Saturday, March 4, 2017

On Becoming a Woman - Mid-Life Edition

When I was around ten to fourteen, we were all inundated with information about our bodies - all the ins and outs of the magical, wondrous things that were just around the corner for us. It happened at school, but it was also the purview of some of the After School Specials that everyone watched, intrigued, then later mocked. We only had twelve TV channels to choose from, and most of them were soaps at that time of day, so they had a captive audience. And then there were dogeared copies of Judy Blume books to help us get our heads around it all. We were well-prepped.

Now that it's far more socially acceptable to be alive in a female body, some moms have parties when their little girls become women. I can't help wondering if it's all just to spin something kind of annoying into something beautifully natural so people don't start complaining or get weirded out by it all. Nature can be pretty nasty sometimes. I didn't throw any parties because my girls just wanted to go on with their day and not think about it too much.

But at mid-life, there nothing to warn us of our changing bodies, of the miraculous transformations unfolding day by day on our special journey towards becoming... what? 

When periods start, we become women. When they stop, do we stop being women? Do we become girls again? Are we crones?  I'd love to be the type to embrace it all in some fantastic Wiccan ritual where I gather my sapped formerly-womenly buddies to dance skyclad in the moonlight, but that's just not me. I'm more of a 'rage against the dying of the light' type. It might help to have another word for it that doesn't have a dusty, Macbethian connotation. But we all know that any word we use will eventually be tainted by the stigma that surrounds older woman anyway. That won't go away until the stigma dissolves, and I don't see that happening any time soon. Should we just reclaim 'crone' for what it's worth? Or just carry on as women, functioning without a modicum of estrogen. It seems to be a title that can't be taken from us unwillingly, like being an Olympic athlete even if we haven't worked out for decades. Once you're in, you're in.

Without breasts or ovaries or female hormones, I still feel very much like a woman. For me, it's all about the hair, so I'm hopeful it stays in there and also hoping to avoid chemo down the road. Well, I can just get a wig, and then I'll have perfect hair every day! Having breasts and long hair can help people be seen as women regardless how they feel, which is yet a different facet of it all. But this whole thing opens a can of worms about gender a bit. I mean, that some people really need to have breasts to feel like a real woman has no bearing on the fact that I don't (despite my doctors insistence that I simply must get a pair). But then what is a woman? Is a woman anyone that calls herself a woman? And can we change our minds if we like, because I have my very manly days, and now I can look as manly as I feel in a tank top and work boots. I also like wearing pretty dresses from time to time, but so do some men who don't want to be women, they just like the outfits. I absolutely love the idea of gender being completely random and fluid, but I don't have many allies on that one. People like stability and firm decisions and predictability. We want to know what to call each other, and it's difficult if it changes regularly. But still - wouldn't it be cool? To be who we feel like being every day?

But if a woman is defined by whomever self-proclaims womanhood, does that run into the same problems as defining art too subjectively? If art is just whatever someone says it is, then are the borders so blurred that it become nothing at all? If I call my mug full of tea 'art' regardless its pragmatic purpose, then what isn't art? What isn't a woman? Are there no necessary conditions beyond claiming it so? Some philosophers of aesthetics, like Morris Weitz, say nope: art, by its very nature, resists definition. It's an 'open concept.' Clarifying a concept is always an exercise in determining what should be excluded, and that fails once it's no longer useful or meaningful. A recent viral post on the genetic nature of men and women comes to a similar conclusion about trying to classify people in clearly defined categories: "The world is way too weird for that shit." I'm sure others have written much more eloquently about it all; I'm just still trying to find the borders of the arguments for myself.

Anyway. Now, instead of After School Specials, we have the internet, and so do the 10-14-year-olds of today. My youngest eschewed my old Judy Blume books. She already knows everything. Everything.

The internet is a great resource to get information after the fact, or when you hear a nugget of information and want to know more. But it doesn't help at all when you're completely blindsided or when there are myriad questionable sites mixed in with everything else.

Maybe it's because I don't read women's magazines or watch TV geared to women, or rarely ever talk to women about womenly stuff, or maybe it's because women at this age just don't rate enough for these issues to be openly discussed in mainstream media where everyone can learn about them, or maybe it's because, as women, we have to work to make sure nobody ever sees us as weak and unable to do our jobs so we do everything to hide how difficult things can be, but, whatever the reasons, I had no idea!

Things I didn't know:

* Periods have to stop fully for a year before you can say you're in menopause. Before that, you can have years of erratic bleeding (nothing for months then non-stop for weeks) that is sometimes almost uncontainable, and sometimes black and thick as tar. My god. I was sure something was horribly wrong, like, extra-terrestrial level wrong, and really wanted to show my doctor, but she stopped me from undressing and assured me this is perfectly normal. Who knew?!

*  Hot flashes are worse than having a double mastectomy in terms of affecting your fashion choices. I have some great sweaters that are kept at bay for three seasons, then let loose on those frosty cold days, but they'll be at the back of the closet for who knows how many years now. I can only manage a light shirt with a heavier shirt or jacket over top that can be removed and put back on numerous times each day. No doctor can give me any sense of how long this will go on. My gynecologist said it might last into my 80s, but my oncologist thought it should at least settle down in the next year or two, so somewhere between one and thirty years seems to be the consensus. Some women don't get them at all, and nobody knows why. It's not important medical research to figure out the rhyme or reason of this one. Taking estrogen blockers makes it worse, so this is not entirely a menopause thing, but it was pretty much in full force before I started the drugs.

* The hot flashes make me feel feverish, and I have to actively remind myself that I'm not sick. It's a bit of a mind thing to try to force myself to feel normal while I have sweat dripping off my face in the middle of a lecture. But, I tell myself, it's good for the kids to get used to seeing women in this stage of life. Yesiree. But how did I get this far so unaware of these experiences? I mean, I knew hot flashes were a thing, but I had no idea how debilitating they could feel. I'll be in the middle of a discussion and suddenly completely lose what I'm saying while my brain is being fried. It's hard when I'm expected to talk like I actually know what I'm saying at work all day. At the very least it's an undesirable distraction. Of course, lots of us are coping with lots of things as we go about our days being productive, I realize, and I'm ever in awe of people who overcome much more profound difficulties to achieve momentous goals, but maybe this is all messed up. Maybe being so impressively productive shouldn't be our goal. Who knows. I'm perpetually ready for a nap after another night of throwing the blankets off only to gather them all back again minutes later. I'm beginning to think that getting things done is highly overrated.

* No estrogen means no lube. Apparently dry skin and a dry vagina will be in order soon enough. Yup, there are lots of moisturizers and KY Jelly out there, but I had no idea about this either, and happily don't have first-hand experience with anything like this, but you can actually get an internal tear in the vagina walls just from walking! Jesus!

* My mom had whiskers, and always worried about me getting them. So far, I just have one stray hair on my chin, but I'm plucking my eyebrows further up on my forehead, and my pubes are a reverse brazillian! You can't grow old without a sense of humour!

* This stage of life comes with weight gain that's much harder to ward off coupled with a significantly higher risk of bone loss and breakages. So weight-bearing exercises have to become part of my life. Where is the time??

It's all tolerable, and we'll muddle through, but wouldn't it be nice if it all had just a little higher priority, maybe up there with life-changing developments like Viagra or potential trips to Mars.

Whatever. No more periods! Yay!

Not that there's anything wrong with them...


Unknown said...

Dry as the Sahara. Not anything I had ever imagined.

I had a friend once tell me, how pissed she was that she was finally fully confident in her body, but that having sex "could actually hurt" TMI?

A gynecologist who specializes in menopause wanted to prescribe an estrogen supplement (to be taken every day for 2 weeks, then weekly for the rest of my sexual life). He did not ask me a single question, nor examine me, nor give options. He also said, if I read the "facts" sheets about the drug, I would be scared of, so "don't read the facts sheet."

I have not been back.

Coconut oil.

This product seems to work well, but coconut oil is cheaper!

Unknown said...

Marie Snyder said...

The problem with herbal remedies and eating flax and soy is that they work because they add estrogen. But I have to avoid estrogen, so they're not an option. But I can try picturing a cool place!!

Unknown said...

Acupuncture - does the board cover it?

Marie Snyder said...

Studies have found any effect to be largely a placebo effect, if there's an effect at all. Here's a meta-analysis on those studies that adds concerns that the press releases describing the studies spin them to sound like positive results: "Proponents of acupuncture, however, turn the logic of science and clinical trials on its head by bizarrely concluding that no difference between treatment and control means the control works also (rather than the usual interpretation that the treatment does not work)." I'll take a pass until I find a well-developed study that clearly show positive results.

Anonymous said...

There is so much truth to this! There are a ton of other symptoms. I really struggled with brain fog. And don't get me started in the loss of muscle mass. This affects you everywhere - EVERYWHERE which includes down there. It's like having two flaps of skin down there.

Marie Snyder said...

Absolutely! Growing old is not for sissies! Maybe it's all kept secret so guys won't have to acknowledge how much harder things are and yet we still manage to get the dishes done!!