It’s a little stone beach hidden in the cliffs on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the second we’ve found it, we changed to our bathing suits behind a rock and jumped in the waves. Now we’re catching our breath on a flat stone, my best classmate and I. I’ve almost forgotten I’m on the first day of my period — and the blood starts flowing, unrestricted, mixing with seawater, running down the smooth edges of the stone. I watch it, mesmerized.
Look, you’re getting dirty, my friend says to me. Uh-huh, I reply, reaching for my phone. You are getting dirty, she repeats, muffled notes of panic rising in her voice. I don’t reply — I’m too busy taking a picture.
Salt, stone, skin, and blood, united in one frame, send my imagination to the mythical times when the world was freshly created and gods still walked the earth. And I almost forget to be ashamed
The Unholy Vessel: the point of having periods
I don’t even know why, but they didn’t manage to break me all the way: they didn’t manage to make me feel ashamed of the most feminine function of my body. The rest was there — fear and servility before men, labeling “girly” all things uncool and “manly” all things superior, happily accepting the compliments starting with “you are not like other girls” — the whole internalized misogyny package. But instilling the obligatory red monthly self-loathing strike is where their education failed.
And over time, my body taught me to value myself just as much as every consumed thinkpiece of modern feminism could.
a. the daily
It was the time when my PMS made its first strike. I was 18 and in love with a guy — a nascent, awkward, delicate stage of romance. That day I didn’t like something in his messages, and, for reasons inexplicable but irresistible, I went nuclear on him. He broke it off. I spent the next few weeks running after the boy, trying to explain that my body betrayed me, that I turned into a monster, that I didn’t mean it, and that I’m really, really sorry.
From what I heard that guy is in prison for a while now, for molesting a minor. I am not that sorry anymore, honestly. I’m not sorry at all.
It took me a while and several similar situations to figure out the algorithm. Some months, the world would go dark overnight, and the job was horrible, friends — careless, future — hopeless, and the current boyfriend — a piece of an asshole. Other months, I would forget the existence of the phenomena altogether.
And then I realized that the function of the “syndrome” was not to depress, but to expose. What my body actually does is physically dropping my level of tolerance to bullshit to zero. In times when my life rested on solid ground, with clear goals, balanced conditions, and respect, I would hardly notice the drop. But in times when expectations and excuses consisted of 100% bullshit, I would be forced to face that fact — no matter how much I tried to ignore it. And the whole structure would collapse, for worse or for better.
Periods are our monthly performance overviews, our regularly scheduled wakeup calls, forcing us to confront our reality without the lies we would rather neatly wrap it in.
Men don’t have their wakeup calls neatly placed in their monthly calendars. They have other things. Middle-age crisis. Fishing. Alcoholism, drugs, murder, good-looking interns. Picking up a hobby, changing a career, starting a war. Leaving a family to pursue artistic aspirations, as Gaughin did. Statistics says these are the things that men are more prone to.
Accumulated storage of little soul-killing compromises, unnoticed, unreflected upon, is able to shift the tide one’s life in a grand gesture, either heroic or horrifying. And I like the spectacular drama of it, but I much prefer my own arrangement, thanks.
b. the divine
Ever since Descartes had officially separated the mind from the body in public opinion, classic literature claimed that women are less capable to produce scientific breakthroughs, miracles of faith, or great art — as they are less able to “fly”: to detach from the material, the daily, the common sense; unable to rise high up in the spirit as their heavy, fertile, unholy, always changing bodies drag them to the ground.
As comically obnoxious as this line of thinking is, it rings true to me. I, a woman, am unable to detach from the forces of nature no matter how clean, rational, technologically crafted I set up my little life in a modern metropolis. They are going to break in, shifting tides of bloom and decay, of birth and death, of hope and grief. They are going to drag me down from the crystal castles of my mind, face to face with the unbearable, cruel, precious, fleeting physicality of existence.
And this is where I meet the divine. The divine that doesn’t belong to eternal temples — but to the mortal goosebumps, battle cries, and sighs of pleasure.
And I’m wondering — is it really the detachment from the material world that brings us greatness? Or maybe, just maybe, the tribe that is slowly learning to live on Earth needs to appreciate those montly reminders of what we are made of?
As we are not defined by our bodies, our talents, skills, and aspirations are not defined by our sex. But I don’t want it to be completely eliminated from the picture either. It is a part of being human, and it’s what makes us whole.
And if the results of our work are not something you’re used to, it’s because female creators have different powers to speak through them.
The Weaker Sex: bounded by love
Becoming the weaker sex happened to me in a rush: one day I am leading a small pack of teens to raid abandoned buildings, daring each other to walk the half-burnt bones of antique ceilings to catch some thrills. And then — period pains, boob growing pains, heart wreck pains — then I fall from grace.
The physical change was what made me lose my balance, giving up to the teachings repeated to me since birth. Don’t climb trees, they’d say; don’t hold your hands in pockets; don’t whistle, don’t run, don’t talk like that, it’s boyish. Sure, I’d reply, sticking hands deeper in my pockets, measuring myself against the nearest tree. And then, at the age of 15, I decided to comply with everything I was told.
I can only imagine the confusion of my school boyfriend of the time. What he fell in love with was a longhaired, nerdy, competitive, goth girl ready to fight him in the school corridor just for show. What he actually got was a stupid (as women are!), meek (as women should be!) mess with a trembling voice staring into his eyes ready for a command (as God’s order demands!).
Can’t even blame the dude for breaking it off in three weeks.
a. female inferiority as a story
This is a graf from a study on the relative self-esteem of men and women throughout their life. The upper line is the median self-esteem level for men; the lower one — for women.
As it shows, right around the time of first menstruation, female self-esteem gets hammered down to never ever return to pre-puberty levels. I was surprised to learn that my own illogical experience is actually shared by most women. And as this experience teaches me, it had little to nothing to do with our actual physical changes — but everything with the stories we were told about ourselves.
I won’t even bother going deep in it. There’s just one thing I want to note:
b. the paradox of desirability
This is me at 23, three weeks into my new weird salesperson job. We have a new boss. She’s a tall, curvy, black-haired woman with a commanding voice and strict attitude, and I’m secretly terrified of her. She’s got friendly with one of the younger colleagues, and I’m eavesdropping as she gives out relationship advice during a tea break.
“You have to be weak” — she says, “don’t ever show that you can do things yourself. I always, always ask my husband to set up the ironing board for me — how would he remember that I’m a woman if he knew I’m able to do it myself?”
I imagine her being able to destroy cities with a single move of her mighty hip in that very moment. But the discourse is nothing new. I heard it in songs, I’ve read it in poems. We must make ourselves smaller, so the men could feel bigger.
The biggest paradox in the story of the weaker sex is that weakness is what makes us eligible for love, attention, help, and care. It’s not that you can’t be stronger — it’s that you have to renounce any hope for a romance if you are.
But you know, as we’re waiting for a charming prince to come and shower us in affection while resolving all of our problems, we, good obedient patriarchal women, have to make do somehow. And as we are getting better at it, there’s no going back.
I, a woman who knows how to use a screwdriver, a saw, and a hammer; who can run for a train with two heavy suitcases and actually catch it; who moved cities and countries, who’d travel alone; who walks a strange neighborhood with a makeshift knuckleduster of keys, determined to give my life for a dear price — I do not identify as weak. And I’m too tired to pretend I am.
But I still want love.
I still want romance, I still want chivalry and care.
What do I do?
c. a reframing exercise
This Christmas, my mom gave me a necklace of glass pomegranate seeds. Round, heavy drops seemingly full of life, they reminded me of a typical Neapolitan souvenir, a bunch of small glass chili peppers; and of the drops of my own blood down there, on a sea-kissed rock. The Neapolitan peppers are a symbol of masculinity: spiky, energetic, suggestive.
I chose my pomegranates to be a symbol of femininity, instead.
Because nowadays, the word I associate with “femininity” is not “weak”. It’s “fruitful”. Like the Earth, that is not weak: she’s giving, she’s loving, she’s abundant. She requires thoughtful attention but gives you ten times as much as you’ve put in it. And her patience is vast, but not limitless.
This is the story I choose to reflect my femininity.
In many pagan pantheons, the same goddess would be responsible both for the harvest and the war. It’s strange, but makes perfect sense if you think about it.
Because you reap what you sow.
So treat your goddesses nicely.