A Chaos of Edges: Welcome to the Perimenopause

Sara BranMost women are born with their life quota of egg follicles, somewhere around 2 million of them. In an average life, these eggs diminish to about 750,000 by the onset of puberty to around 10,000 by the age of 45. Medically, the menopause describes the moment when a woman runs out of eggs and has her final period. The menopause is only ‘diagnosed’  after a year without menses, but actually this varies greatly from woman to woman.

For a long time before this menopausal ‘moment’, women experience seismic shifts in their chemical make-up at a pace as individual as their life stories. This is the perimenopause, a process which begins around the age of forty to forty-five and takes several years to complete.

Although many women (and men) view the prospect with dread, the perimenopausal years present a precious opportunity for healing and spiritual growth ~ if only more of us embraced them fully, fiercely with wild and open hearts. Yep, the PM. It’s where it’s at sister. Provided there’s somewhere to sit down and it’s not too far from a toilet.

Perimenopause is a time of enormous change as significant and bewildering as its reverse mirror, puberty. Women’s later years are potentially  a time of crystallization, a process of obtaining clarity as we gather up the fragmented self and cluster into new forms. The elements are all the same; we are still us, but we are arranged differently. I personally feel a need to reclaim the missing pieces of myself, those fragments lodged in unfulfilled dreams and unfinished business; those pieces still stuck in the hearts or minds of old loves. I feel the need to gather myself home before it’s too late.

Many of my female friends over forty are feeling daunted by the imminent onset of the ‘change’. It looms on our horizon like a gathering storm of ancient soot and carnage. Our air is heavy with anticipation, we’re all forecasting doom and it has to stop.

Native American traditions view the older woman as ‘the gatherer’ who ‘walks in beauty’ replenishing her internal landscape while her external shell decays.  For women with children, the perimenopause can feel like a homecoming, a reintroduction into a extraordinary place called “the self” after many years of caring for others.  Sadly these days, there are few elders lining the streets and cheering us on in this endeavor. Many women, just like me, are going through this stage of their lives with young children to look after and the push/pull of opposing needs is aching.

As far back as fairytales, older women have either been the ‘stepmother’; malcontent, skeletally thin and brimming with poison, or the wizened yet wise. In the mainstream media,  older women are pretty much invisible. With such a narrow choice of role models, it is no wonder that, although the menopause is not a disease, around 2.5 million women in the UK choose to medicate their journey from fertile to infertile. We commonly turn to HRT or antidepressants at mid-life and risk increased chances of developing breast cancer, thrombosis and strokes among other side-effects.

Botox may freeze an older woman’s face into a fictional eternity, but we still rot inside if we hate who we are. We are so terribly bad at ageing in the West ~ it can feel lonely facing the challenge of these years in a world that takes it’s beauty one way; neatly packaged and low-fat.

As I age, I am a chaos of edges, an ill-defined mess, a burgeoning of bosom, a geology of indiscriminate crevices and I am determined not to loathe it although, sometimes, bravado crumbling, I do.

I am so tired of women hating the skin they’re in. So, so tired.

[This piece is abridged from an article, “Coiled Snake Unwinding” originally published in The Mother Magazine]

All This Scratching is Making Me Itch: Are Tights a Feminist issue?

Vintage Stocking Ad

Vintage Stocking Ad image from http://vi.sualize.us

The leaves are coming down which means the tights are going up in our house. While the Teenage Songbird is dressing her shapely pins in skeins of sheer and shimmer,  the Biscuit Thief and I are just plain itchy and scratchy. We, with our highly reactive ‘sensitive’ skins,  practically BLEED with annoyance the entire autumn/winter season because of the brutal and perilous world of tights and wool in general.  As an added bonus, my seasonal look is topped off by a nose that becomes my personal temperature, mood and alcohol gauge from September to February with a neutral setting of ‘shiny, scarlet and dripping’. I spend the chilly months living in fear that the thin, papery husk of skin holding me together might, at any moment, rip open like the Hulk’s shirt, causing my guts to tumble out onto the gum-strewn pavement; the shiny burgundy reds of my liver and kidneys disappearing among the sodden autumn leaves.

Getting the Biscuit Thief dressed for school in the autumn/winter is a confusion of limbs, tears and static. She’ll put on one skirt/tights combination, dance around like a whinging monkey in tin shoes for twenty minutes, then remove the whole lot about five minutes before we have to leave. She then tries on every pair of black trousers she owns until she finds THE ONES THAT AREN’T ITCHY MUMMY. She is anti-tights, anti-trousers, anti any kind of containment really and I feel her pain. Winter is just SO CONSTRAINING. It totally elevates my desire to train as a trapeze artist or pilot to the top of my ‘to do’ list, and I come over all tubercular, pining with empty longing every time I come across an unopened pack of 70 denier. I just can’t sit still while the heating clicks through the pipes and the rain spits the earth from my window boxes for weeks on end; winter makes me figuratively and literally ITCH.

I have yet to find a cold weather solution that works clothes or activity wise and so, I feel, I must move somewhere warm where I can bake my leathery vellum dermis on slow burn all day in just a pair of pants.  I need, frankly, to let it all hang out.  I lived in California for a while and I’ve got to say,  I loved the freedom of  life lived outside all year round, released from the unbreathable layers of textiles required for English living.  However, I did miss the  toasty comfort and nostalgia of the British autumn and the ego-pummeling vehemence of our winters for that is the stuff of tortured poetry. Yes, I missed the conviction of the seasons when I lived in California because I so desperately require structure for my mind, but ah, how my body loved its freedom from fibre.

My grandfather owned a wool mill in Yorkshire and lost his world to acrylics and nylon, so perhaps it’s some kind of ancestral destiny that I should forever suffer the itch, the itch. Apparently there isn’t such a thing as a wool allergy, it’s more that the coarse wool fibres poke into one’s skin causing irritation and inflammation, frazzling the nerves and causing the release of histamines. Wool turns me into an irritable splatter-painting of blotchy crimsons. To wear it feels like allowing millions of ants shod in tiny, heated stilettos made out of needles to perform a Busby Berkley tap dancing routine on my torso leading to the incredibly sciency question, WHY DON’T SHEEP ITCH? I find acrylics, nylon and lycra no less annoying than wool; it’s a case of clothing claustrophobia! Scarves, tights, polo necks, hats, and mittens; these are the moth-luring terrorists of my clothes cupboard and I want them extradited.

Tights come packaged with all sorts of schmexy word kisses like ‘gusset’, ‘denier’, ‘sheer support’ and ‘control’, but this just disguises the fact that they are in cahoots with yeast and cystitis, home to thrush and the peppery sweat of inner thighs. Tights are basically giant acrylic-mix condoms for legs; unsexy, good for one time use only, and prone to holes. And yet leggings, leggings are just wrong, reminding me too much of my own state of permanent indecision. “Are you trousers or are you fucking tights?” That’s what I want to say to leggings. And as for jeggings! Jeggings are in such a state of identity crisis that the idea of them makes me shudder even more than the thought of Jeremy Clarkson leaving a pube hair in the soap.

The important question is, are men doing it? Are men doing tights? Are men doing scratchy gusset torture? They used to, before they realised that it’s pretty hard to rule the world if you are itchy, yeasty or have a raging forest fire in your bladder. These days, the only men in tights are the dancers it would seem, and those playing Hamlet.  And so I leave you with this question, are tights a feminist issue? or do I just need to wear jeans until the bunnies get frisky?