Going Through Menopause Changed The Way I Think About Gender
I've experienced menopause as a kind of "ungendering." The transition has been disorienting, thrilling, and freeing. (An excerpt from Flash Count Diary.)
Without hormones my femininity is fraying. Twice I’ve been called “sir.” Once by a parking lot attendant and a second time by the young man who bagged my groceries. I did not correct them. Instead I tried to sit with the idea I’d been misgendered. I don’t possess the strong female signifiers I once did. My hair is not long and shiny, my skin is no longer smooth. Plus I do less to support my gender artificially. I wear more androgynous clothing and rarely put on makeup. I’ve lost interest in doing my female gender, propping it up. When I do dress up for a wedding or a bat mitzvah, I feel like a drag queen, performing a gender out of sync with my physicality; but unlike a drag queen, I don’t feel that gender is natural or correct.
Virginie Despentes, in her 2010 manifesto King Kong Theory, is unashamed of not wanting to be feminine. She does not care that she is not a “hot sexy number.” But, she explains, she is “livid that — as a girl who does not attract men — I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around.” Rather than work to reestablish her femininity, she’s relieved to let it go. “Never before has a society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity.” She points out that it’s not that some women are feminine failures, but that femininity itself is not a reliable goal.
I came of age in Virginia, in a feminizing culture where the male/female binary was brutally enforced. I rose at 6:00 a.m. to wash, blow-dry, hot-curl, and hair-spray my hair every single day. If I missed a day, I could be accused of being a greasy-haired freak. I was often whispered about and laughed at for making mistakes at performing my gender. I was always at the edge of popularity, barely holding on, and my femininity was under constant surveillance. Girls who were supposedly my friends criticized my hair, the way I walked, the smear of foundation on my chin, the black stubble under my arms. And, if I am honest, I shamed girls below me on the popularity ladder. Femininity was rigid, any attempt to get out of the cage led to ridicule.
There was a girl in my high school who embodied the perfect feminine ideal. Amy was so thin that boys often swept her up and carried her in one arm like a doll. Her thinness now reads as anorexia, but then was miraculous. In her pink gauze shirts and white painter pants she was a sprite, her layered hair perfect against her small head. Though she must have spoken, I can’t remember Amy ever saying anything. It was as if she was too feminine to even communicate. Talking would have weighted her perfect lightness. At parties, it was not unusual for boys to fight over Amy. Her delicateness drove them insane. And her emotional volatility was honored. “She cries,” one boy told me with admiration, “if you say anything to her at all.”
Defeminization is not on the list of menopausal symptoms. Even if ungendering were listed, it would be framed as negative rather than as the rare opportunity it is to finally slip outside the brutal binary system. While a few of the women I interviewed felt, in and after menopause, even more like women, most felt a gender shift. For some, like my high school friend, this was a defeat: “I feel like a washed-up version of my former self now that I’ve lost all my female attributes.”
Transwomen who stop or lessen hormone therapy can also experience menopausal-like symptoms. The science fiction writer Rachel Pollack has found, as she ages, that the outer world is more open to her variety of femininity. She passes more often than she did as a younger women. “In my early life store clerks and waiters were uncertain as to what to call me, miss or sir.” Getting older seems to have changed that. “Maybe it’s just the way society regards older women. The bonds of femininity loosen a little.”
Even if ungendering were listed [as a menopausal symptom], it would be framed as negative rather than as the rare opportunity it is to finally slip outside the brutal binary system.
Some women, like my high school friend, feel that the loss of femininity diminishes their value; others, like Rachel, have found unanticipated benefits. Gender slippage can be invigorating. “I do feel between the sexes and I love it.” Another woman told me she no longer feels like a woman or a man. “I am between, but this has given me unexpected confidence.” One woman told me she’d always considered herself on the androgynous spectrum. “With reduced estrogen I feel even less feminine, and frankly I’m good with that.”
In menopause, femininity strains, splits at the seams, and what once seemed natural now has to be constructed, as Judith Butler explains in her seminal 1990 book Gender Trouble, like “so many styles of the flesh.” Butler writes that gender is not stable. “Rather gender is an identity tentatively constructed in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.”
Sometimes within a flash I feel as if my femininity is not figuratively but actually physically coming apart, being slowly but continuously burned off. It is often by heat that physical matter is transformed. I feel less like a woman or, at the very least, less like the woman I was. Someone who at book parties worked harder to introduce men to one another than to express myself, who often used my corporeal form, rather than my brain, for first effect.
Even in my teen years, when I was most feminine, both physically and in performance, I often longed to get out from under the strict Southern definition of femininity. I’d fantasize that I was forced into the shower fully clothed. The narrative was always the same: my dress and hose got drenched, and I peeled them off, as well as my bra and underwear. Warm water washed away my makeup, the pancake base, the blush, the mascara, and eye shadow. My curled and sprayed hair was flattened against my head. Sometimes a pair of old-fashioned black-handled scissors hung on a hook in the shower, and I’d cut my hair. Dark wet clumps around the drain like animal fur. When I came out — and this is the part that was nearly orgasmic in its pleasure — I saw in the mirror that I was no longer so tightly female. I didn’t look like a boy either, as I had breasts. I was in the middle.
I feel drawn in menopause — as I transition, as my estrogen lessens — to people who are also experiencing an ungendering. I want to read stories not of propped-up femininity, but of people who are disoriented but also electrified by their new hormonal configuration.
When people talk about menopausal bodies, they are often cruel. There are the base names: dried-up cunt, old hag. Some doctors peddling hormonal solutions have called us castrates, neuters, roadkill. Websites list off endless symptoms phrased in the meanest way possible: sagging skin, atrophied vagina, senile ovaries. The lists are both intimate and cold, like a scientist’s field notes on an aging, captive animal. It’s important to be honest about the symptoms. Hiding them does no good. I am not blind. I can see that I have a tummy, heavier thighs, gray strands in my pubic hair. The lines around my mouth are deeper, the dark circles under my eyes, which used to appear only when I was exhausted, now seem to be permanent. I look always a little burnt-out, a little feral. I want honesty. But the endless negative lists don’t help me, don’t lift me up. “The female body is marked within the masculine discourse,” Simone de Beauvoir writes, “whereby the masculine body, in its conflation with the universe, remains unmarked.”
I want to read stories not of propped-up femininity, but of people who are disoriented but also electrified by their new hormonal configuration.
At times I feel another body slipping out from my original one. Once when coming up from the subway, I saw a reflection of an older man in the bodega window. I stared for a few seconds before I realized it was me. Other times I will see a neck crinkled like crepe paper in the car’s rearview mirror, or a white and chalky foot, and be unable for several seconds to connect the flesh to my own. This sensation is alienating but also oddly thrilling.
Several years ago I heard the transgender musician Anohni, who at the time used male pronouns and went by ‘Antony Hegarty,’ talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air. When Gross asked if she planned to “surgically alter [herself],” Anohni was frustrated. “Something very reductive tends to occur when discussing transgender people. Society wants to reduce them in a crude way. There is an obsession with their sexuality, even their genital configuration.”
Sound familiar? Are our ovaries senile, our vaginas dry, our libidos broken? “There is a cruelty in that,” Anohni went on, insisting that transgender is a condition of the spirit. “Transgender people,” she argued, and I would add menopausal women as well, “have different spirits.” They should not be boxed in and defined solely by their physicality. “Trans people have a lot of potential,” Anohni said, “a potential which often remains unacknowledged and even unexplored, because individuals fall victim to society’s impression of them. Society reduces them.”
I track the mental and physical metamorphosis of my hormonal withdrawal while reading testaments by transitioning men and woman. These books posit hormonal change as both arduous and interesting. The British writer Juliet Jacques doesn’t believe in the traditional redemptive trans story; she feels her experience with gender reassignment was more like “jumping through a bunch of hoops while working boring jobs.” Given Estelle, the same drug used for menopausal symptoms, Jacques notices her skin begin to soften, her hair getting thicker. Her feelings are harder to ignore. She is more relaxed and cries more easily. During her transition she feels in a “position between male and female.”
In Whipping Girl, Julia Serrano also reports that on estrogen she cries more easily and can’t stop crying once she starts. She feels during her transition “an ungendering, an unraveling.” She grasps how close men and women are. “I have found that women and men are not separated by an insurmountable chasm, as many people believe. Actually most of us are only a hormone prescription away from being perceived as the opposite sex.”
But I also don’t feel fully masculine. I feel in the middle, a third sex. They.
Max Wolf Valerio writes in his book The Testosterone Files about his transition from punk rock, bohemian, lesbian feminist to heterosexual man. He describes what he goes through as “a unique intensive fire.” He is making an “erotically charged boundary crossing.” He claims changing sexes is “an adventure, an investigation and an opportunity to live beyond the given and the commonplace.” He even goes so far as to compare the mental state of his transition to menopause. “A woman I know going through menopause reports that she too feels this clarity and sometimes feels like a wise old owl, who can see for a very long distance.”
During menopause I slip out from under a claustrophobic femininity. But I also don’t feel fully masculine. I feel in the middle, a third sex. They. At the Twitter address recommended to me by my agender student Elliot, @askabinary, I find feelings and questions I very much identify with.
—I think a lot more like a boy than a girl but I don’t think I want to stick with one gender.
—I am sure I am non-binary but I pretend to be a cis female in public and though it sometimes annoys me, I don’t really intend to change that view.
—I identify as demigirl but there are times when I fluctuate from agender to demigirl to female. Can I still identify as demigirl instead of gender flux?
When I meet Elliot, who has recently moved from she to they, for lunch, they tells me they are sick of chest binding and will soon have top surgery. Elliot has short black hair and dresses with impish androgyny in men’s pants and band T-shirts. They feels that once their chest is smooth and light, they will be more likely to wear dresses. Elliot now understands that their anorexia in high school was not to make them thin and feminine but an attempt to be light, unburdened, more like a boy but also between sexes. “Female,” they tells me, “has always felt like an itchy sweater.”
Aristophanes claimed that besides men and women, there was once a third sex, a creature who had four hands, four feet, and two heads. Male/female, female/female, and male/male, this creature was round and so strong that it often attacked the gods by rolling right up to Mount Olympus. So Zeus, hoping to diminish the third sex’s power, decided to split them. Cut them like an “apple that is halved for pickling or as you might cut an egg in half with a hair.”
I first heard about the beast with two backs in the sixth grade, when I’d just begun to be lonely in my childhood bed, feeling a desire not only for sex, but also for a male counterpart. “Sliced in two like a flatfish,” Aristophanes writes, “each of us is perpetually hunting for the matching half of himself.” Now I wonder if I didn’t misinterpret my adolescent longing for a separate male body. Maybe what I wanted all along was an inner return, a healing of male and female inside myself.
“The body ...,” Foucault writes, “is the heart of the world ... from which all possible places, real or utopian, emerge and radiate.”
The last Sunday in August, after I drop my daughter, Abbie, at the bus station in Monticello, New York, to go back to college, I drive back up 17 and, at Roscoe, I turn in toward Crystal Lake. Abbie has been with me for a few days in the country before college starts. We tubed down the Delaware River, thrift-shopped in Callicoon, baked lemon cake. There is little tension between myself and my daughter. I attribute this mostly to her temperament. Even as a little girl when she got frustrated with me she’d hold my big hand in her tiny one and say, “You didn’t understand. Let me explain.”
It also helps that I did not foist a fixed femininity on her. I dressed her mostly like a tomboy and never told her she looked like a princess. I tried hard not to model female shame. I never told her to eat like a lady. When she went out in cutoffs and ripped tights, the uniform of high school girls in her era, I didn’t say she looked slutty. I never mentioned her weight. I never told her, as my own mother told me, to wrap my bloody tampon in twenty layers of toilet paper and hide it at the bottom of the bathroom waste bin. At one point over the weekend, Abbie asked me if I knew that some boys were grossed out by menstrual blood. I loved both her surprise and her indignation. Yes, I said. I knew this.
I wonder if part of the work of life for everyone may be to synthesize the sexes.
I drive down a long gravel road toward the lake. On either side ferns unfurl. Everything, even the light, is mossy green. I park and walk around to the far side of the lake, carrying my towel and my wet suit. There is, in my usual spot, a mother with her young daughter. They sit on a blanket near the lake’s edge. The mother, her brown hair in a ponytail, is wearing a faded gingham bikini, and her tiny daughter, a Hello Kitty one-piece. Her bare arms and legs impossibly thin, she piles rocks and grass onto her mother’s stomach. Her bangs are cut straight across her forehead, and her brown eyes show darts of silver. She drizzles the broken strains of grass over her mother’s belly, laughing. As I pull on my wet suit, the little girl looks up and watches me push my hair under a bathing cap, adjust my goggles, wade in.
The water, while heated at the top, is cold deeper down. I dive under and stroke. Swimming in the lake is the only true remedy for my hormonal withdrawal. I don’t flash in the cool water, and after a swim, I get a few flash-free hours. I stroke, my hands and mouth sending up bubbles that swirl to the surface. The water around me is green-gold and translucent. Below gray-green and mysterious. Since I’ve stopped my struggle to be beautiful, I am overtaken by beauty more often. I stroke toward the sun so that rays splinter as they hit the water and seem to encase me, carry me as if I were a spaceship, buoyed in my own radiating light.
My wet suit makes me buoyant, gives me grace and speed. I can pause, float without treading. I am weightless, light. Swimming I feel the least confined by my femininity. I wonder if part of the work of life for everyone may be to synthesize the sexes. “When you make the two one,” Jesus says in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, “when you make the inside like the outside, and the outside like the inside, and the upper like the lower and when you make male and female into a single one, then you will enter the kingdom.”
The most surprising outcome of my ungendering has been that the male God I grew up with has lost its power. When I was a child, God was always and everywhere male. But the divine mystery cannot be domesticated into a fixed petrified image. That’s idolatry. My feeling less feminine means I no longer need a masculine God. I feel, instead, a new force, latent in the black expanse beneath me. There is nothing predictable or tame about this spirit. Elemental. Androgynous. Chaotic. Not found hovering ghostlike in nature, but the actual engine that drives nature. An atavistic force, the King Kong of Despentes, King Kong theory, a pregendered wildness that we lose claim to when we enter the strict binary. Tehom, the Bible calls it: the deep.
The lake bottom comes slowly into focus. Ancient, moonlike, rounded rocks covered in soft sludge, then a zigzag of knobby tree roots. I put my feet down beside the muddy bank, and as I stretch up, water rushes out of my wet suit. The material that kept me light in the water is now soaked and heavy. I use both hands on the grassy edge to steady myself. The little girl runs up to watch. Her brown eyes are liquid, serious. She runs back to her mother, cups her small hand around her mother’s ear and whispers loud enough for me to hear. Let’s ask her what she found. ●
Excerpted from Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke.
Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere and the novels Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, Up Through the Water, and Sister Golden Hair. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, Vogue, Spin, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and the Guardian. She has been both a Henry Hoyns fellow and a Stegner fellow as well as a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, the American University of Paris, and Princeton.
Flash Count Diary is available now.