PMT and Me

Update: I ended up having a really good and positive chat with the team behind the image described in this blog Рthank you to Clue for listening.

 

 

Hi, my name’s Alice, and I’m currently deep in the throes of PMT.

I don’t say this simply as part of my usual oversharing – it’s actually a very timely occurrence. This morning, I saw a link to this study¬†about ‘positive premenstrual syndromes’, and have been mulling it over – with a scowl and quite a few mutterings – ever since.

I have Thoughts about this study – or rather, about the posting and phrasing. The study itself sounds promising¬†– I’m all in favour of demystifying periods and PMT, dismantling stereotypes around them, and tackling the taboos that make people (cis men in particular) go “Ewwww that’s gross! (But¬†also it’s not a big deal and you’re all just faking).” But, to my mind, there’s a lot in the wording, and particularly the image, that needs unpacking.

I will freely admit that a lot of my reaction here is due to personal bias. My body has been playing a long and painful game of Gynae Issues Bingo with me since I was twelve years old, and as a result, I don’t¬†have any positive associations with any aspect of my menstrual cycle whatsoever. My uterus is an unwanted stranger squatting in my body who¬†periodically (hah) likes to indulge in a bit of physical and emotional torture. I’m never going to use it for anything, and it’s taking up space that could instead be occupied by…I don’t know, an entirely new organ that lets me perceive multiple timelines at once. Or a small internal air-conditioner that stops me getting too hot in summer. Or just empty space. Something more useful and pleasant than the current tenant.

Based on this, it’s not a surprise that when I first saw the image from the study, I mentally ran down the ‘Negative Symptoms’ column and put a big fat tick next to every single one.

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Seriously, I was like the aliens from Sesame Street:

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Being a curious little Martian, I was interested to see what kind of positive premenstrual symptoms people experienced, because¬†in my eighteen years of sporadic bleeding, I’ve never had¬†(or heard of) a single one. The closest I can think of is that, in the week leading up to my period, my sense of smell and taste gets more acute – which is kind of cool and makes me feel like¬†I have superpowers, but is also annoying because it comes with an aversion to some of my favourite, staple foods, like salad. None of my friends or relatives who menstruate have ever mentioned anything good about the whole PMT lark.¬†But just because I’ve never heard of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right?

So, I looked at the list of positive symptoms.

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I had two main reactions to this, and I’m going to deal with the less-irritated one first. If anyone out there¬†gets more energy and motivation, and feels more efficient and in control, when they’re up to their eyeballs in pre-menstrual hormones, I would genuinely love to know about it¬†(the comments section is open if anyone’s happy to share their story). When I have PMT,¬†my focus is so poor that I can barely work out questions like “Why did I come to the stationery cupboard?” (answer: to get stationery), and the only thing I’m motivated to do is curl up on my bed and binge-watch whatever TV show I’m on at that particular moment.¬†I’m so far away from relaxed that¬†my fists are near-permanently clenched, and my¬†energy levels are non-existent. So, if anyone turns into the enhanced individual described above, I’m deeply envious of you and I also kind of want to know your exact hormone levels throughout the month and attempt to replicate them.

Now for the second reaction. Two of these things are not like the others. Can you spot them?

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There¬†they are. Two of the ‘most frequent positive symptoms’ of PMT are, apparently, ‘younger facial appearance’ and ‘more attractive breasts’.

What’s wrong with this? Oh, so very much.

First of all; attractiveness is completely subjective. Look at the way beauty standards have changed over time, and how they differ from culture to culture. Think about all the different things that you and people you know find attractive or unattractive (if you experience sexual and romantic attraction, which not everybody does). So what does this study mean by attractive breasts?

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The answer, apparently, is “bigger”. Which plays into the most basic tropes of white Western patriarchal beauty standards, and¬†is just plain insulting. “Yeah, your boobs might feel like two bags of rocks and hurt with every step, but they’re slightly bigger, and that makes them better!” The same goes for ‘younger facial appearance’ – when I’m crying because my hormones are picking my brain apart for funsies, I don’t care that I might look like a weeping 28-year-old instead of a weeping 30-year-old. I’d rather look 50 and feel cheerful, thanks.

Second of all; attractiveness doesn’t¬†matter. It really, honestly doesn’t. Your physical appearance is almost entirely out of your control – genetics rules nearly absolutely when it comes to the way you look.¬†And on top of the fact that (as mentioned above) people’s reactions to it are going to differ wildly depending on circumstances, there’s the much more significant fact that their reactions to the way you look¬†are not important.¬†Sure, other people are allowed to have opinions about you – but the only one that matters is yours.

Implying that a “better” appearance is a “positive” part of PMT ties in with a¬†very old, very sexist stereotype. While not everyone who has periods is a woman (and not every woman has periods),¬†people who menstruate are very often coded as women by society at large – and part of being coded as a woman means being told, not in so many words but repeatedly and pervasively, that you are an ornament to decorate someone else’s life, not an active agent living your own.

I stressed above that appearance doesn’t matter, and I meant it – on the real, fundamental level, where we treat everyone as people, it’s only your actions and your behaviour that matters. However, out in the world, women, and other people put into the ‘woman’ box by society, are so frequently told that our appearance the only thing about us that¬†does matter – that if we’re going to insist on living our lives,¬†making our own decisions, being full and actualised people, then we’d better look young and pretty doing it, otherwise what’s the point of us?

The point of us is that we’re people, like everyone else. Suggesting¬†that a¬†physical process, which may be causing someone immense pain and¬†playing havoc with their mental health, has its good points¬†because¬†it gives some dude bigger boobs to stare at,¬†doesn’t support that. It just objectifies us all over again.

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My Favourite Places: Thirsty Meeples

Living in Oxford is a pain in some respects (incredibly high rents for not-exactly-stellar-and-let’s-be-honest-literally-mouldy rooms being one of the major bugbears I have with this city), but there are still many things I love about the place. One of these is the caf√© that got me back into board games, Thirsty Meeples.

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The picture is misleading – it is NEVER this empty.

Thirsty Meeples is the UK’s first board game caf√©, and I fell in love with the place on my very first trip. Games, cake, sweets, sandwiches, a whole range of teas and coffees, and beer, wine or cocktails if you feel like it? What’s not to love? (All right, so most of that sentence was about food and drink –¬†just imagine I said ‘games’ a load more times).

I’ve been to Thirsty Meeples with friends, on dates, and with my boyfriend, and every time, I’ve had the chance to learn a new game – and I’ve very rarely found one I didn’t like, thanks to the staff and their spot-on recommendations.

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This was the only truly dreadful one I’ve seen.

And, since I mentioned the food РI can confirm that there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than playing a creepy haunted house game (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, highly recommended) with your friends while eating a sausage roll and drinking a peanut butter mocha.

If you’re ever in Oxford…then you probably won’t be able to swing by Meeples, because it’s¬†nearly always fully booked, it’s that popular. But if you’re planning a day out, remember to call ahead and get a table – you won’t be disappointed.

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Follow the Stars

As anyone who’s read…well, pretty much any of my previous blogs on writing…will know, I’ve been struggling a lot lately with focus, motivation, all the things you need in order to get your bum in the seat and your hands on the keyboard. (To write, I mean. I have no problem getting my bum in the seat and my hands on the keyboard in order to blather all over Facebook and Twitter).

I’ve had to resort to drastic measures, and they involve several sticker sheets of gold stars.

100% of the credit for this idea has to go to the fantastic LD Lapinski, who wrote about using a star chart for motivation in this blog. I too have set up a star chart, covering all the things I need extra motivation to do (including getting up on time and eating my vegetables, as well as writing the goddamn novel). I wasn’t going to blog about it, because it felt like copying – but then things developed. Suddenly, I realised that stars were everywhere.

I recently signed up to MyWriteClub to track my progress on¬†Sigyn, because if there’s one thing I love as much as stars, it’s graphs. Here’s my WIP page:

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And that’s not all. I started doing writing sprints, and look what happens¬†every time you get to 1000 words?

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(And you get green stars for every 100, too. Be still my heart!)

I also signed up to NaNoWriMo, even though it felt like cheating to go in with a novel I was already writing, because I can never have too many of those little hits of dopamine that come with seeing a pictorial representation of your word count increasing.

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But what’s that¬†further down the page?

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HOLY CRAP, IT’S BADGES.

I love badges even more than I love stars. I’m¬†fairly sure that 50% of my motivation for exercising is to get more FitBit badges (the other 50% is, of course, to become a superhero). I often get quite sad that there’s no grown-up equivalent of Guides where you can¬†work through a book of tasks and earn proper embroidered sew-on badges, because I absolutely adored that.

It all sounds a little bit silly, but I don’t care, because it works.¬†For so long, the story has been difficult and I’ve not been able to get lost in the writing the way I used to – but now, I’ve got something pulling me back. And even if, today, that something is shiny pieces of paper and badges that don’t exist offline, rather than some noble authorly drive, it doesn’t matter – because I’m still writing.

 

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After the Election

On 9th November, I woke up to a text from my boyfriend: “Trump has won.”

It still hasn’t quite sunk in.¬†I spent most of yesterday reeling, stunned, occasionally losing myself in something else, only for the horror to come crashing back. President Donald Trump. The¬†poison cherry on top of the shit sundae that has been 2016.

I spent yesterday reeling, but I spent today thinking¬†What can I do?, because as someone with a fairly large amount of privilege, I have a choice here. As a woman and a person with various chronic and mental illnesses, the swing to the far right that has only been accelerated by Trump’s victory¬†will hurt me, but not as much and not as quickly as it will hurt people who aren’t white, cis, straight, middle-class and able-bodied. I can hunker down, stay quiet and hope to dodge the shrapnel, or I can stand up, shout and do what’s right.

I refuse to do the former. Here are some ways I’m going to try to do the latter. All constructive thoughts and ideas on how to do it better will be very much appreciated.

 

Listen, and amplify people’s voices

Marginalised people are already underrepresented in media, overlooked, shouted down at every turn. I can’t see that getting any better under the current circumstances. So, I will signal-boost¬†the people who are bearing the brunt of the far-right’s rise as much as I can – we need to listen to trans people, LGB people, disabled people, and POC (especially WOC, especially black women) as much as possible. Here are some brilliant articles that have been written so far, and I’ll be adding more as I find them:

Make Something Up – Kristine Wyllys

Good Morning, America. Welcome to your White Supremacy РIjeoma Oluo

The Audacity of Hopelessness – Roxane Gay

We Who Choose to Stay and Fight – Sara Benincasa

And for God’s sake,¬†listen to the same groups of people I mentioned above. Listen, digest their words quietly, and don’t get defensive and pissy and not all white people/straight people/men. Because that helps no-one and deflects from the real issue, which is that while¬†you, fellow privileged person, may not agree with the current climate, it still¬†won’t harm you in the way it does marginalised people. Listen to them and believe what they’re telling you.

 

Support

If you’ve listened properly to marginalised people, you¬†will have learned of ways to help without throwing your privilege around and making it all about you. Support organisations led by people bearing the brunt of the¬†racism, sexism, disablism, LGBT-antagonism, and do it in the way that these people ask. Give your time and money and skills if you can, and if you can’t, signal-boost and raise awareness. I’ll be taking recommendations of organisations and groups to support and listing them here.

 

Oppose bigotry, big and small

I am incredibly ashamed to admit that, on many occasions, I’ve let bigotry slide – because it’s just one small comment, because it’s just a silly joke, because, because, because. Deep down, I know that the real ‘because’ on all those occasions was because I get very uncomfortable about conflict and chickened out of doing the right thing. I’m not going to do that any more. From the smallest comment to the most violent attack, we cannot let anything slide, because that is how bigotry and prejudice becomes normalised. Our comfort is not, and never has been, more important than another person’s safety – it’s just been perceived and treated as such.

 

I am terrified as to what the next few years will bring. But I know that if people who are able to oppose it¬†refuse to do so, it will be so much worse than the alternative. There are many people who are going to be putting all their strength into just surviving – those of us who don’t have to do that need to step up and give our support to those who do, without expecting a cookie or a pat on the head, because we shouldn’t need that in order to fight for other human beings to be treated as such.

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Brain Fog Blog

I haven’t been blogging as much lately, because I haven’t been able to think of much to blog about – so, the sensible solution seemed to be to blog about the thing that’s stopping me blogging about the things.

When I was in primary school, there was a text-based adventure game on our medieval class computer. This game involved moving around¬†different rooms, or areas, but if you went too far off the “map” in any direction, you were greeted with the line “You are lost in a swirling fog.”

This is how my brain has felt for several weeks now. It might be my incredibly restless sleeping, or my never-ending consumption of caffeine, or my glitchy mental health, or a combination of the three – but I have a bad case of brain fog, and it’s not going away.

Brain fog is one of the most irritating things to experience, in large part because you can’t gather enough focus to even be properly irritated with it. Concentrating on a task feels¬†like trying to do calligraphy using a large handful of candyfloss. Time starts to expand and contract all around you, as even thinking proper thoughts becomes a struggle.

I know the fog will lift eventually, but for now, I’ve got to hunker down and wait for it to pass.

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Fiction’s Greatest Grumpy Women

I love grumpy women. Grumpy is so often used as a negative term, but to me, being a grumpy woman is in large part about seeing the problems in a society that’s full of them – being mad as hell, and not about to take it any more. It’s¬†also about refusing to fit the social narrative so often foisted on women; that we must, above all, be “nice”. (Grumpy women can still be kind, and generous, and supportive,¬†but they don’t conform to “niceness”, because they’ve realised that being¬†nice often means diminishing yourself so that others don’t have to be bothered by thinking about you).

Sara Benincasa nails niceness here. She¬†may not be a grumpy woman, but she’s a sharp and funny as hell one.

 

I don’t just love grumpy women in the real world – I adore them in stories, too. They break the unwritten but oft-cited rule that female characters have to be “likeable”, and instead become admirable. Here are four of my favourite grumpy women of fiction:

 

Meerkatnip from Tanis

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Tanis is a podcast, so here, have a fanart impression of Meerkatnip, complete with bonus Ally thumb

Tanis, sister show to¬†The Black Tapes Podcast, follows the adventures of host Nic¬†as he tries to unravel the mysteries around a place that may or may not be good, evil, dangerous, healing, part of another dimension, or a TARDIS. He’s assisted along the way by computer hacker Meerkatnip, who is, in this listener’s totally unbiased opinion, the best damn character in the show. MK, as she’s often known,¬†is stoic, snarky, and perfectly happy to give Nic a kick up the backside when he needs it. She’s probably the most competent character in the story, and¬†makes sure that she gets properly paid for the work she does. Over the course of the series, MK proves that she’s a loyal friend, but also that she won’t pull her punches or massage anyone’s ego.

 

Lapis Lazuli from Steven Universe

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Lapis’ situation is slightly different from the other women mentioned here –¬†from what we’ve learned about her so far in the show, her grumpiness¬†isn’t a core part of her personality (which seems to be thoughtful, with a goofy edge that occasionally manifests itself in making fart noises). Instead, Lapis’ grumpiness is part of the process of her redefining her boundaries and taking back control of her life after having been trapped – first in a mirror, then underwater, locked in a harrowingly intimate battle with one of the series’ main villains. Lapis is grumpy because she’s re-establishing her own identity, and after the ordeal she goes through in the series, it’s wonderful to see.

 

Tris from Circle of Magic

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I’ve been a massive fan of Tamora Pierce’s novels since I was a tiny¬†baby geek, and Tris from the¬†Circle of Magic series is one of her most memorable characters. An immensely powerful weathermage, Tris¬†is nonetheless a frequent victim of bullying about her weight, her glasses,¬†and her booksmarts. But she’s never a victim for very long. Whether she’s causing a rainstorm to thunder down onto a group of boys who’ve played a trick on her, or destroying a fleet of pirates attacking her home, Tris makes it clear she isn’t a person to be messed with – and she also refuses to compromise her principles, choosing to retrain as a regular mage instead of using her power for battle magic.

 

Granny Weatherwax from Discworld

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Not only one of my favourite grumpy women, but one of my favourite characters of all time, Granny Weatherwax is the Disc’s most powerful witch, and also an acid-tongued, stubborn as hell, tough as boots old lady. Whether she’s facing down vampires¬†or assisting at a difficult birth, Granny makes the hard choices, always doing what’s right even when it would be easier – and far more tempting – to do wrong. Nothing sums up Granny Weatherwax’s outlook on the world better than this exchange with a priest in¬†Carpe Jugulum:

“Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that-“
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes-“
“But they starts with thinking about people as things.”

Granny rarely treats people nicely, but she treats them right – grumpily, but right.

 

These aren’t the only four grumpy women in fiction, but they’re the four who’ve stayed with me. If¬†you can think of any I’ve missed, or should get to know, please tell me in the comments!

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Pretty, Useful

I’m sure you’ve seen that terrible¬†Girls’ Life cover that did the rounds a little while ago. It was hard to miss – as many people commented, the boys who were targeted for its brother publication¬†Boys’ Life were encouraged to explore their futures, while girls were encouraged to…be pretty and have nice hair.

There was a lot wrong with that cover. But a few days ago,¬†a response to it began to circulate. I saw the post in a feminist group I’m part of, and it¬†made many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable.

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On the surface, the ‘alternative cover’ looks great. A science fair winner as the cover girl, tips on healthy eating, volunteering and careers – what’s not to like?¬†I’m sure it was completely well-meaning and came from a place of good intent. Unfortunately,¬†it’s still problematic.

Firstly,¬†there’s the fact that the cover on the right is suggesting that¬†this form of girlhood is “better” than the other – that girls who volunteer and do AP classes are somehow worthier than girls who like fashion. There’s no mention of the fact that all girls are worthy because they’re, y’know, human – and there’s also no mention of the fact that girls can like makeup and hairstyles¬†and get high grades and do good works. The implication¬†seems to be that you can be like the (bad, made-up, inferior) girl on the left, or the (good, fresh-faced, superior) girl on the right – and that you’d better choose correctly. Which puts the blame on girls, not patriarchy, for the fact that teen girls aren’t taken seriously.

Secondly – the suggestions on the right really do seem like a hell of a lot of work, especially for¬†an older child/young teen. Boys get to ‘explore their future’ in whatever way they want, but girls¬†have to hyperfocus on AP classes and voluntary work that’s going to look good on their CVs? All work and no play makes Jill a tired and extremely pressured girl. (And why is there such a strong emphasis on volunteering for girls, when there’s no equivalent to this in the original¬†Boys’ Life cover? ‘Cos girls have to learn early that they’re going to be doing a ton of emotional labour throughout their lives, I guess…)

And finally – I’m absolutely not arguing that volunteering, or getting good grades, or focusing on your future career, is a bad thing. Hell, I was that kid in school – still am, to some extent. But don’t all the things mentioned on the edited cover look “improving”, as a Jane Austen novel might put it? The fake article headers seem to scream “Hey girls, don’t be a decorative object – be a¬†useful object!”, without realising that this¬†still treats girls as objects.¬†

It is a wonderful thing to be kind, and generous, and help people. But there’s a big difference between that and simply being handy¬†for¬†others to have around. To paraphrase the famous quote, ‘pretty’ isn’t a tax that girls or women should have to pay in order to occupy the space marked ‘female’ – but ‘useful’ shouldn’t be, either. Girls deserve to occupy space, and be treated as worthy, because they’re¬†humans – whether they like eyeliner, science, neither, or both.

If I were to improve the¬†Girls’ Life cover, I would want to show girls that yes, it’s good to be focused and motivated – and that it’s also okay, and healthy, to do stuff that is just for you, and isn’t necessarily ‘improving’ or ‘good’. You need a certain amount of frivolity and goofing around in your life, or you just burn out (and miss out on a lot of self-discovery and moments of inspiration along the way. Some of the best ideas I’ve had have started off with me noodling around doing things that don’t seem important.¬†I got an academic journal paper out of binge-watching¬†Avengers films in my PJs). I’d want to show girls that you can like academic things and¬†volunteering and make-up¬†and celebrities¬†and¬†extreme sports¬†and Netflix¬†and¬†anything else you want¬†and¬†that all of these ands are actually and/ors and¬†that none of it has to define you unless you want it to. And I’d want to make it¬†Teens’ Life so boys and NB kids can feel that way too.

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