11/18/08

Menstruation

It somehow seems weirdly appropriate that I mark my ‘spectacular’ reemergence with a clichéd soliloquy about the diaphanous qualities of rebirth as a metaphor for my entire existence, but fuck that shit. If I had to recapitulate my activities of these past eight months (eight freaking months! Has it really been THAT long?) in 25 words or less, I would say: My spirit was broken in more ways than one, and I took my time in putting it back together again. And that’s the end of that.

I’m afraid that I will have to resort to some kind of formulaic scaffold of sorts, because I want to start from the beginning. I mean literally the freaking beginning. This doesn’t mean that I will wax eloquent about the intrinsic worth of having a clean slate, I don’t believe in them. The past has a place and a purpose. But I digress.

So, the damn beginning. That’s what I want to talk about. Biology. The reproductive system. Hormones. Ovulation. Menstruation.

I cannot shake off the sensation that I’m flogging a dead horse repetitively. That I have spoken enough about the redundant pointlessness of menstrual seclusion, about the natural inevitability of such a process, about the inexorableness of a fluid secreting orifice, and don’t all human orifices secrete some sort of fluid or fluid-like substance, be it blood, sweat, mucous, piss or shit? What makes the menstrual secretion that much more frightening, than say, a greenish viscous liquid dripping down a person’s face? Is it the blood? Is it the vagina, that most iniquitous orifice, weighed down overwhelmingly with several thousand years worth of cultural baggage? Or is it the combination of the blood and the vagina, a disagreeable substance associated with pain and suffering in conjunction with, to all cross purposes, a disagreeable part of the female anatomy?* Except when used for baby making, in that particular instance, all notions of disagreeableness vanish and get replaced by a veneration that forces the hapless vagina wielder onto a pedestal. And we all know how much I detest pedestals. But this is not about menstrual seclusion. This is not about pedestals. This is simply about my reproductive system, and the collective reproductive systems of the female of the species.

In less grandiose terms, I am not my reproductive system. It does not define me, or my life or my whims. I am not at its mercy, I do not function at its beck and call, and I have not succumbed to pubertal vulnerability. It does not delineate me; it is simply a part of me, as innocuous as a sweat gland on my arm, or a taste bud on my tongue. But it becomes necessary for me to state that which is excruciatingly obvious, over and over and over again. It becomes necessary for me to reinstate the fact that I am not an ill fated victim doomed to be caught in the throes of my perfidious monthly ovulatory cycle which deigns to ensnare me in its web of Unhinged Emotional Batshittery™ using a myriad array of lethal weaponry, including the dread PMS and the like.

Now let me state on the outset that I am not painting the discomfort felt by me and/or other women during their menstruation cycles as non-existent or a peachy keen experience. But what I am questioning is the pervasive rhetoric of ‘illness’ or ‘disease’ that hangs around menstruation and the female reproductive system like an oppressive miasmic fog. Take PMS for instance. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome? Am I the only one who finds this terminology problematic? Again, I will backtrack a little bit and state pervasively that I’m not denying anyone’s difficult experiences on, during, or before their period, much as I hate to make fucking caveats. But to mark it with the ‘syndrome’ tag strikes me as a little odd. Assuming the popular rhetoric surrounding PMS for a second, what are its markers? What constitutes the syndrome itself? A quick Google search gives me an imposing list of over 160 odd symptoms, anything from life threatening epileptic fits to conjunctivitis to low blood sugar to asthma to heart palpitations to glaucoma to increased appetite to constipation and on and on and on, the exhaustive list continues. If this is indeed the case, then we have nothing short of a global health crisis on our hands, a pandemic to end all pandemics, so AIDS please move over. A pretty convenient bind, I’d like to think.

As women, we’ve had to walk over hell and high water to have people (read: male doctors and physicians, I’m not going to pussyfoot around this) take us seriously, to have them acknowledge the fact that our bodies undergo changes every month. Unfortunately, as these things are wont to happen, the powers that be responded as they’ve always done when presented with something different (however big or slight the difference may be); they immediately decided to confront it as an aberration, putting forth cures and such for this malady plaguing the wimminfolk.

The setback with such an approach is not in the existence of the difference in question, and there are always going to be women out there who require medical attention for debilitating physical changes in relation to their menstrual cycles (full disclosure: on occasion, I’ve had to go to the hospital myself, because the nausea and pain was nothing short of agonizing), the problem arises however in the framing of the issue itself, as an abnormality, and by extension, a malady in need of a ‘cure’.

If bodily changes related to one’s menstrual cycle are indeed deemed as an anomaly of sorts, then what constitutes the state of being normal? What sets the norm? The male reproductive system? And there lies the freaking bind. Caught between the pervasive discourse on menstruation that places the male body and the male reproductive system as normal, and the repercussions arising from such a framework that puts all of a woman’s worth in her reproductive capabilities, there can be no leeway for a woman to attain normalcy without rejecting her biological markup and believing in the popular discourse that she is naturally unclean, monstrous, abnormal.

How then, can research worth any salt be performed on women’s menstrual health (and by extension, women’s health in general) when the basis itself is problematic, leading researchers to ask all the erroneous questions and formulating their own conclusions based off the results? I don’t know if I have the answers. But I do know that something’s gotta give. And I sure as hell do know that my body is fucking normal, menstrual blood, pain, nausea and all.

* Obviously I'm not literally referring to blood or the vagina as disagreeable.



3/2/08

And now for something deeply personal.

There are good days and then there are bad days.

On the good days, you notice the sun shining bright upon your face, you see the sunlight reflected in the snow, you feel great in a schlubby sweatshirt, salt stained jeans and worn pumas and you like the way you look, hair all pulled back and held in a headband and a face devoid of any makeup. Classes are enjoyable; even Mr. Mean old troglodyte’s class isn’t as torturous as usual. You head over to Starbucks after class and order a tall house. As the hot drink permeates your senses and the caffeine starts kicking in, you roll the sip of coffee in your mouth and revel in its taste. Everything seems beauteous and all is well with the world.

On the bad days, and I mean bad, you feel hopeless, devoid of all meaning for existence. You lie in bed, eyes wide open, and you feel the clangs of the radiator rattle you to your very bones. You do not want to go to class; you do not want to take a shower, heck you don’t even want to move. You lie there, stuck to the mattress as if your back was hosed in super glue. There is no physical manifestation of sickness, of course not, but the terrible listlessness gnaws at your insides like a symbiotic parasite, rendering you dead, unable to function.

You finally crawl out of bed, twenty minutes before class- it’s at 3pm, pull on your clothes listlessly and make sure that you wear the biggest sweatshirt that you can possibly find. You want to hide under the hood of your sweatshirt, you want to be invisible. You step into the restroom, and check yourself before you look in the mirror. You feel your intestines knotting itself in dread. You take a deep breath and stare at your reflection. You feel a swift whoosh of hate in your stomach at what you see. Your hair is messy and a little greasy, your skin looks dreadful – oh magnificent, another breakout, and you feel like a pox on the face of humanity. You quickly tear yourself away from the mirror and sink even lower into your hooded sweatshirt. Invisibility would be nice.

On the bad days, the despondency settles upon you like a shroud. Everything seems doomed to failure, you wonder if you will ever while away the time with your friends again, you wonder if you will ever partake in that alien concept known as a social life. You chafe at the notion of a single rational thought, of the will to just pick up that phone and call your mother, of the simplicity of dressing nice, of the effortless intricacies involved in just applying a little makeup, you wonder at your ghastly inability to do the things you used to do and take for granted. You feel the parasite within you getting stronger as the awful gnawing refuses to go away.

Suddenly you feel dreadfully alone. But paradoxically, you tremble at the thought of social gatherings and any form of interaction with other human beings, and you start avoiding them like an affliction. You retreat even further into yourself and feel the miasma of loneliness strangle your senses. You realize that you have created a vicious cycle of avoidance and paralyzing seclusion. You realize that you are fast disappearing, disappearing into a twilight zone of your own creation, with no possible exit looming in the distance.

Utterly listless, hopeless and a despondency bordering on hysteria, interspersed with a sliver of hope every now and then. An existence fraught with insomnia and a feeling of complete ineffectuality.

And then, a friend calls. Forces you to attend a party. You break down. You have forgotten how it is to feel pretty. To wear beautiful clothes. To slip your feet into delicately strapped sandals and feel alive. To catch the light reflected by your shiny hair in the mirror and feel like you own the world. You cry, not because you are not any of those things, you cry because you have forgotten how to be those things. You cry at your inability to participate in an activity you used to consider ordinary. You cry with shame and fear and a little bit of anger at your uselessness, at this beast which stands between you and the elusive state of feeling normal.

In a surprising act of willpower bolstered by a strong jolt of anger, you wipe away your tears and step into the shower. You get dressed and do your hair. As you start applying your makeup, you feel a rush of happiness at the familiarity of your actions. You pick up the lip gloss like a long lost friend, and start applying it to your lips with a growing sense of ease. You put on your earrings and slip into your sandals.

As you are dancing away at the party with your friends, you want to break down and cry at the happiness coursing through your veins. Tonight, the pall of gloom and doom has been rendered nonexistent. Tonight, you think with a flush of pleasure, you feel at the top of the world.

And thus you garner the strength to trudge on, to go a little further. Proud stoicism in the face of despondency or not, you will go on, you will feel and live and move and just be.

Post Script: This post is almost certainly the most personal entry I’ve ever made on this blog. This has been a microcosm of my life lately, since November 2007 at least. I didn’t want to write, I didn’t want to look at my blog, and the fact that my blog languished in my long absences only made me feel worse. But I forced myself to look at a computer screen and just write. I hoped that the process of writing would be cathartic in itself.

And you know what? It actually is.

2/3/08

privileges.

Caveat lector

I absolutely hate caveats. But I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet and say that there are always exceptions to the norm and that not all men are like this. Ok, customary hedging done. Now on to the post.

-----X-----

Why do I always end up having these painfully absurd conversations with people, when I fully well know what the outcome is going to be?

I was having this little chat with a guy from one of my classes, and it started off pleasantly enough. While we did away with the customary exchanges of agreeable inanities, the conversation suddenly veered towards gaming. This to me is an incendiary topic, as I have been forced into a snippy, defensive corner while discussing the very same subject with other desi men and believe me, it is a wretched position to be in. To put it mildly.

So it didn’t surprise me in the least when, as if on autopilot, my face arranged itself into a suitably bland expression and my mental walls crashed into place. But in a rare act of magnanimity, I decided to not play deaf and actually listen to what he had to say. After all, wasn’t I jumping to conclusions? Isn’t life all about giving chances to people? How dare I give in to my formulaic assumptions!

Armed with such saccharinely noble, aphorismic thoughts I smiled and proceeded to ask him what his favorite games were, his console of choice and what have you, and I was quite thrilled that both of us liked the same games and that one of my two most favorite games in the whole wide world (Silent Hill 3, Okami) was his favorite game too! So as my mental walls start dissipating and my face begins acquiring a slow flush of comfort and pleasure at a positive discussion of an activity which happens to be close to my heart, he comes out with this.

Maybe Okami didn’t do so well because it involved a female protagonist. Right there, you have alienated one half of the population and I can see why guys are uncomfortable playing such a lead. How will they relate to her? I had the same problem as well, you know? Maybe if they had thrown in a god or two as a playable character, the game would have been much better and less alienating and it would have definitely made my playing experience more comfortable.

All I could do was gape at him, while my mask of blandness settled itself over my features and my mental walls were firmly in place again.

I mean, seriously? It is not fucking enough that almost all the games spouted out by the industry is targeted exclusively towards the male half of the populace (specifically the young/white/male demographic). Oh no, even if one goddamn game dares to try something marginally out of the ordinary like have a female lead who isn’t a cipher or a hysterical albeit useless damsel in distress who is nothing short of being a negligible burden on the game’s protagonist (male, of course), it immediately becomes hard to relate to. After all, the unsaid gaming manifesto dictates that even the ass kicking female characters should be hyper sexualized with gargantuan mammaries and outfits which would make a bikini look unquestionably dowdy and modest, thereby reducing them to unthreatening blobs of eye candy. How dare a game feature a female protagonist who embodies none of the above mentioned tired sexist clichés and effectively turns the gaming industry’s noxious stereotypes on its head by making its protagonist a goddess, and making her playable in the form of a white wolf! But, that leaves no room for reducing a powerful female to gravity defying tits and ass! But silly me, of course the game automatically becomes un-relatable and alienating if its female protagonist isn’t objectified or non-existent.

So basically, the subtext here is that it is entirely acceptable for a woman to feel at ease with a plethora of male protagonists and characters, nay it is expected, but the opposite does not hold water for men unless the female character is suitably reduced to something unthreatening or hyper-sexualized.

In short, hello male privilege.

It isn’t a particularly revolutionary observation that we live in a culture saturated in male privilege; on the contrary, it is so utterly omnipresent that it is tacitly rendered invisible. It only becomes somewhat discernible in its absence and such rare instances are actually perceived as being discriminatory towards men.

I.

When I mentioned how happy I was to find that some bars in Madras actually had women’s night specials, to my cousin, he sneered and essentially proceeded to tell me how skewed this idea was in favor of women. Of course it didn’t occur to him that as a man, he can go and get himself inebriated at any damn bar he pleases (without worrying about his safety or worse) from the swank establishments at star hotels to the decrepit toddy shops at the corner of the street at any given time and nobody would bat an eyelid or question his actions.

II.

A friend of mine decided to keep her family name after her marriage. Simple enough, right? Wrong. Leaving aside the pesky fact that in a patriarchal culture you go from bearing your father’s name to your husband’s, the reactions she elicited for professing an attachment to the name she grew up with, were telling. Family friends and relatives alike, tut-tutted about how difficult life for her future children would be and didn’t she care about her poor husband’s feelings? Wouldn’t her brash decision be disrespectful to him? Her husband’s male friends sniggered and made not so subtle jokes about ‘who wore the real pants in the marriage’ and feigned sympathy over what a hard time he must be having in handling his ‘willful’ wife.

III.

Extrapolating from the previous instance, another friend of mine (who kept her family name after marriage as well), chafed at being addressed as Mrs. So-in-so. She would insist upon people using her chosen name and the title Ms. This was nothing short of a sacrilege according to her husband’s brother, who argued with her constantly about her 'sexism' and her temerity in insisting that people address her with a neutral title and the name she was born with. To him, this was indelible proof of her 'misandry' and her 'hatred of men'.

IV.

I once had the misfortune of overhearing two men agree heartily on a singularly nonsensical argument-well, nonsensical to me anyway, that it was a crying shame that public transportation in India (specifically buses and the like) had special seats for women. What fanned their ire even more was the fact that the women could sit in the other seats too if they liked, but the men could not sit in the seats specifically reserved for women, at least in principle. This to them was discrimination at its worst. Of course it did not occur to either one of them as to why such discriminations were necessary. It did not occur to either one of them that maybe, just maybe, if the men stopped using public transportation as a free for all for their sexual proclivities or worse (leading to the women living with a perpetually gnawing fear for their safety), then just m-a-y-b-e, we don’t have to come up with such discriminations, like special seats for women on a bus. Now, fancy that!

In these examples, it is not hard to see that they all have one thread in common. A lack of male privilege, be it a step towards equality or just the creation of a safe space.

And in all of the above instances, this simple lack of male privilege is considered both discriminatory and exclusionary.

Make what you will of that.

Post Script: This is probably the longest I have gone without posting. Not that any of you particularly care (yay, if you do), but I will make an effort to update this space more regularly. Ideas and rants swimming around turbulently within my being need to be siphoned off somewhere, and that should hopefully push me towards updating more. God knows, I want to. I also want to extend a big thank you to those of you who asked about my whereabouts. So, thanks y'all.

Right. Now that my coma inducing thank-you speech is done, you can shake yourself out of your torpor and shoo off.