Let me be very clear: I am not a health professional. Do not construe any of what I’m about to write as medical advice. I am merely sharing MY experience and MY understanding of it. Still, references are included for the curious.
Perhaps as part of the same internal shift that led me to re-embrace crop tops and sport unprecedented levels of bralessness in 2018 — or perhaps simply out of necessity, as I’ve needed to seek health tips this year through conversations that require “indelicate” frankness — I’ve made more of a concerted effort than ever to talk about the body — and its functions — without shame.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom throughout my childhood, but she was also trained as a nurse. I never realized until adulthood how broadly empowering it was to have grown up with this kind of influence: a lady who helped model for me candid conversation about things like sex, periods, or pooping; who talked openly about the changes that women’s bodies experience with pregnancy and throughout the life course; and who encouraged me, all my life, to recognize that body parts are, well, body parts, and no body part is more or less “disgusting” or “bad” than the others. This was invaluable because being able to admit and speak candidly about taboo body issues is literally critical to maintaining and/or improving your health. However, that didn’t really sink in for me until this year.
What happened in 2018? I was diagnosed with a severe iron deficiency. For a crash course, iron deficiency is very common (as in, over 1 BILLION people on the planet have it) and anyone who menstruates — particularly whoever menstruates heavily — is ESPECIALLY likely to be iron deficient because of all the blood loss. (Same goes for those whose bodies have ever gestated or given birth to a child.) Hence, frank talk about periods — clots and all — is central to getting adequate care with respect to your body’s levels of micronutrients. At the same time, iron supplements are notoriously rough on the GI tract. Whether they cause you diarrhea OR constipation, your GI problems that result can be dangerous, and you NEED to be willing to tell your doctor how much (and how well!) you are shitting.
Hence, in 2018, I’ve needed to have many a discussion about how many times a day the various iron supplements I tried were making me poop, or how many times in a month the supplements made me horrendously constipated. My doctor, lucky man, was also privy to hearing about the bodily changes that manifested as my ferritin levels finally began climbing. Such as this news:
“For years, my periods didn’t smell like metal. Now they smell like metal again!”
(Iron-rich blood tends to smell like metal.)
I didn’t stop to question whether I should be more coy in my delivery: my doctor HAD to know. Similarly, if I was going to crowd-source for recommendations on locally available iron supplements or constipation-relieving foods on the message boards, I needed to be somewhat blunt there too about bleeding, shitting, and all that jazz. Thankfully, I did receive a lot of candid comments about bleeding and bowel movements in return. I admired that so many women were mature enough to be so frank. Then again, I realized that this shouldn’t even have to be something admirable.
BLEEDING AND POOPING ARE THINGS THAT BODIES DO. WHY DO WE ACT LIKE THEY ARE DISGRACEFUL?!
Anyway, I even began sharing occasional “iron progress” updates on Facebook for whoever felt like reading, mentioning everything from the return of that metal smell, to the fact that I’ve been sprouting more pubes as my ferritin levels recover. It feels important to me to be open about these details; people often keep stuff like menstrual changes secret, or they don’t even THINK to tell anyone if their pubes start thinning out… but the body’s “unmentionables” can offer valuable signs about things going on with your health.
Given that over 1 billion people suffer from iron deficiency and that doctors can miss it or even misdiagnose it, given that its symptom profile mimics some other conditions (e.g., hypothyroidism), and given that it can advance to potentially huge consequences for everything from cardiovascular health, to fertility, to hemorrhage risk, to (on the lighter side) basic physical appearance… it felt ridiculous for me to continue treating its symptoms as a secret.
Maybe I could make someone aware. Maybe I could help someone feel less alone or ashamed. And if I could, why should I not?
Perhaps, my proudest moment came when I received public accolades and even a private thank-you on a local message board for a really extensive comment I shared — in response to an anonymous post (the OP was understandably embarrassed) — about managing chronic constipation.
Wow. I am now an unofficial shit guru. What a distinction!
Alas, I couldn’t have helped anyone if I’d been too embarrassed to attach my name to the mere idea of the problem.
Similarly, there are appearance issues that we’re socialized, for various reasons, to have hang-ups about and to hide. Not to mention. Not to claim.
For instance, I’m a cisgender woman, but I have quite a charming goatee of ever-denser black hairs; a dark mustache; and a vastly thinned-out head of scalp hair. The head-hair loss has been, apparently, a product of the iron deficiency. Thankfully, that’ll turn around, I guess, whenever my iron levels are back where they should be. (For the curious, these women’s journeys blew my mind — here and here — and I’m so thankful to them for sharing their stories openly: there’s a lot of shame women face for not having healthy-looking, full heads of hair.)
As for my facial hair, well, I happen to be of an ethnic group that’s been scientifically shown to have more facial hair than other white women. I will never forget the day when a doctor was examining me and showed the attending student some dense hair on my body as an example of what hirsutism might look like, adding, “But it’s not pathological because she’s Mediterranean.”
My ethnically-derived features are considered a pathology? Thanks!
But this, too, is why I’ve begun talking more publicly about “my beard,” or “my mustache” or the fact that so much of my hair has fallen out. Because fuck that patriarchal nonsense; some women have facial hair, and some women lose hair on their scalps, and that’s nothing for us to feel ashamed of.
So I’ve also begun seeing my own outspokenness about my body as a public service: we DON’T all fit appearance-based norms, for very valid medical or genetic reasons. Moreover, any of our bodies can go through any number of things (for example, illness, pregnancy, even simple age) that make adhering to “acceptable” functioning impossible sometimes. The least we could do, to make life easier and less needlessly shame-riddled for everyone — and simply to step into our own maturity more fully — is to be willing to talk about these “deviations” like they ain’t no thang.
Because, truly, they shouldn’t have to be considered embarrassments. And much of the time, they aren’t even truly “deviations.”
Also, our health depends on our willingness to speak up and “own” what our bodies are doing.
We break taboos by speaking. Thank you for doing your part.
This post is part of a larger series on the ways in which I’m taking stock of my own growth in 2018. The series is introduced here: