Sex, body hair, pelvic floors – it’s time to talk about body taboos.
From rogue chin hairs to sexual desire, five women explore subjects we’re supposed to keep quiet about.
“I obsess about chin hair to the extent of keeping tweezers on my desk”
“I am emailing you this because I’m too ashamed to talk about it,” said a message from someone I line-managed a few years back. My colleague, it transpired, was having electrolysis on her chin and had to let the hair grow out to a certain length before it could be zapped. Could she work from home for a couple of days, she asked, she didn’t want to think people were looking. Of course I said yes. Because, my god, I understood.
I obsess about chin hair to the extent of keeping tweezers on my desk. And shall I bring up those cursed catfish whiskers that sprout near the upper corners of your mouth? I hate those too.
My head hair is red, so most of my other random hair is extremely fair. I am aware my issues literally pale besides those of women with darker colouring (a friend of South Asian origin once rolled her eyes and called me “a fucking lightweight” when I said I only got my face threaded every five months). I have none of the grappling or pain that women who have transitioned can feel towards excess hair.
But. Still. We do not talk about our chin hair. Or any female facial hair for that matter. Or boob wrinkles. Or desire. Or, dare I say it, discharge. And don’t get me started on the politics of pooing. As women, many of us keep quiet about these basic bodily functions and topics. And I think it’s all to do with our conceptions of ourselves.
In an ideal world, I would be some kind of decadent, sexy intellectual. I would spend my time wearing acid green silk on a chaise longue, eating chocolate seashells and switching between a book on philosophy (in the original French) and one on contemporary geopolitics (in modern Arabic), receiving communications from my many lovers.
I am such a very, very great distance away from being that person. And the most regular reminder I am not, is the feeling of a new chin hair sprouting through. A hair that suggests I am a crone, a hag, a hedge witch. That I am one errant follicle closer to Baba Yaga.
There’s no sense to this. What keeps me from stepping even fractionally closer to my chocolate-seashell-self is time, money and ignoring all my Duolingo reminders. What’s your idealised self? French fashion blogger? Beyoncé coming out swinging in Lemonade yellow? #fitspo girl? A perfect bob and avant garde black? We have a lot of archetypes to choose from, but most of them start with the image first.
Research by Girlguiding in 2017 showed that girls as young as seven thought they were more valued for their appearance than their character. We try and control how we present ourselves and we shut the hell up about the bits that don’t fit. Performing femininity requires a whole lot of work behind the scenes. It’s work that’s largely invisible to men: they don’t, by and large, undertake it, but we also hide it from them. We woke up like this, didn’t we? (We did not.)
We are moving in the right direction, though. There’s a stronger sense that beauty comes in many forms and that, perhaps, beauty shouldn’t be the goal anyway. We can talk about periods. We will force the medical establishment to believe our pain is real.
Back in the early 20th century, women would write, desperately and secretly, to the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, pleading for advice on how not to get pregnant. The silence was so total that they had literally no idea.
We’ve advanced a long way over difficult terrain, we can cheer at a tampon string in the recent This Girl Can advert. But we’re still fighting, both society’s ideals and how that society has shaped our own internal perceptions. Here I am, talking about plucking chin hair, to 400,000 Stylist readers. A step forward to honesty and reality and let’s all applaud. But will I show this piece to the man I’m sleeping with? Will I bollocks. Don’t come at me, girl, there’s decades of internalised misogyny to unpack here.
I am not perfect. I am not perfect in terms of idealised femininity – although I still try, for shame. And I’m not a perfect feminist – and I try even harder at that. A chin hair can go from zero to Rapunzel overnight (how do they do that?), but change is slow. The only thing to do is move forward and keep talking.
“Everyone poos. Look around – that woman sitting opposite you, she poos”
Confession time: I’ve pooed at work, except you’d never know because I’m stealth. I refuse to leave a trace. It’s also important to know it’s not something I make a habit of. My bowel movements are pretty regular (since nothing is sacred, I go once a day when I wake up). But there’s the odd occasion when I get that telltale feeling in my stomach.
Sometimes it strikes me completely unaware, but it’s mostly when I’ve had porridge or beans at breakfast. There’s no point waiting until I get home because it’s never worth the risk: if it’s between pooing at work or shitting myself on the Tube, I’ll choose the first option, thanks.
I have a game plan, though, and being a beauty editor really helps. I’ll take a can of dry shampoo with me, sometimes a bottle of perfume or make-up. That means not only do I have a legitimate reason to be in the cubicle longer than usual, but I also have something that smells nice (and isn’t the god-awful air freshener) to cover my tracks.
I’m also good at knowing what different sounds are: I know what noise the office toilet door makes when it opens. It’s slightly different to when it closes. I can tell if somebody is waiting, too. It’s the worst when that happens, but I’ve been known to wait it out. I sit in complete silence until I’m alone, and only then is it safe to unlock the door and leave.
But why do I feel such embarrassment? Everyone poos. Look around – that woman sitting opposite you, she poos. So does the man to the left, and that toddler to the right. Everyone of them, each and every day, sometimes more than once. As children, we shouted about pooing with wild abandon. Some kids even get sweets as a reward.
But as girls get older, it starts to become embarrassing, dirty, even shameful – yet, surprise, surprise, it’s a completely different story for boys. I have male friends who wouldn’t think twice about announcing they’re off for a shit at work in the same way they would if they were heading into a meeting.
For the record, I hate talking about my toilet habits. I honestly couldn’t tell you why – am I scared of being judged? Of learning that my normal isn’t everybody else’s normal? I have no idea, but when I sat with my (female) colleagues discussing this feature and the subject of poo came up almost everyone physically recoiled.
We all feel the same, and that’s why nobody else volunteered to write this. I’m still not sure why I did but, also, I’m glad I did. It’s made me realise that pooing is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s also made me realise how stupid it is that we try and hide a natural – and healthy – bodily function. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t poo? I googled and the answer is a ruptured bowel, and really, ending up in hospital because you refused to poo at work is a whole lot more embarrassing than just going in the first place.
So now’s the time to stop giving yourself cramp, to stop clenching your arse cheeks as you quicken the pace towards your front door, to stop worrying that you might not make the toilet in time. Instead, just poo freely: at work (where you’ll be getting paid for it), in a restaurant, in the theatre. Just do it, if only to see for yourself how liberating it feels.
“I’m open about every element of my sexuality, genital warts and all”
Last week, my new boyfriend and I nailed having sex with the addition of a vibrator (side-on was the key). I came, twice. Explosively. Then I posted about it to 100 followers on my private Instagram account. And WhatsApped my friend. The next day I discussed it with some colleagues at work (we’re very open). Now I’ve put it in print.
But there was also a week in January where I didn’t want to have sex, not even once; I wanted to cuddle up and eat my bodyweight in Pringles. So I did.
For those who are interested and ask to hear it, I’m open about every element of my sexuality, genital warts and all. Talking about the act of sex itself has always been a comfortable space for me, even as a teenager who certainly wasn’t having it with anyone but myself. I was lucky; raised in an all-female household, with access to a litany of literature that provided a sexual education far more comprehensive than the odd lessons we received at school.
By the time I started exploring sex myself, my overriding sense was that owning desire had more to do with accepting and understanding it in all its forms, both waxing and waning, than having an unenthusiastic pop at every reformatted sex position some women’s magazines previously suggested (let’s be honest, there are four foundational sex positions and everything else is just a remix).
So I practised overcoming the shame society tries to instil in women regarding sex. I instigated chats with friends. I let people know I was a safe space, that if they wanted to share experiences, they could. And in turn, I’d talk about mine. I read sex blogs, watched porn, conjured up erotic fantasies. And I gave myself permission to honestly explore how I felt about it all; to admit when I was turned on and physically aroused but equally, to disengage when an idea or act left me cold. I learned that I did not have to do things just for the sake of it; there was no set way to have sex or feel desire.
In short, I wanted agency over my sexuality. And for the most part, I have it. Perhaps this is why I feel so comfortable in discussing it; it’s because I’m confident in it and have learned not to apologise or feel any shortcoming in not having had a particular experience (never done anal, for example) or enjoying a specific fantasy (men having sex with each other).
In the 20th century, it was revolutionary for women to admit they enjoyed sex at all, or even felt the flickers of lust. Feminism ushered in no-holds-barred assertions of a great fuck-for-all in the name of liberation. But we’re now two decades into the 2000s.
We no longer need to be so prescriptive about how we discuss desire. Sexual empowerment is not declaring a 24/7 horn or aspiring to sex goddess status. It is working on an individual level to understand what sexual satisfaction and lust feel like, to know it fluctuates and changes – and that is natural. And once you are operating properly on your terms then, trust me, it becomes unthinkable that you wouldn’t want to talk about it.
“My pelvic floor is like the baggy knee of a worn-out pair of jeans: zero hold, zero resistance”
Few experiences are quite as humbling as wetting yourself on your own doorstep. Believe me, I would know. You see, my pelvic floor isn’t just weak, it’s straight up useless. Like the baggy knee of a worn-out pair of jeans. It has zero hold, zero resistance.
You’ve probably laughed so hard a little bit of pee came out, but a bad day for me could mean a sneeze or even a cough has the same effect. I’d love to try a trampolining workout class, but I just can’t trust my body. And, before you ask, no I haven’t had children – so I can’t blame labour.
In all honestly, I’m not walking around trickling pee 24/7. It’s why I’ve never seriously tried doing anything to manage it besides a few failed kegel exercises – once I read that leaving a little longer between toilet breaks can help strengthen the muscle.
Problem is, I seem to have taken that to the next level, and now I pretty much ‘forget’ to pee. It’s like I’ve lost the cerebral connection that lets my brain know my bladder is full. Of course, this approach has backfired. I often find myself legging it to the loo as my pelvic floor shakes under the pressure of a bladder full of tea.
And by often, I mean every day on my way home from work. The sight of my building is like a mirage on the Brixton horizon, and just thinking about the proximity of my toilet is enough to start unscrewing the taps of my bladder. I waddle down the street like a power-walking Hollywood housewife, and pray the urinary gods will ensure the temperamental gate to my building opens on the first tap of my fob. I run through the garden, fling open the door and slam the button to call the lift. Once inside, I spend the seven-second ride up preparing myself for the impending waterworks.
The 10 paces to my front door feel like a 400m sprint and after fumbling – while practically hyperventilating – to get the key in the door, finally I’m in. My porcelain throne is in sight, my jeans are around my knees and five steps are all that stands between me and sweet, sweet release.
I swear, usually I make it. Until, that is, I didn’t. Recently my pelvic floor decided I was getting a little above my station and it – literally – let loose while I was stood on my doorstep. And it wasn’t a little leak; the entire pint of urine left my body while I stared down at my drenched jeans in what can only be described as sheer shock.
But have I ever mentioned this to anyone? Have I hell! It’s not that I’m ashamed of my weak pelvic floor. You don’t have to tell me the stats – I know I’m ‘not alone’ and that ‘it’s more common than you’d think’ but let’s face it: it’s just not particularly pleasant, is it? We spend our lives dousing our bodies in scented perfumes, creams and oils, lest we smell of anything other than frangipani and fresh laundry. So living in perpetual risk of leaking and subsequently smelling of pee isn’t particularly ideal.
Add to that the socially constructed idea that as modern women we ‘should’ have full control over our bodies at all times: we’re told to track our mood, suppress our appetite, take a pill every day to manage our fertility, and god forbid our menstruation gets out of hand and leaks beyond the confines of our knickers.
If I subscribe to such ideals (and yes, sometimes, it’s hard to shake off such conditioning), admitting I lack control of my pelvic floor feels, well, inherently un-‘ladylike’. And yet, if research estimates that anywhere from a quarter to half of women have a weak pelvic floor, then surely that makes it a very ladylike thing after all?
And we’ve got to laugh. Because the reality is that it doesn’t matter if my pelvic floor isn’t up to scratch. Sometimes your body has other plans for you. And besides, a little pee never hurt anybody.
“PMS is always seen as a joke, but it can mess with our sense of self ”
Last week, a life insurance advert came on TV showing sentimental shots of falling leaves and an elderly man walking alone. A lump lodged in my throat, my eyes welled. I attempted an inaudible sniff.
“Are you OK?” my partner asked. I balked – as though this was the most unreasonable thing anyone had ever said to me. “WHY WOULDN’T I BE?” I snapped, before storming off in search of solitude, a spoon and a jar of peanut butter. Moments later, a health app on my phone pinged with a message: “Has your period started yet?” It all made sense.
Variations on this scene play out every month without fail – specifically, five days before my period is due, when a cloud settles over my head and everything just feels harder. Sometimes it’s on my commute, where one elbow barge can send me into a flying rage; or at work, where a passing comment becomes lodged in my mind, stirring my thoughts into an anxious frenzy.
The intensity of these emotions is almost overwhelming. I feel the physical strain of trying to contain it, my smile stiff and my shoulders tense – anything to avoid revealing how raw and vulnerable I really am. I live in fear of those loaded, gendered words: sensitive, touchy, overemotional.
Why? Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, gets plenty of airtime in popular culture and our everyday vernacular, but it is always the butt of the joke. How many times do you remember “Someone’s on their period…” being sniggered in the school playground, or “That time of the month?” uttered with an eye-roll? Exactly.
The stigma around periods is one of society’s most deep-rooted forms of misogyny, but with every image of a bloody sanitary pad or dangling tampon string we are driving home the point that this is a daily reality, not a shameful secret to be contained in a toilet cubicle. What we’re still not talking about, though, is what comes before it.
More than 90% of women suffer from some form of PMS, which the NHS describes as “the name for the symptoms women can experience in the weeks before their period” – it really is as vague as that. These symptoms include mood swings; feeling upset, anxious or irritable; bloating; tiredness; headaches; breast tenderness; spotty skin or greasy hair; changes in appetite and loss of sex drive.
In other words: serious, life-inhibiting, head-to-toe shittiness. And yet. Under “causes” also sits the sad, solitary line: “It’s not fully understood why women experience PMS.”
In 2020, when our brightest minds are busy building self-driving cars and growing meat in labs, there is still little understanding around a health issue that affects almost half of the world’s population, every month, for most of their lives. Can you imagine if those same symptoms applied to men? The multimillion-pound clinical trials, the days off work, the drama?
The truth is, I’ve always felt ashamed of my PMS. As someone who sees themselves as upbeat and in control, being at the whim of my hormones for five days every month messes with my sense of self – and I know it’s made worse by how hard I work to hide it.
We are constantly fed the notion that women are ruled by their emotions, and that this is our biggest weakness. It’s a stereotype I’ve always been desperate to avoid, from cringeworthy teenage attempts to prove to boys that I’m not at all “crazy” – their adjective of choice for hormonal girls – to the stiff upper lip of my adulthood.
But I’m tired of battling my biology. For far too long the normal functioning of women’s bodies has been used to suggest we’re not as capable as men. But I’d argue the opposite is true: being in tune with our fluctuating feelings is what makes many women masters of emotional intelligence. And in today’s world, we need that more than ever.
Images: Sarah Brick, Pixeleyes