The great girl gross-out

Female writers are getting more graphic than ever about the messy realities of their bodies. Is it too much information, or enlightened honesty?

Published February 5, 2009 11:45AM (EST)

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about herself?" is the familiar question posed by American poet Muriel Rukeyser. Her response, in verse, is: "The world would split open."

Or maybe it would get 50,000 hits on the Internet, which is what happened last year when former Jezebel blogger Moe Tkacik wrote about the time she accidentally left a tampon in for 10 days. She described how, on the advice of her editor, she squatted on the floor and started rooting around for the source of the acrid discharge that had been plaguing her for days of sex and drugs and drunkenness. "It was far. I had never reached that far. It was gross-far, nearing the anus zone far."

There were certainly some grumblers in Jezebel's comments section, including one who wrote with anatomical exuberance that Tkacik's odyssey was so disgusting, "My vadge recoiled so hard that I could basically feel it slam into my duodenum." But there were many, many others, expressing sentiments like, "Moe I feel your pain. I was 16 and it was summertime ..." And "Um. This happened to me once. I never told anyone. But one day, after having sex, it just kind of slid out. I'd been wondering what that very strange odour was coming from my yoohoo ... I was very happy to read that I am not the only one this has happened to." One respondent offered, "Midway through, I almost threw up. And yet, kept on reading. At the end, I laughed my ass off. It def. sometimes sucks to be a chick, but at least we can all laugh about the nasty shit together."

Laughing about all the nasty shit -- or crying about it, kibitzing about it, whining about it, bragging about it, confessing it, writing about it, and most important, exposing it -- it's all the rage. Jezebel, the popular women's offshoot of the Gawker empire, has been the leader of the oversharing crusade, with vibrant, aromatic and really graphic posts about everything from lodged tampons to yeast infection remedies to bloody period sex to female ejaculation. (The last, in Tracie Egan's piece, "Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gush," also includes Egan's report that "I live my life perpetually suffering between either mild dehydration or a UTI, meaning that my piss is (ab)normally cloudy, stinky, and dark" ).

But Jezebel writers are not the only ones reveling in graphic female self-revelation. Other recent, mainstream expressions of the form have included Elle magazine's brutal piece last summer by Miranda Purves, called "The Ring of Fire," about how giving birth to her child tore her vagina asunder. An English translation of Charlotte Roche's German bestseller "Wetlands" ("It is difficult to overstate the raunchiness of the novel," read a story in the New York Times about "Wetlands," "and hard to describe in a family newspaper") is due in April. It opens with the sentence, "As far back as I can remember, I have had hemorrhoids." And this month, a younger iteration of the lay-it-bare form: the publication of "My Little Red Book," an anthology of more than 90 women's stories of the first time they got their period. It includes contributions from well-known authors Jacquelyn Mitchard and Erica Jong and writers of popular tween novels Cecily von Ziegesar and Meg Cabot, as well as ruby red reminiscences from 1916 to 2007, by women who first began to bleed everywhere from Connecticut to Canada, Paris to New Zealand, India to Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, there's an accompanying Web site where others can contribute their stories.

"Every woman remembers her first period," the book, edited by 18-year-old menarche enthusiast Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, begins. "Yet ... almost no one talks about it ... Why? Because first periods are an awkward subject." Nalebuff calls the collection -- with its 240 pages of stained skirts and clogged toilets and crimson puddles left on classroom chairs -- "an effort to help us embrace and therefore end the awkwardness."

Oversharing is in. And for a lot of people who are doing the sharing, or experiencing it, it's not so much "too much information" as it is the next, necessary step in personal-is-political, enlightened honesty about the female body. It's a tack that has been taken in the past, by second-wavers who threw parties at which women were encouraged to take a gander at their cooters with hand mirrors, and by Riot Grrrls, whose zines and music teemed with expressions of female body anxiety. But all that communal celebration or shouted fervor for the female body and its effluvia was always a little too marginal, too embarrassing, reeking of moon-tides and red tents and creaky second-wave earnestness.

Today's version of these revelations can also be celebratory (see "My Little Red Book"), self-punishing (Tkacik and her tampon) and angry (the "Ring of Fire" essay). But it is also often funny and conversational, casual and exhibitionistic. Here are frank, explicit physical descriptions in glossy women's magazines, on a blog that also covers celebrity fashion, from teenagers who are allowing their period stories to be published in a book that everyone might read!

We have edged away from a time when talking openly about the female body was necessarily a brave political statement and into one in which it can be self-promotional, potty-mouthed and kind of sweet. It is the merging of a decades-old, well-intentioned but often embarrassing feminist health project with a liberated Internet age in which people have few qualms about airing their very dirty laundry to as wide an audience as possible, and in which women have immediate access to the experiences of their peers and elders, no matter what intimate abysses, emissions or embarrassments those stories entail.

This new graphic femininity creates a space in which women can tell their own funny or scary stories and provide tips, advice or cautionary tales for others who might harbor silent curiosities about their bodies and what can go wrong (and right) with them. This is certainly the case with "My Little Red Book." Readers who for several generations have turned anxiously to Judy Blume's "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret?" for everything they need to know about "becoming a woman," will now have 90 more stories with which to compare their own fears, yearnings and embarrassing relatives. It's a mini, purely anecdotal "Our Bodies, Ourselves," but for a genuinely Internet-friendly age: the first-period story from Nalebuff's little sister comes in the form of an IM conversation. Think: "OMG did yu get ure period????"

In the same category is a recent post by Jezebel's Sadie Stein about her attempt to cure a yeast infection the homeopathic way by leaving garlic tucked into her vaginal canal overnight. (It stung, and it didn't work.) "I am a big believer in women not being ashamed about the intricacies of how their bodies work," said Jezebel editor Anna Holmes. "Particularly their reproductive systems. Yeah, it can be 'gross,' but I don't find it gross. Personally, I find it fascinating, and there's something cathartic about it."

What's cathartic is getting over the silence that is often imposed on some of women's ... moister qualities. Ladies have long complained about the wall of silence that has surrounded certain aspects of their anatomy -- a silence that persists even in an age in which Sarah Silverman can do comedy routines about licking assholes, and women can write blogs about how much sex they have.

"My Little Red Book" is studded with stories, both modern and several generations old, of women who believed themselves to be dying when they began to bleed, of girls who, even when they told their mothers or sisters or teachers or friends what was happening, were met with silence.

A similar information chasm swallowed pregnant Miranda Purves, leaving her confused, self-hating and ultimately abstinent for nearly a year after giving birth. Upon reading in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" (the ultimate compendium of maternal paranoia) that women who had given birth vaginally might find that sex will change thanks to the stretching (and tearing) of their vaginas, Purves realized that "No one, not a single one of my friends who had already given birth, not my mother, not a doctor, not another book, no one had told me that there would be a permanent 'slight increase in roominess.'" And so, perhaps as a public service, or perhaps just to get it off her chest, Purves described in Elle how she made the final push through the so-called ring of fire. "I ripped like old sheets, and the (my) baby's head burst free," she wrote, going on to describe the unsatisfactory healing of her granulated vaginal skin, her lack of sensation when her husband attempted to stick a finger inside as foreplay, and how, when she finally braved a look at herself in the shower, "what had once been smooth and pale pink was a weird tortured purple. It conjured jellyfish, dead and torn."

Purves' tale is not a funny one. It may also not be a typical one, every woman's experience of childbirth being different. But many of the new confessionalists believe that confiding nightmare scenarios can be as helpful as sharing mundane but historically murky ones.

Recalling an episode of "The Tyra Banks Show" featuring a woman with a condition that made her body odor (especially her vaginal odor) smell like fish, Jezebel editor Holmes said, "This is one of all women's greatest fears: What if someone can smell my B.O.?" To hear from someone who has experienced it, or who has had their vagina ripped apart, or who has lost a tampon, or who had bled buckets during math class, provides some sort of comfort -- perhaps because someone else has worse things going on than we do, perhaps because it reminds us that people can live out our worst physical terrors and come out the other side. Maybe it's just that we want to believe that if we do live out our worst nightmares, we could survive to tell the tale ourselves.

"If somebody goes out there and humiliates themselves and says 'This is what happened to me,'" said Tkacik, "then other people can talk about it happening to them."

So it was with her tampon post, if the comments in response are to be believed. Tkacik also said that one of her "most posh and cultured and beautiful and always together friends" admitted to her that she too had lost a tampon, for even longer than 10 days, and that she'd had to go to the hospital to have it extracted and that "it was lime green when it came out." To have this "beautiful, dazzling" person admit that "yeah, guess what, I get a period too and sometimes you fuck up," was very comforting, Tkacik explained.

It's a cycle of hearing then sharing that produces conversation familiar to anyone who spends time online. While it would seem that Egan's sexually graphic blog, One D at a Time, would be a place for readers to almost exclusively goggle at its author's escapades, or at the very least try to trump them, her commenters' responses to unappealing confessions like "What's weird is that my crotch smells exactly like balls right now" or "I have poop issues on a daily basis" is far from revulsion. Instead, readers expressed sympathy, empathy, gratitude! Yes, their crotches smell like balls! Yes, they have poop issues! And yes, they are relieved that there is a context in which they are not just allowed, but actively encouraged to gab about it!

Nalebuff, who is taking a gap year before beginning at Yale, and who is donating royalties from "My Little Red Book" to women's health and education charities, began her period story excavation with the older members of her family. "You see how surprisingly brave women who are now old and decrepit and seem like they were never your age can be," she said. "You realize that they lived through the same thing you did." Asking them to tell the story of their menarche, she suggested, returns them to their pubescent mind-sets, but because many of them had never told the story before, "it's not some theatrical monologue they've done before. It forces them to think back on it and feel those emotions for the first or second time."

Most of Nalebuff's subjects warmed up to the idea of sharing their stories after a little cajoling. The only exception was when she saw the actress Glenn Close on the street, and in a red-blooded fever, ran up to her, introduced herself, and with almost no preamble, asked her for her first period story. "She looked as if she'd just eaten something really disgusting," said Nalebuff. Close coolly proclaimed, according to Nalebuff, that she had no interest in sharing her first period story.

But others, like Nalebuff's great aunt Nina Bassman, told tales that they had never mentioned before. Bassman's first period came in 1942, as she was crossing the German border out of Poland, her yellow star hidden in her shoe. When the SS boarded the train to perform a strip search, the dramatic arrival of Bassman's first period halted them.

"The thing that's remarkable is that she never told anyone," Nalebuff said of her aunt's tale. "Her first thought was that no one would want to hear that story."

It's an attitude that lingers, even among "My Little Red Book" contributors. "I agreed to be in it hoping that I would get a royalty every time someone gets their period," said writer Patty Marx, who takes a more traditional view on personal self-exposure, worrying that to confess vulnerabilities -- from getting a period, to being tired or sick -- is to admit weakness. In the anthology, she describes her fury at having her period come at age 16. "I think you're supposed to be happy," her mother tells her at the time. "Well, I'm not," responds Marx.

And then there are the very young women, the ones who haven't yet grown into themselves, who don't yet live completely on the Internet, or know Sarah Silverman, or have the vocabularies to feel OK about the discomfiting stuff happening to their bodies. "Some of the girls who were really young felt awkward about it and that's understandable and to be expected," said Nalebuff. "I knew there was this problem. Ten years from now, if there's a second edition, I hope that will be different."

The way Tkacik sees it, it would benefit lots of young women to learn early that the expectations that they be delicate flowers of womanhood will at some point be shattered by a leak or tear or smell or stain. "Women's bodies emit so many gross fluids, that I think it's sort of funny that we're expected to be the cleaner, more groomed, less crass sex," said Tkacik. "Because our everyday experiences involve a lot of vile things happening to our own bodies."

Whether or not you view female excretions as vile, or whether, like Nalebuff, you view menstruation as "cleansing impurities out of your body," there is no question that many women find the process of self-revelation, as Holmes said, cathartic. It's about breaking certain silences, yes. It's about letting loose with long pent-up questions and anecdotes and curiosities and fears. It's about laughing about things that might otherwise make you wail with shame or pain or fear.

And at the same time, it can be about getting attention, performing, flaunting and acting out your own vulnerabilities, getting noticed for your willingness to debase yourself or win a gross-out contest that once could have only been dominated by boys. It can be painfully self-punishing to read and self-objectifying to write. It can be liberating, and poignant, and it can also be irritating and crass. All at the same time!

As Tkacik pointed out to me, that story about the forgotten tampon wasn't just about a nasty feminine product, but also about her own perception that her body was telling her, unpleasantly, that she was living the life of a steely and debauched teenager, while inside, "there's this clock that wants you to have had children by now and wants you to have defecated all over the hospital bed in the process and wants you to have found somebody who will accompany you through this odyssey of grossness." Tkacik paused, and wondered aloud whether many readers caught that lonely subtext. "You write gross things for page views too," she said.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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