The Meredith Brooks song, ‘Bitch’ came on the radio twice in the last week while I was driving and I took it as a sign. International Women’s Day was looming and I felt compelled to prove the title of this blog. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of whether men or women are better at endurance sports, or start a debate about, well, anything really. This is just to celebrate my sisters from other misters and let you all know that you are ace. This is why.
In the last few years, I have felt a real shift in how women are being seen. When I was younger, I honestly believed that girls were ‘bitches’. I thought that women were more likely to be cruel, nasty, manipulative and not work well with other women. The word ‘bitch’ was one that we used on each other, a signpost that someone was a backstabber, a malicious gossip. Like many other demeaning terms though, it has been reclaimed and made into something a lot more powerful. Being a bitch can still be an insult, but the nuances are much more subtle now. In the song, I see it as powerful word, and one that sums up the beautiful complexity that is being a woman. We can be all of the things that Meredith Brooks says and more. We can be an angel, a goddess, a mother but we can also be someone’s hell, a ‘sinner’ and feel numb. Often these identities can come within short time frames – a day, an hour – which is not easy, for us or for those around us. For so long, this constantly shifting nature has been viewed as a problem, something to fight against or try to disguise. But why, as half of the population of humanity, should we have to battle with who we are and how we present ourselves to the world? Isn’t it time that we stopped being viewed as hysterical (if you don’t know the history of that word, look it up, it’s fascinating) over-sensitive and troublesome for simply being what we are?
We live in a very linear world, one where it is important to be a straightforward and easy to understand person. People – whatever their gender – are meant to fit into a neatly labelled identity box and often, that is linked to whether you present yourself as male or female. To live in this world and to thrive in it, we have to work according to accepted time frames and defined arenas. It was not too long ago – relatively speaking – that humans decided to settle in one area for long periods of time. Before that, we would work with nature, the seasons and one another to survive, moving around in communities. It was only when industry was born that we changed these habits. The linear nature of our society now fits in with this model of mass production, round the clock working and a more competitive value system, a system designed for a time when men worked and women stayed at home to raise the children. The movement towards equality has given us so much but has also made us believe that we can, and should, ‘have it all’: a career, a family and a personal life. Of course, having it all really means doing it all! While many families try to create an atmosphere of equality and sharing responsibility, the truth is that many women are still trying to be everything to everyone: they go out to work, are the primary care givers at home and end up burnt out because of it. If they struggle with working, parenting and the (often self-imposed) need to please constantly, they see themselves as failures and think they have to double down to make it work. The issue is that never works!
To add to this, we now have the ability to be contacted constantly: the down time of the commute, taking exercise, even walking to the local shops with only our thoughts has been removed by the little devices in our pockets. Whether it’s work, children, friends or news, there is always something demanding our time and attention and triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response. At our core, we are animals but all these changes in the way we live, work, eat and socialise have taken us further away from the natural, cyclical way we were meant to operate. Layer onto that the patriarchal cultures that most of us exist within and you can see why this all might have the biggest impact on women. In the wise words of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the perfect example of a woman in a man’s world, ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it’.
It is an undeniable truth that the world has been designed by men, for men. Men are the default model for humans, and you can see this in countless areas. Our sport is just one of them. The vast majority of studies on running have been done on men. If and when women are included, we are seen as ‘problematic’ because of our cycles, another example of the linear nature of the world. When women are studied, they are often included when their hormones are at their lowest, making them closer to men. Worryingly, this even crosses over into medicine, where for centuries, women and men were not seen as that different, resulting in many women being misdiagnosed, treated incorrectly or even just being told that their symptoms were not valid. Thankfully, this is changing now, and we are seeing the rise of women speaking up and asking for help with their health. As Stacy Sims puts it, women are not ‘small men’ and the sooner we accept that, and look at what works for us rather than generally accepted wisdom, the better our lives, our health and our training will be.
This is an area that has become more prevalent for me in the last few months as I have felt my own body begin to do unfamiliar and unnerving things! After feeling so low, so suddenly on a random run that I crouched in a bush and sobbed, I decided to get to work on what was happening to me. Facebook has its uses, and, in my desperation, I reached out to a women’s group about the possible hormonal changes I could be going through at nearly 40. I got a really heartening response and so much support. There are so many resources out there and you only have to ask for help, something that many of us are too ashamed to do because of how we have been trained to feel about our bodies. This is why I wanted to write something today: we need to be proud of what we are and how we are different from the default human, and we can only do that through understanding. From being ushered into a room with the other girls at primary school to be told about periods, to being too embarrassed to tell my mum I had started mine and leaving a note in the bathroom instead, to suffering nauseating pain, bloating, headaches, rage and sadness, I understandably didn’t love my cycle. It was all bad, something to be hidden, covered over and ignored whenever possible, yet it has defined so much of my life as a woman. I don’t even suffer that badly: so many women go through PCOS, endometriosis, migraines, debilitating depression, pain that is the equivalent to the contractions of labour EVERY SINGLE MONTH and we feel we have to just get on with it. It is an inconvenience, an inevitable part of being female that we have to live with, so what is the point in talking about it? The point is to help the people around us understand so that they can help, or at least be aware of how this truly affects us. The most we do is complain about it to our friends in solidarity, but we never really get into the details and how it can mentally and emotionally impact us at all the different stages in our lives. When you think about it, really think about it, it is pretty traumatic. Mr Garrison from South Park puts it pretty succinctly when he says, ‘I don’t trust something that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die’. Bit rude, but you can see his point! It’s a strange thing to have to deal with for a huge chunk of your life. When coupled with hormonal changes that make you feel extreme emotions too, it is very surprising to me that most of us hold it together at all! Due to it all being fairly taboo until very recently, we are just not best equipped to know how to take care of ourselves when hit with such big changes. Also, the men in our lives don’t understand because they were left out of the conversation in the first place: women’s ‘problems’ are just that. Men obviously go through changes across the course of their lives too, but not so regularly, and not in such dramatic ways, so we need to do lots of ‘womansplaining’ to help them to help us. It might not be comfortable at first, but it is really worth it.
In the last few months, after doing some learning and talking to the women around me, I am starting to see how this whole cycle is a gift, something that makes us very powerful. At the risk of sounding like a big hippy (who am I kidding, you should see the trousers I am wearing right now!) what makes women amazing is the fact that we have this connection to nature and life itself. There is a real strength in that. If we can learn to tap into it and embrace it, our cyclical nature can help us know ourselves better; it can help us be more intuitive in how we live, eat, move and respond to the world around us. It might not fit into the boxy world of patriarchal Britain, but if we can start to make it clear how much easier everyone’s lives would be if systems worked for us instead of against us, then maybe patriarchal Britain would be an easier place to live. I realise I am writing this from a very privileged position of being able to set my own timetable of work, of not having children and having an understanding husband, but there are steps that everyone can make. Learning about yourself in this way can help you to feel more in control and also to know it is okay to lose that control. Going through pain and emotional turmoil every month should be a recipe for absolute breakdown, but we do it, over and over. I truly believe that this is what gives us the potential to be great ultra-runners too. Knowing that the discomfort will pass and knowing how to deal with it are valuable in any tough race. But, also feeling vulnerable and introverted, and letting that be by giving yourself the time and rest that you need is just as important. It is not a sign of weakness to say no, to not be doing all the time. It is a sign that you know yourself and value yourself. Rather than trying to be Superwoman every day of every month, you can be Superwoman for a couple of weeks, Ursula the sea witch for a week and Snow White the week after that. Trying to be the same person all year round is just not in our nature. It might not fit with society’s timetable but we can make it work if we start to tune in and speak up. Like Meredith so succinctly put it, ‘can’t say I’m not alive, you know I wouldn’t want it any other way’.
If you want to start looking into all of the things I talked about, I would highly recommend the following books:
For some good feels and practical advice: https://www.waterstones.com/book/rushing-womans-syndrome/dr-libby-weaver/9781781808160
If you are a data nerd and want to be outraged: https://www.waterstones.com/book/invisible-women/caroline-criado-perez/9781784706289
For help on training and the science of women’s physiology: https://www.waterstones.com/book/roar/stacy-sims/9781623366865
If you are a fellow hippy (this is my favourite and has transformed how I see my cycle): https://www.waterstones.com/book/code-red/lisa-lister/9781788174756
Also, some interesting articles about matriarchal societies. Just sayin’: