My body is a fiesta
Are you there god, it's me, Monica
“The Church says: the body is a sin.
Science says: the body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The Body says: I am a fiesta.”
- Eduardo Galeano
I set the timer on the coffee maker for 4:55 so that my cheap Great Value Walmart coffee is freshly brewed and awaiting my arrival when my iPhone alarm summons me to consciousness five minutes later.
Every morning I stumble into a kitchen bedazzled with Christmas lights, blue-black early dawn spreading across the back window like a landscape paining. Always amid a stampede of no less than four and sometimes six animals who are ridiculously excited that I’m awake. All except Paloma, AKA Lomi or Lolo who typically regards me haughtily from her gargoyle perch with an it’s about time, you lazy bitch, where’s my fucking food vibe.
If I was a cat I’d be Lomi, for sure.
Literal animal house aside, it’s pretty nice to be received into your own kitchen like a celebrity walking the red carpet for a movie.
“She’s here, she’s here!” Meowing cats weave figure eights through my legs and the dogs pant in elation, roll their eyes upward at me and tap dance their paws across the vinyl floor like Gene Kelly in all his Singin’ in the Rain glory.
After feeding everyone and gulping my coffee, I force myself to trade my cozy house for the freezing winter morning and the three minute drive to the YMCA. It sounds productive but it hasn’t been this past week. The weird week after Christmas before the new year, where time folds in on itself and loses all meaning has been a draaaag.
My body, which typically feels foreign to me in the dreadful week leading up to my period, is also loaded down with holiday mashed potatoes, stuffing and Quorn’s meatless turkey roast, which is a delight, even if you’re a meat-eater, I promise.
As a result of the PMS, I can’t keep my hands off the leftovers, is what I’m saying. My body feels heavy, achey, angry and every bit middle-aged. A body in revolt.
I am trying to love my body. For all my life, it has been a good body. A reliable body. It rode bikes, played four-square, kickball and softball reasonably well during elementary school. No broken bones, no serious illnesses. It grew and birthed three humans without a hitch.
Really, I have nothing to complain about. With the exception of a lifetime of chronic low-key clumsiness, my body has served me well. And yet, this year, more than ever before, I can feel its slow, inevitable decline into middle age. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. Sore morning bones, lack of energy, thickening middle.
Incidentally, can we get it together on what portion of life middle age actually encompasses? Our society is obsessed with defining specific generatations: You’ve got Zoomers and Boomers, Gen Alpha and Gen X and the tiny “micro-generation” I belong to called Xennials comprised of people whose birth years are between the mid-late 1970s and the early-mid 1980s, but a simple google of '“when does middle age begin” offers you a variety of answers that, depressingly, lump people 35+ into the middle age crowd.
Not that I’m just barely above 35 and gunning to make the young person cut, I’m missing that mark by a solid decade and I like being older. It’s just that a span of 30 years (age 35 to 65-years-old) seems a little broad, no? This bulky definition for middle age feels like another shitty byproduct of society’s relentless obsession with youth which at its root, of course, is an obsession with beauty.
Your twenties is all youth, baby! We’ll let you crowbar into the youth demo for the first few years of your thirties and then, at 35 you can fuck right off, oldie! Your demographic is dead to us.
While admittedly arbitrary, maybe we can agree that middle age is generally defined as being between the ages of 40 and 60, although even that seems a little 1950s to me - back when people in their thirties looked like today’s 50-year-olds.
I’m inclined to say that, these days, 45 to 65 is a solid middle age spectrum. Which, see what I did there? I made it so that at 46 I barely miss the “youthful” cut although I can assure you I have no problem being middle-aged. I actually enjoy it. Even when, in an attempt to piss me off, all the twenty-somethings who work at the restaurant with me make boomer jokes.
You know you’re old when they tell you “Nevermind, it would take too long to explain and you wouldn’t get it anyway,” when you innocently inquire about a joke someone just made that in order to understand requires the knowledge of the origin story of a meme that went viral on TikTok over the summer that is now, like, super cringe, so the joke is ironic?
But I digress. Kind of. It’s all relevant, these bits of thoughts floating around in my head like blown dandelion spores. This year, for reasons you’re about to learn, I’ve sat around staring a lot. Staring at nothing and everything. Thinking about nothing and everything. Sometimes nothing and everything are the same thing.
All I really wanted to tell you is that, despite the recent holiday drag, working out at the Y is coming together for me in the same way as not drinking: I’m not really thinking about it much, I just do it and it feels right and good.
For the most part, I have stopped thinking about not drinking. During those first few months I counted every, single day. Just now, I just had to look at the app to know how many sober days I’ve clocked and today is day 150. By the time you read this it will be a cool five months which - excepting my pregnancies - is the longest I’ve not had a drink in my adult life, I think.
To be clear about the working out, I’m not noticing much in the way of obvious visible differences after three months and 'I’m not really expecting much at this point. I’m giving myself six months on that front so we’ll see where things stand on my 47th birthday at the end of March. What I’m mostly referring to as working out coming together for me is the fact that I’m making it to the building with the exercise equipment four times a week and, for the most part, enjoying my time there.
In the past, I became too focused on seeing results and when that didn’t happen quickly I’d give up. But I now realize that the process of taking care of my physical health; getting up early, going to the gym, focusing on specific muscles, is as important or more important than visible results.
One important difference I want to note is that regardless of a lack of visual changes, I feel really in tune with my body. I like the muscle soreness I experience after a workout and I notice how my body feels a bit blah (not to mention my mind) when I don’t go to the Y.
It’s an Exciting New Thing to be experiencing right now, something I’ve been clinging to, actually, because at some point in a year littered with expensive attorney visits, courtroom summons, financial difficulty and employment uncertainty, I recognized that my frustrating brain fog, depression, mood swings and aching muscles weren’t just a reaction to that specific stress but a result of impending menopause. Perimenopausal, they call it. And more people should be talking about it. The societal silence surrounding perimenopause is confusingly deafening.
And it’s perimenopause we should be talking about, not menopause. Well, it’s all a part of the same thing but I didn’t realize that menopause is just the single day that occurs exactly a year after your last period. Everything before that day is perimenopause and everything after is post-menopause. However, don’t you worry, even though it’s just the one day, you can experience symptoms of menopause for four to five years after your period ends.
The shift, which lasts, on average, four years, typically starts when women reach their late 40s, the point at which the egg-producing sacs of the ovaries start to plummet in number. In response, some hormones — among them estrogen and progesterone — spike and dip erratically, their usual signaling systems failing. During this time, a woman’s period may be much heavier or lighter than usual. As levels of estrogen, a crucial chemical messenger, trend downward, women are at higher risk for severe depressive symptoms. Bone loss accelerates. In women who have a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the first plaques are thought to form in the brain during this period. Women often gain weight quickly, or see it shift to their middles, as the body fights to hold onto the estrogen that abdominal fat cells produce. The body is in a temporary state of adjustment, even reinvention, like a machine that once ran on gas trying to adjust to solar power, challenged to find workarounds. (bold emphasis mine) - Susan Dominus, NY Times
Because I have felt off for much of this year, when I went in for my annual OB-GYN check-up a month ago I asked if the lab techs could draw some blood to check my hormone levels, which I advise every woman over 45 to do.
The results showed elevated TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) which indicates that my thyroid gland is not making enough thyroid hormone. This means I have an underactive thyroid, which also means I’m prone to weight gain. This, along with results showing hormone levels leaning toward perimenopausal, tells me the strange otherness I’ve experienced with my body is legit.
The only way I can think to describe this “otherness” is to compare it to the feeling of being pregnant. When you’re pregnant, your body does not feel like your own. At least that’s how it felt to me. Up until my first pregnancy my body and I were in sync. I knew how much food would fill me up, how much would cause me to gain weight, how long it would take to lose it, how my hair grew and felt, how my skin felt and what it would look like based on what I ate or drank.
Once pregnant, my body did its own thing. It went rogue and got up to new, unfamiliar things. Things that made my skin and hair feel different. Things that changed the shape of not just my belly but my face, legs, arms and back. Previously familiar favorite clothes fit in awkward new ways that had nothing to do with my burgeoning belly.
I felt uncertain in my pregnant body. Unbalanced. I had to re-evaluate movement as I wasn’t sure what this strange new body was capable of accomplishing and what might prove too much. If I squat to pick up this toy, will I be able to stand back up?
This is what my body has felt like this past year. Other. Unfamiliar, up to its own thing. My body has gone rogue and what I’ve been experiencing reads like the fast-talking voice talent who smoothly lists the horrifying side-effects of a drug being hocked on a late-night infomercial.
Hypothyroid symptoms include: Tiredness, sensitivity to cold, constipation, dry skin, weight gain, puffy face, muscle weakness, muscle aches, irregular and heavy menstrual cycles, thinning hair, depression and memory problems.
And just for funsies:
Perimenopausal symptoms include: Mood changes, low sex drive, trouble concentrating, headaches, hot flashes, vag dryness, trouble sleeping, joint and muscle aches, having to pee often, PMS-like symptoms.
Aside from a body gone rogue, the most frustrating symptom I’m experiencing is an intense, sometimes scary, mental fog. Often, I grope for what feels like an eternity for a basic word. “Where is the…. The….” I pause, flabbergasted, and stare at Cory. “The… The remote!”
Sometimes the word comes to me and other times I have to let it go because trying to remember is the opposite of remembering. For a writer - someone who writes for a living and as a hobby - losing my words is terrifying. The worst kind of mental constipation. All the experiences and feelings are still here in my brain, desperate to escape, but I can’t figure out how to get them out of my head and onto the blank monitor.
According to Susan Dominus, who wrote the incredible NY Times piece Women Have Been Misled About Menopause that every woman should read, this brain impairment is only temporary.
“About 20 percent of women experience cognitive decline during perimenopause and in the first years after menopause, mostly in the realm of verbal learning, the acquisition and synthesis of new information. But the mechanisms of that decline are varied,” Dominus writes. “As estrogen levels drop, the region of the brain associated with verbal learning is thought to recruit others to support its functioning. It’s possible that this period of transition, when the brain is forming new pathways, accounts for the cognitive dip that some women experience. For most of them, it’s short-lived, a temporary neurological confusion.”
Freaky premenopausal brain lapses aside, I am looking forward to never having another period. Because for all the body fuckery menopause seems to ignite, my periods just may be worse.
You’d think that at 46 I’d have this particular aspect of womanhood on lock but I do not. Honestly, I think my periods have such a negative impact on my physical and mental well-being that I block them out the minute they’re over then a month later I am sobbing over the most ridiculous bullshit, wondering what kind of weak, over-emotional asshole I am and then it hits me. Ohhhhh, it’s that time again.
I always tap a quick text to Cory when I make the mental connection, my version of sending a raven bound for King’s Landing warning that winter is coming.
MY PERIOD IS COMING.
Cory’s response is typically something like, “I know” with a benign smiley face emoji. He always clocks what’s happening days before I do but knows enough to never, ever, under any circumstances, ask me if my mood is the result of PMS.
Throw around all the cliched, sexist period jokes you want, but anyone who experiences terrible periods knows the shit is no joke. The physical pain can be debilitating; in addition to painful cramps, headaches and intensely sore boobs, my vagina throbs (No, no, this is no time for that kind of excitement) the same way a bad cut or burn will throb painfully in time with your heartbeat.
Sometimes the pressure is so intense I have to sit down because it feels like my uterus is going to fall from my body dragging my vagina with it liked a cored apple and splatter heavily to the floor in a sloppy, gloppy mess. And the bleeding. My god, the bleeding.
Sometimes, it’s so heavy I don’t understand how I’m able to still be living. Shouldn’t I be in a hospital receiving a blood transfusion, I wonder when it gets really bad, often while changing a tampon for the third time in a bathroom stall at work because ain’t nobody got time to take a day off work for heavy flow periods, we save those precious days for mental health days, don’t we?
The pain ranges from distractingly unpleasant to utterly atrocious, but it’s the way my personality feels completely hijacked that really spins my head around Exorcist-style.
I truly lose myself inside myself. Like hurricane storm surge washing away a beach house, any reasonable aspect of my personality feels obliterated by hormone fuckery, which is pretty miserable for someone already dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder and a perspective I regularly mistrust.
I find myself operating from a suffocatingly negative, rage-y point of view where everything feels like it’s happening AT me and the Sisyphean daily actions (getting dressed, brushing teeth, putting on make-up, making beds, doing laundry, buying groceries, sending texts and emails) required within an average life feel impossible, pointless.
Why wash these breakfast dishes now, there will just be more to do later. That light turned red specifically to fuck with me because I’m late to pick up the kids. WHY IS CORY BREATHING SO LOUDLY AT ME?
As is always the case because my brain is overflowing with the coordination of a household of six people and 12 animals plus a full-time job and a weekend job, I am dumbly yet repeatedly unaware that what is happening inside me is hormone-related. I mistake who I am for this awful energy holding my body hostage which creates guilt and shame and compounds the whole thing into a veritable Shit Show, capital S, capital S. I feel mentally terrible, physically awful and yet I still need to function as a linchpin in my household and my workplace.
This happens every. fuckin. month in the week leading up to my period, and then there is the actual period week wherein I can’t fathom why I haven’t been hospitalized for bleeding out, so roughly half of my life is period-related bullshit and now perimenopause has the rest of my forties in a chokehold and oh sweet Lord, can someone just swaddle me in a blanket, lay my head on their lap and rock me to sleep, pretty pleeeeease?
Are you there God, it’s me, Monica…
Here’s the thing, though… Buckle in and here me out. I have spent a lot of time mulling this one over.
Menopause is sexy.
Sexy in the same way pregnant women are sexy. Sexy in the same way a woman who just ran a marathon is sexy. Sexy in the way stretch marks are sexy. Sexy in the way women can grow and birth human beings and keep them alive with only their bodies. Sexy in the way motherhood is sexy.
Women’s bodies are indisputably sexy. These magical flesh, blood and bone machines that, just as they menstruate, go into labor and push out babies, know when to enter menopause.
From time immemorial, men have decided how women should view our own bodies. We often talk about the male gaze as if it is this other, strictly male portrayal of women as sexualized objects for male consumption. But society’s default gaze is the male gaze and so by nature of being born, our gaze is the male gaze. From birth women are bombarded with images of what’s considered beautiful and sexy or ugly and undesirable to men and that has shaped, eroded and reshaped our perceptions of every aspect of womanhood.
We are unable to view ourselves, or womanhood, without the pollution of the male gaze.
And so, menopausal women - women that society has already dismissed from relevance - are typically seen in pop culture as asexual, thickening, iron-haired, sweaty, and fanning themselves amidst their latest hilarious-for-some-reason hot flash.
I reject that stereotype. I’m nearly half a century old which means I’ve been male gazing at myself and other women for a long time. In a lot of ways, it’s too late for me. I can’t walk past a mirror, try on clothes or wear a swimsuit without silently picking myself apart, but I will be goddamned if I go through menopause buying into society’s construct of what it means about my womanhood.
We should all reject that simplistic, denigrating bullshit. Just as we mustn't condone objectification about the sizes and shapes of our bodies, we shouldn’t allow unintelligent, insulting archetypes to inform our feelings about what happens inside our bodies, ultimately creating another shitty paradigm about what it means to be a “woman of a certain age.”
Menopause isn’t just sexy, it’s a motherfucking triumph. A culmination of my body’s work. And now; liberation.
"Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny – period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby. We have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years, and then just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The fucking menopause comes and it is the most wonderful fucking thing in the world. Yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get fucking hot and no one cares, but then you’re free. No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person. In business." - Fleabag, Season 2, Episode 3
It is up to each of us and nobody else to inscribe meaning to the experiences in our lives. My perimenopausal experience, although often a pain in the ass and many other body parts, has been profound. It has been a time of unprecedented connection with my body which I no longer take for granted.
I feel a deeper understanding about how what I put in my body impacts how I feel and am inspired to make better choices in ways not possible when younger. I think more carefully than ever about what I’ve been taught or have gleaned throughout life about my body’s purpose and value and how most of that has been patriarchal horseshit.
As a result, I have never felt sexier than I do now. For profound reasons that don’t have much to do with how I appear to the world, especially men. I feel more in tune with what it means to be alive than I’ve ever been. I have a deeply rooted, nuanced awareness of how ephemeral all of this is and what a waste it is to allow men, society, or anyone else define womanhood for me.
All women need to take ownership of their menopausal narrative. Because just as men have never shown much interest in medical research that specifically impacts female bodies, they could give fuck-all about the societal construct surrounding middle-aged women with our wonderful, lived-in titties, lovely fans of crinkles winging our eyes, foreheads ridged with thoughtful wrinkles and even our terrible menopause symptoms.
“Menopause could represent a time when women feel maximum control of our bodies, free at last from the risk of being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. And yet for many women, menopause becomes a new struggle to control our bodies, not because of legislation or religion but because of a lack of knowledge on our part, and also on the part of our doctors. Menopause presents not just a new stage of life but also a state of confusion. At a time when we have the right to feel seasoned, women are thrust into the role of newbie, or worse, medical detective, in charge of solving our own problems.” -Susan Dominus, NY Times
A menopausal awakening, bitch
While perimenopause initially felt like bodily betrayal, I ultimately realized my knee-jerk horrified reaction was conditioned by a society that values youth and beauty. Leave it to society to create a reductive, harmful narrative surrounding a thing that happens to every middle-age woman. A collective view that - just like aging - menopause is bad.
Truth is, I wouldn’t go back to my twenties for anything. The hard-won wisdom I carry inside this aging body is so much more valuable to me than youth. What good is youth when you don’t have the depth of experience to know how to appreciate the moments?
I am so happy to have the opportunity to grow old, yet everywhere I look I see women waging epic, exhausting, expensive battles with age, each fight different and personal. And I get it, of course. You don’t exist as a female for nearly five decades and not understand the multi-faceted war women wage and the deeply rooted reasons behind what we do.
What I’d like to suggest, though, is to wage a more strategic war. Deeply evaluate your perspectives about womanhood and beauty and decide what matters to you. Don’t let a male-created construct of ideal womanhood - about which they know nothing - become a narrative you perpetuate to your own detriment and millions of women who follow in your footsteps.
I want to reframe the entire menopausal experience and treat my body with the immense respect, reverence, and care it deserves. My wonderful, miraculous, capable body has hit perimenopause and has become reliably unreliable. It is doing what it is supposed to do! My body is doin the thang! And that is reason to celebrate.
Like getting my first period, puberty, pregnancy or childbirth, this phase of my life is scary and arduous but I am learning to trust my body’s process. Menopause is another important transition, a female right of passage, a physical process alchemizing this body into the next fascinating version of me. I just need to learn to ride the lightning.
“When no one is looking, I swallow deserts and clouds and chew on mountains knowing they are sweet bones! When no one is looking and I want to kiss God, I just lift my own hand to my mouth.” -Hafez
IWNDWYT - Day 150
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