“Oversharing is in,” said Rebecca Traister yesterday in her Salon column, “The Great Girl Gross-out,” thereby summoning the inherent chic of women’s writing graphically about their own bodies’ grossness, a genre of writing whose omnipresence sure makes it seem like all the red, moist, fusty rage.
Drawing a lot from websites, magazines, and books, Traister points to the trend of specifically female “oversharing” about specifically female parts. She quotes from posts on Jezebel that deal with the stink and agony of lost tampons and the stink and agony of garlic as a cure for yeast infections; she looks at Miranda Purves’ Elle article on the psychological horror and the genital gore of childbirth; she dwells on the recently published Little Red Book, an anthology of stories of first periods; and she briefly takes a peek at Charlotte Roche’s novel Wetlands, which begins with the sentence “As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids,” and which was recently released here translated from the German into the English. (Jezebel published a reaction to the piece, which you can read here.)
Traister’s column reveals that her reaction to this trend is a polyvalent stew of admiration, revulsion, empathy, wonder and irritation. Reading it, I got a sense that Traister couldn’t quite get past the shock and awww that signals a complex mixture of disdain and reluctant respect combined with a soupcon of condescension, a reaction that she cops to at the end. Somewhere in the middle, Traister writes, “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.” She has a point.
As hard as it may be to read some of this writing—and maybe I’m showing my age here, but I do find it hard to read narratives that, as Moe Thacik’s did, liken the smell of a tampon to “a fermented tofu renowned for smelling like rotting fish meets sewage meets Black Death” and the look of it to “bloated like a corpse in the harbor.” However, you can’t negate that it is political, and in a very specific, very powerful, and very empowering way.
Women’s bodies have always served as the marker not only for beauty of the human form, but also for its horror. As a culture, we project our needs for physical beauty on women, an idea that is not new. We also use women’s bodies as the yardstick of our fear of our own bodies—our bodies’ smell, our bodies’ decay, our bodies’ nasty and invisible recesses, our bodies’ waste and all the myriad anxieties that these smells, decay, and effluvia cause.
I might be rushing to state this next point, and bear with me if I am because this is just a blog post ripped from the top of my fecund mind and not a fully researched article. I’m going to say it nonetheless: if you want to know what values a culture holds dear, you need to take a look at the way the culture looks at everyone from male to female, young to old, bottom to top, but if you want to see what makes the culture’s skin crawl with the inexorable creep of the horrorsloth, you need to look at the way the culture treats women’s bodies. I’m not suggesting that the way we look at male bodies, specifically aging male bodies, reveal nothing. Pictures, text about, advertisements involving male bodies with back hair, big guts, man-boobs, nasal tufts, bald heads and so on say a lot about how we think about aging and what fears we have about masculinity, but male bodies don’t serve quite the same cultural function that female bodies do. Men get a lot more latitude. Women don’t.
Reading Traister’s piece and the Jezebel pieces, and reflecting on conversations I’ve had, things I’ve written, and other things I’ve read, I realized that Traister was right about the grrrrl-power that shades the gross discourse of Sarah Silverman and the raw honest of book like Little Red. Sadie Stein of Jezebel weighs in, saying, “The female body will not be ignored: it burbles and leaks and creaks and drips and emits and produces and reproduces and generates and puffs and inflates and occasionally reeks. It is fascinating. It is scary. It is alarming. It is hilarious and silly and mysterious.” Stein’s joy in the freedom of language is palpable.
Mostly, reading all this writing about women’s newfound voice brought to mind Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” a poetic narrative of a man, Strephon, sneaking into his lover’s boudoir and discovering an eschatology of ever-increasing grossness. He begins with her dirty smock with its “armpits well be-smeared,” moves onto the fetid disarray of her cosmetics and dressing table, looks into her washbowl and examines her sputum, investigates the toes of her hose, and pauses to look in her mirror to imagine her squeezing her zits. Strephon’s long and lingering—and highly imaginative—foray into Celia’s private space crescendos when he reaches her commode, opens the lid, and looks in. The speaker exclaims,
Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Everyone, as the children’s book notes, poops. But it’s women’s poop, women’s blood, women’s hair, women’s stink, women’s mysterious genitals that frequently bear the cultural burden for all of humanity’s pooping, bleeding, shedding, stinking and mystery. The important thing is that this kind of rude, crude, crass and lavishly descriptive discussion of female bodies used to be the sole provenance of men. Women didn’t talk this way, or they didn’t often, or they didn’t openly.
The only text I can summon that had this kind of down-and-dirty discourse was the 1976 book Titters: The First Collection of Women’s Humor. I read it at my friend Jess’s house, and I remember this florid, funny instructional on how to insert a tampon for the first time that ended with the tampon fully inserted in your ass. All the other humor about women’s bodies that I can remember—and I may just have lived a very cloistered life, or I may have lost said humor to the dustbowl of time—has been either women-written and very recent, or it was written by men.
A lot of the writing that Traister references feels strangely tomboyesque, and that makes sense because there is a built-in testicular swagger to a lot of it. Our model for talking out loud about women’s junk is masculine. It feels boyish because the discourse has always been by boys—or it has been highly euphemistic rainbows-and-princesses condescending dreck that treated women as if they needed to be coddled from the hard truths of their own anatomies.
To be a woman and to write boldly, nakedly, honestly and funnily about your own body is unquestionably a political act. It’s a revolutionary act. And someday, it may change the way we view the world of human bodies. Someday we might live in a world where every body holds beauty, every body holds secrets, and every body can poop, stink, bleed, decay and be gross, equally.