Friday, May 27, 2011

The Cramps

I've recently become obsessed with this website, The Hairpin, which posts the best articles. They have the Ask A series, which features an anonymous, rotating panel of experts: Dude, Married Dude, Clean Person, Queer Chick. They suggest ways you can fritter your paycheck away. They gave an online tutorial on how to install feather extensions. In short, if The Hairpin was an actual living woman, it that friend of yours that always seems to be up on awesome shit: the broad who was rocking a glitter eyeliner in middle school; who smoked cloves until she realized that smoking is boring, who went and did a degree in urban planning or web-based journalism three years before anyone else got the memo, and who also knows just what to do when one of her besties knocks a tooth out during a tequila-fueled tumble off her road bike.

While the writing is usually conspiratorially casual - there are posted entitles "Why I am an abortion provider" and they offer tips on surviving Jamaican dance clubs - sometimes they totally knock it out of the park. They recently posted a piece on one woman's period, written as though the period was a bullying fremeny who coerced the hapless menstruater into sucking down caloric Orange Julius and buying insane sequined hot pants.

I loooove this idea. My period makes me cry at commercials and throw a total hairy eyeball at my boyfriend, often without me even knowing it's the hormones. I hate the sneak-attack element of menses. My period turns me into a nut: I once cried because I ate half a freezer pizza in one sitting. I will pick fights about stupid shit ("You know I only like the yogurt with 18 grams of protein! The other stuff is for weenies!"). I cry. I bloat. I refuse to brush my hair (okay, that's normal). I will throw tantrums and become a demanding asshole who could kill Howdy Doody's will to live. Then I get the flow, and I snap right out of it. Sure, I'm crampy and sore, but at least I stop hating myself and everyone around me.

That I even get a period is a bit of a miracle, given that some of my lady parts were lost in a fire (kidding! I had an ovary surgically removed last summer), but it's one of those miracles I resent. I feel like a lot of pregnant ladies who don't necessarily buy into the whole earth-mama, Birkies-and-flowy skirts, expensive-stroller ethos of modern childbearing might feel about their pregnancies the way I do about about my menstrual cycle: it's fine, but I have to twirl around in a field to do it? Like, have you seen tampon commercials? I know I'm required by Woman Law to wear white pants and have a rictus-grin on face for those magical five to seven days, but hot damn, I don't feel like it.

What I actually feel like doing is crouching like a feral dog in the food court of the Eaton's Center, murdering overly peppy H&M employees and eating honey-garlic chicken wings. I want to sit in a pair of dirty overalls and drink cheap beer and belch a lot. I want to make post-feminist punk music, where the bass player is a robot and the audience listens with their hands over their ears. I want rage. I want defiance. I feel positively mutinous when I menstruate, and it's only made worse by the fact that my period is like Ke$ha after her morning ablutions crossed with Courtney Love.

Why can't I just get gnarly when I get my period? Oh, sure, the hormonal tide often skews towards the sadder side, but I'm so over the idea of feeling like I have to hide it. "I'm crampy" is one of those man-repeller phrases like "I'm really into crystal healing" and "I love collecting Gund stuffed animals" that make people go, "Whoa." But it's a gross process: messy, squishy, smelly (like pennies!), and pretending it's some wellspring of womanly awesomeness is a little like pretending testicles are adorable, or that knuckle hair is sexy: sometimes, bodies do unappealing, weird-ass shit. In the case of women, our bodies do that stuff every month.

I think the next time my period shows up at my door, I'll indulge her a little. We''ll get day-drunk and go bake banana bread in a tube top, and then watch The Iron Giant and cry unattractively for twenty minutes. We'll try yoga for ten minutes and then get bored and switch to watching makeup tutorials on YouTube. We'll make out with our boyfriends, despite the fact that the boob tenderness is really out of control. We'll take a hot bath and put all our hair on top of our head in a lazy-girl approximation of a ballerina bun that will make us look as though we were styled by a deranged person. And the running thread, throughout this whole experiment, will be radical self-acceptance: loving the whole gross, bloated, sobbing mess.

And Toblerone. Obviously.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Storm Clouds

If you think your parents are wacko, count your blessings that you aren't Storm, the genderless baby being raised by a Toronto family. Storm isn't intersexed or two-spirited; Storm is an infant whose parents have not shared his/her gender with the world. Keeping mum on the subject - only a few people immediate family members know - has enraged some, befuddled others, and thrilled and confused from coast to coast.

I had a long conversation with some girlfriends on Friday night about Storm, and parenting, and gender politics, and I have to say, maybe it was the beers or maybe I'm just close-minded, but I don't think I fared very well. Being a good little liberal-arts grad, I understand that gender is constructed. I know that by giving a girl a pink pony, you're telling her how girls act, and are supposed to act, and how she had better act if she wants to be like other little girls. I also know two brothers whose parents, in the anti-violent, dolls-for-boys late 1980s, confiscated their play firearms. The boys, in a fit of creative desperation, chewed their toast into the shape of guns and continued on undeterred.

The article that prompted the debate originally ran in the Toronto Star, whose editorial tone was somewhat ambivalent. Storm is clearly being raised by thoughtful and engaged parents, but the writers made the point that by being, not boy, not girl, nor "or," but "none of the above," the parents were creating a hitherto unknown category they referred to as "other than other." "Other than other" seems like dangerous waters for a society that decriminalized homosexuality not so long ago, and that struggles, still, with a myriad of differences. God forbid Storm is a fat, awkward, mixed-raced shy kid with glasses, horrible teeth and no gender. That kid is fucked. Within the closed familial loop, most people are free to be something other than their gender - a great painter; a fan, as the family's eldest boy is, of pink feather boas; a weeping mess at bathtime, or some other permutation of the self that isn't penis/vagina.

But outside the family/friends circle, gender is indisputably one of the markers we use to identify people. Much like race, age, and accent, gender comes to us without thinking about it critically. It's only when we're faced with a little uncertainty that we get nervous. If someone is mixed-race, like my fabulous friend Kelli, they often get pegged as one or the other; her recent musings about trying to be multi in a world that often prefers you to check one box was an insightful look at passing, and resenting the pass that comes at the expense of her more honest and interesting background. Likewise, Storm, at least as a baby, will be able to pass as one of two genders, but eventually, kindergarten will happen, and bathroom breaks, and changing for swim club. Genderlessness is a gift given to the very young and will eventually erode as the child makes choices.

Do I applaud Storm's family? Well, as my friend Suzanne pointed out, it expands the realm of the possible in exciting ways. She said, "You just know some other family is thinking about doing the same thing now, because they know it can be done." Which is true: the debate about whether or not it should be done comes because, like it or not, it is being done.

But I said on Friday, and will stand by it, that parenting in this way is an activist, political act that isn't about the child, but rather about the parents. I dislike parenting as activism; if Storm's parents wanted to explore what it's like to live without gender, they should have done that experiment on themselves, not on their young child. This is the same part of my brain that shudders at vegan children and elementary school kids who attend anti-abortion rallies. Even though I understand that this education strives for more openness and examination of what is possible, the reality is that it's happening to someone young and presumably without the critical thinking skills that would benefit, say, someone who attended university for equity studies. Being told "You have no gender unless you choose one" takes away a certain type of self-definition that children often learn through.

Their older son wrote a book about "The Gender Explorer," presumably because the parents needed to address the gender questions for their long-haired, pink-loving boy. But this baby doesn't need to be some kind of science experience for social-norm spelunkers. There's a very real chance that Storm will resent his or her early-years ambiguity, even though it saved on a heap of pink or blue baby accessories. Who wants to grow up to be "that baby whose parents were all, 'this baby has no gender!'?"I have no beef with Storm's parents and siblings teaching the kid that gender can be, and should be, fluid - that it's okay to love horsies, pink, dump trucks or climbing trees no matter what you were born as, or grow up to be however femme or butch you want - but opting out of the system entirely seems like it may cause more grief than it's worth.

Part of me hopes Storm becomes the very definition of gender normativity - a little girl who can't get enough dolls, or a boy who loves karate and catching frogs. I wonder if Storm's gender-exploring parents would be as excited about a child who refused to participate in the gender debate, who loved his or her pink-wearing brother without wanting to follow him down that particular yellow brick road. Parents everywhere will intone that as long as the child is healthy and happy, it doesn't matter how their kids express their gender. The Witterick-Stocker family are devoted to their children, and to raising them in an nurturing and supportive environment. But teaching them that "gender" is an option, rather than "my gender" is a choice, walks an unpalatable line between reality, and a constructed world that applies only to this family.