attack? (I’m so hard-working) But a cramped abdomen? That’s just regular pain (I’m so female)—and it seems churlish to complain about merely being female in contexts in which I try to seem successful, and professional, and not reducible to my body.
My bleeding body is unavoidable, yet periods seem inadmissible as pain, because women spend so much of their lives refuting the idea that we’re affected by our hormones at all. We want to be equal, which can sometimes translate as we want our femaleness to be invisible. Our bodies can withstand the same stresses as male bodies, work as hard and as long, and we can open our own doors. I’m overstating, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that in life and at work there is a silence about women’s bodies.
I’m not advocating that we all start talking about our insides; I respect the privacy of the body. I’m not suddenly curious about bowel habits, for example, not trying to end the shame of discussing shit. Though maybe, if we did, more bowel and anal cancers would get diagnosed? So, yes, let’s talk about bowels. About how women fart and pee and excrete. Now, there’s a taboo.
And in some ways, I’d like to see less of the female body. We are bombarded with hyper-visible female bodies, from breasts and asses and jutting clavicles to perfect pregnant bumps. Women’s bodies are constantly being inspected and discussed, measured and judged. Faced with this barrage, I’d like to hear less about the various standards of beauty that I’m being compared to. Those commodified and segmented bodies are not just troubling because of how visible they are, but because of how they make us feel bad about our all-too-real bodies. I remember when I discovered that there was something wrong with my legs. I was thirteen, reading a magazine called 19 or something, and I realised I had cellulite. I was anorexic, so I already spent more than enough time worrying about the circumference of my thighs, but now I had to fear the dimples as well. At thirteen I understood the message. I added cellulite to the long list of things to hate about my body.
So when I say that there is a silence about women’s bodies, what I mean is that there is a silence around what women’s bodies actually do, a silence that contrasts with the deafening roar about what women’s bodies look like. Enough. My cellulite-thighs are strong, they have carried me up mountains. I love them. And I have a body that bleeds. Once a month it squelches, wet and hot, with blood. Or, rather, it did.
If getting your period is ‘becoming a woman’, is the end of periods the end of being a woman? Menopause is like a monstrous roadblock, and I feel like it should be happening to someone else. Someone older. I have checked, inserting a finger into a dry vagina, to see if there’s blood, in a parody of my teenage fear of pregnancy. Let there be blood. Lots of blood.
My fear of menopause is a fear of the ageing female body. Even a fear of losing the thing that makes me female. And that’s a cultural fear. But it’s also personal. Because of course it’s a fear that my body is incontrovertibly telling me that its childbearing years are over. Though there was no actual childbearing (can you bear a miscarriage?) it is still a loss. And one I need to find a way to articulate.
When a friend mentions her menopausal changing body, she half apologises. ‘No, keep talking,’ I say. I’m so grateful to her for speaking matter-of-factly—cramps, sweats, smelly discharge—and breaking the silence. Because I’m discovering that the greatest hush is not that concerning periods, but that which muffles and obscures the unproductive female body.
I mean, we know the debates about HRT (or do we know them, do we just know there is a debate?), we know about hot flashes and night sweats (take sage drops), and concede that maybe there’s a bonus to pregnancy-free sex. But there are different qualities to silence, and you can feel like you are in the middle of one even if there is a low-level murmur going on. What is not said, or what I’m not hearing being said, is what it feels like. How the absence of blood feels, how your body starts surprising you. What was wet is now dry. What was vivid red is now brown or gone entirely. It smells* different. It smells *old. I can’t believe that after decades of complaining about paying luxury tax on sanitary products, I’m now nostalgic for the days of buying ‘heavy flow’ tampons.
One night I had an argument with a friend who said we were middle-aged. He wore it as a badge of honour. We’re not, I said to him, over and over. The signs that I am, though, are unavoidable. The blood that has flowed for twenty-eight years, comes only in dribs and drabs now. And there are aspects to this that I didn’t expect: the fact that orgasms will now give me cramps that would floor an elephant; PMT that could floor an Amazonian woman; breasts that look less… perky. Shouldn’t I be older than my late thirties when this happens? I’m not ready. I get the occasional heavy day, a series of blood clots, that are dark and iron-y, almost tactile, I wonder at them before I flush them away. This is my body. But it feels alien. I have to learn it all over again. Learn to be a woman who does not bleed.
Perhaps I should be pleased. No more wadding. No more spraying stain remover on knicker gussets. No more luxury tax.
Because here is the end of blood. The blank page.
As I think about bleeding, and not bleeding, I realise that the cultural silence around female blood is part of a much wider problem—a total shit storm—of how women’s bodies are imagined, and aestheticised, and policed, to be a certain way. Any variations from the approved script render you invisible and silent. And, all too often, powerless.
Bodies and silence go both easily and uneasily together, but I remember back to when that wasn’t the case. When young, we’re much more vocal about our bodies. In fact, there’s a kind of show-and-tell about your body when you’re a kid. When you’re seven and you meet another kid, playing in the street, and you say ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’. And you roll up your trouser leg and show the scars, from the dog bite, or jumping off the shed roof, or the rusty nail scratch that got infected. When you’re an adult, you still talk about scars but they’re no longer physical. We roll up metaphorical sleeves and talk about our heartbreak, our disappointment, our sadness and stress. Of course, we also talk about the ways we have been marked by happiness, but you get the idea.
Though the life events we describe when we meet strangers, in between trying to appear funny and smart and not-scary, are often about our bodies (from kids to hearts to running marathons) we rarely do so with any real reference to our bodies. In general, our biographies have become rational stories, in which we focus on what’s in our heads, and ignore what’s inscribed on our bodies. What if, though, we gave our life stories as if they were mapped out on our skin? How could we relate our autobiographies through a narrative of our bodies?
Perhaps a body, my body, can tell the story of my life. This kind of nakedness might take some work, and not just because I come from a country plagued by religion and damp weather, two reasons to keep my clothes firmly on. But because, prudishness aside, getting naked is not just about taking clothes off, but about revealing how we feel on the inside about how we look on the outside.
Those childhood scars were badges of honour, external proof of internal daring. I would love to recapture that childhood acceptance of my body as something that enabled me to do things. But now I look at my body and I see the scars across my breast where (benign) lumps have been removed, and I see a belly that could never swell with pregnancy. And, I can’t help it, I see the cellulite and the blood stains. It’s a body that is healthy, that has survived some challenges. It’s a body that makes me feel good, more than it makes me feel bad. Yet it’s still a complicated story, the one that my body tells about me, and that I tell about my body.
My body is not a source of grief, but so often the way I talk about my body is. And the silence, the way I don’t talk about my body, that is also a kind of grief.
This grief is projected across the skin of my body, and other women’s bodies, an invisible but permanent tattoo of stigma and shame. Women’s bodies bleed. Let’s pretend they don’t, let’s bleach the blood out of existence. Women’s bodies have fat, let’s cut it off, squeeze it in, slap it down, starve it off. Women’s bodies have hair, let’s shave it all off, let’s make them smooth little girls again.
We make ourselves small, flat, quiet. We are policed. We police ourselves. We disappear. We make the blood, all the blood, its mesmerising flow, disappear. Along the way, we pay and suffer for hair to be ripped out, we expend energy on how to appear, rather than on how to live, and we risk our health, mental and physical, in these pursuits. And as long as this is the case, as long as the actual blood and the subject of blood are made to disappear, women will continue to be second-class citizens. This is serious. It’s serious because this two-tiered citizenship game has effects that reach far beyond the surface level of our bodies. It shapes how the insides of our bodies are legislated from rape sentencing to abortion rights.
And this, this is what it looks like when a woman bleeds onto the page.