Friday, January 14, 2011

it's just blood.

When Jiggered (this great publication of all things unusual put together by some very talented Rhodes English Department friends of mine) started asking around for articles and artistic pieces, I decided I was going to write a piece about the benefits of this great new invention that not enough women know about: the moon cup.

The reason I didn't (in the end) was because a moon cup is a half moon-shaped silicone cup that a woman can insert inside her vagina during her period instead of a tampon or sanitary pad (yes, I'm that girl. That's where I'm going in this blog). I thought it would appeal to the target market of Jiggered because many of the readers are women and almost all of them are concerned about environmental issues.

I'm going to remedy that by writing about it here. The moon cup can be kept and used for up to two years as long as it is sanitised in boiling water before and after each cycle. Unlike tampons, they don't clog up septic tanks or fill the oceans and rivers, nor do they fill rubbish dumps with non-biodegradable plastics like sanitary pads or disposable nappies (which - for the uninitiated - is what sanitary pads feel like). I always felt sad that - as an environmentally conscious woman - I had no other option but to contribute substantially to the pollution of the environment every month. The moon cup was like an answer to my prayers.

But that would mean writing about the menstrual cycle in an article that would go out to a whole lot of people, and then I would be that girl, the one who writes about a process as distasteful as descriptions of defecating. More than that, women who use a moon cup have to empty and wash it out during the cycle before re-inserting it. That means writing about actually touching and handling one's menstrual blood. Most period products are manufactured so that women hardly even have to touch the offending product that must touch the blood (applicator tampons with their additional cardboard and plastic pollutants were made for that purpose). Even as I write this blog, I realise I will alienate many of my male readers and a few female ones by mentioning periods at all.

Despite (or perhaps because of) these reservations, I did Jiggered readers and the general public a disservice by not submitting anything, the Jiggered readers because they are probably less squeamish than I give them credit for, and the rest of the general public because they need to think about it. Women shouldn't feel ashamed of their periods because it isn't shameful: it's just blood. Surely losing blood every month is no more exciting than losing hair or skin cells: something that everybody does every day.

I suppose because the blood flows from a vagina, people don't like to talk about it. I understand that some people like to talk about "private parts" in private because they are sacred and special, not to be exploited for shock factor or the objectification rather than the celebration of the body. Private parts are also symbolic of the exchange of the innermost parts of people - body and soul - in (ideally) beautiful, sharing (and often private) experiences.

If that was why people didn't talk about periods, then I'm sure I wouldn't be writing this blog. My own gut-wrench reaction at the thought of writing an article about moon cups had nothing to do with sacred private acts and everything to do with fear of being ridiculed is evidence enough for me that most people (including myself at times) have a dysfunctional attitude towards this perfectly natural and exclusively female process.

Whilst I am all for celebrating the body (and the much used and abused female body in particular) I would be lying if I said I celebrate my period every month. They are really annoying. Bleeding non-stop for five days straight is not exactly convenient when one wants to play sport, go out, travel or live an environmentally aware lifestyle. Many bathrooms don't have bins where parcels can be easily and discreetly deposited, which puts women in awkward situations and buses don't stop for loo breaks an ideally hygienic every four hours. Other women are hindered by crippling pain and uncontrollable mood swings or crushing weariness that accompany periods each month. Even moon cups are tricky to insert and remove, and are therefore not completely hassle-free.

So periods aren't the best thing women have been saddled with. I don't believe though, that men (and many women) should throw up their arms in horror at the very mention of a period. The fact that they do means that there is a nebulous (and with other people perfectly clear-cut) feeling of disgust when it comes to the issue (literally and figuratively) of a vagina.

This can be particularly harmful when it comes to women's relationships with their bodies. Feeling revolted about such a basic process is symptomatic of an over-arching revulsion at being female. It is only a short step from there to "douching": a process whereby a woman squirts a bag of liquid perfume inside her vagina to make it smell "nice": like "lavender" or "whispers of summer" rather than the clean, natural smell of the human body. I'm not the kind of person who doesn't believe in washing or deodorant because of the "natural smells" of the human body, but inserting chemicals inside such a delicate part of one's body can only be harmful.

I believe women - and men - should appreciate and respect their - in many ways - miraculous bodies, and hating periods because people have been taught and socialised into the idea that periods are dirty will only undermine that appreciation and respect. A period is not the shameful issue of a substance that soils the body and anyone who comes into contact with her. It's just blood.


I have a confession to make. I have - for a good part of the last five years - been an aerobics-class taker. I have done step classes and arm movements that make me feel like I am stuck in the eighties when aerobics first became popular, like I should be wearing a g-string unitard thing with tights and leg-warmers and way too much make-up. That feeling (along with the rush of endorphins) was a lot of fun: it's why I enjoyed aerobics. I spent those classes with a huge grin on my face and frequently giggled. Most people associate exercise with pain or discomfort, or perhaps even with becoming as toned as Gwen Stefani or Rihanna (or if not them, at least that girl who you see at the gym every day with the body you wished you had). I would argue that being a spectacle can be even more fun (encourage you to hit the gym more often) and make you feel more attractive than being "beautiful".

Some of my favourite moments over the years have been when I have thrown dignity out of the window and been just plain ridiculous. I am never so at home as when I let myself go beyond my skin. The EastCape Opera Company's show "Misbehavin'" was probably the start. I had to strut around the stage in a long flowery dress with a lumpy pregnancy belly jutting out in front. The belly was tan in colour, egg-shaped and had my name written on it in black marker. I had to lug it around to the different theatres we performed in and I can definitely say it was one of the oddest props I have ever had to remember. It was also - initially - embarrassing. I liked to look pretty on stage or at least unusual-bordering-on-odd (but still pretty), not ridiculous.

Eventually I found it liberating. I realised I could move freely and come up with creative (and fun) ideas when I wasn't worried about how I looked.

I moved these theatrics into real life when I used to dress up for Rhodes's many parties. I hammed it up as a transvestite (a woman playing a man who's playing a woman, Victor/Victoria style) in white hot pants, a red velvet cloak-like top and a crown with a feather at the OutRhodes party. It was one of my favourite parties because I felt absolutely no awkward self-consciousness. I also dressed up as "two-dollah" (if you've seen "Full Metal Jacket" you'll know what I mean) for a friend's Girls of the Playboy Mansion twenty-first. I was dressed really provocatively, but I was also wearing the most hideous, platinum blonde wig. Once I put that wig on, there was no chance anyone could think I was trying to be a sexy, pert bunny. It was so hideous that there is video footage of it coming to life and "attacking" my friend Kendra.

My final Rhodes prank was the pink wig I wore when I graduated last year. I thought that perhaps Rhodes staff wouldn't let me get away with it (it was so pink it practically glowed), but actually most people were thrilled to see something different at the usually long ceremony. The photograph of me being capped is pretty much the same as the previous year's apart from the pink wig: I'm even wearing the same dress. Except for the anonymous academic sitting behind me. He has a huge smile on his face.

That's why it is not just about dressing ridiculously (though as I've said many times before, anything that stops girls and women, including myself, from feeling self-consciously unworthy about their bodies is wonderful): it's about having a healthy sense of humour about all sorts of different parts of life because it can bring a real sense of joy to everyone.

It's about bravery and freedom. If I were to take myself too seriously, I would never achieve anything. I don't mean that I don't take life seriously. Life is a serious business because I am always interacting with other human beings as fragile -or more so - than myself. My actions will always impact others in ways I can never even dream of. It is more about not being serious about expecting myself or others to be perfect. If I am brave enough to be ridiculous, I am brave enough to admit I am not perfect: not always beautiful or intelligent or witty or kind. It is only then I am free to write what I want, love people without fear that I will lose them because I am not perfect enough and have a great time without worrying that I look funny. I probably do, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I would say there is a lot right about it.

The same goes for my writing. Writing my first blog was like stepping off a precipice. It is terrifying to nurture some words and throw them out there, realising people are actually going to read them. There are times when I feel unsatisfied with what I have written (OK, most times) and if I didn't publish it, those mistakes and blind reasoning wouldn't be here. It also means none of my writing would be here, and I would have lost out on the beauty and exhilaration (and strong sense of fun) I feel when I write and when (sometimes) these blogs make a difference or people enjoy them.

In The Prisoner of Azkaban (non-Harry Potter fans bear with me), there is a certain creature - a boggart - that assumes the form of whatever we fear the most. The only way to defeat it is to imagine it looking silly and nonthreatening (like the school bully in your grandmother's gown and cap) and shout "Riddikulus". It is a clever concept because most things we're afraid of are of our own making. That's not to say (continuing the metaphor) that there aren't other really scary creatures out there that we do need to be afraid of, but many of the ones we spend our time worrying about (or at least, the ones I do) are just spectres of our minds that can be defeated with a little healthy riddikulus.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Clea's do re mi of race relations

This blog was supposed to be about being white. My wife Natasja (she's my wife because we understand and support each other like married people should. But we also have boyfriends to whom we are devoted. Everyone should have an arrangement like us) wrote a blog recently about being coloured that is too brilliant (see It is funny (in a Trevor Noah Daywalker, not a Trevor Noah Cell C kind of way) and sad and true. It made me think I should write about what it means to be white in South Africa. I wrestled with it for days, writing and re-writing it. So I am starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

I was in Grade 1 in 1994. I imagined elections happening in the equivalent of my private school grade 1 classroom: people would vote and ticks would be placed on a white board in a neat table next to the names of Nelson Mandela or...the other people (I wasn't exactly politically clued up back in the day). I was excited when Nelson Mandela won in 1994 and then when we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. They were rainbow nation moments when everyone around me celebrated (including my pre-primary principle who danced around our living room with different coloured streamers piled on top of her head). I knew South Africa had mountains and oceans and deserts; wildlife beyond belief; a flag with all the colours of the Olympic rings (a sure sign of our diverse and yet bonded nationhood); and now a country where all people could live together happily and equally. We were a miracle nation, the best place in the world where we were all learning to see beyond colour and see only other human beings.

I learned Zulu throughout my primary school years and I told off a friend's mother because she said all black people were criminals (perhaps in less polite language). We had our first black head girl (never mind that she was the only one, perhaps before or since) and my head of house (Palmer) was black. I remember crying to her when I was ten and I had my first detention. I have always been fiercely patriotic and the thought of letting down my house mortified me.

Now it is the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Eugene Terreblanche (rampant white racist Afrikaner) was brutally murdered on his farm at the beginning of last year by two of his black farm labourers. Julius Malema added fuel to the fire by reviving the old anti-apartheid song, "Kill the Boer". His millions of supporters continue to support him even more fervently even as Afrikaans hysteria reaches fever pitch. Singer Steve Hofmeyer ranted to the country about how black people are all violent and Afrikaans author Annelie Botes admits in an interview that the only thing she is afraid of is black people. White people everywhere (including book buyers in my sleepy little South Coast town) are thrilled that people are finally being "honest" about how "everyone" really feels about race.

It seems the current fashion is to throw all that 1994 reconciliation stuff out and to vent all one's racial prejudice and stir all the hatred that has been brewing for years. Afrikaans writer and journalist, Max du Preez was astute about the phenomenon. Declaring one's racism is a bit like being in a sex tape scandal or going through a messy celebrity divorce: it boosts sales enormously.

So this just has to be the extreme parts of the population, right? The rest of South Africa (the decent parts) have moved forward. Except that Glenwood Boys High School (prestigious rugby-playing government school in Durban) only just got their first black head boy. In 2011. There was a jubilant, celebratory article about it on the front page of the Mercury (a KZN newspaper) a few weeks ago. I felt more like crying. I am not an advocate of giving someone with no merit a position because of their colour, but surely in a country where the majority of people are black, there should have been more than one black kid who was head boy material in twenty years of mixed schooling.

It is not just the older people with the power that remain prejudiced, they have passed it down to their children. There are many young white people (younger than me) who still refer to the garden "boy" (that thirty-five year old man with a family of six to feed) or the "girl" who brings in the tea who is actually a grandmother.

Then there is a Scottish couple in my father's [...] club who were viciously attacked recently in their home. Their black attackers were not only robbers as they were filled with absolute hatred for the comparatively opulent white people they were attacking and robbing. The man was in hospital for almost a week and his wife is so traumatised she can barely function.

The already racist [...] club were furious. This couple were in the process of setting up a crisis centre at the local police station and were some of the most active members of charity and upliftment projects in the community. In the club's eyes, the "blacks" are just biting the hands that feed them. For them, it confirms Steve Hofmeyer's views that the "Blacks" (it's always the "blacks" the same way it is the "gays" or "them") are inherently violent.

What these white people conveniently forget is that South Africa has been a society of enforced violence almost since the Europeans arrived almost four hundred years ago, with black populations on the receiving end of enforced discrimination and savage oppression for almost all of that time. Just as racism is passed from parents to their children over the generations among white people, so it does among black people, with the added pressure of hundreds of years of repression and brutality.

It doesn't matter that this couple were doing their best for the community and weren't even in South Africa during apartheid. They are caught up in the wider currents of boiling violence and frustration of the millions of the poor, black oppressed. It is not right (it is awful), but it is - depressingly - unsurprising.

Poor black people in South Africa are still oppressed because their oppressors have just changed, they haven't gone away. A man I know has been in education in South Africa since the 1960s. He says education for the poor is worse now than it was under apartheid. Education for the poor was not good under apartheid. On the contrary, an old woman came up to me at the bank ATM one day with her bank card and pin number and asked me to withdraw the amount that was written down for her. She was illiterate, and unable to do it herself. Her powerlessness and vulnerability because of her lack of education epitomised much of what was wrong about apartheid and its legacy of dependent adults. That the education system is now worse makes my skin crawl.

Another man who has been in the meetings of the very top ANC people says that the ANC are happy to keep it that way. An uneducated people will keep believing propaganda. That was the original purpose of Bantu Education: keep the black people stupid and under control. Now it seems the new game plan is to keep the poor people stupid and under control.

And white people are taught by their parents - even many of the relatively liberal ones - that poor black people don't have to be noticed or seen, and that wealthy, educated black people in positions of power are to be feared or resented.

So race relations in South Africa are still extremely fraught. They are, however, intricately bound up with power struggles, class differences and the aftershocks of a brutal past: they are not exclusively about race. The ANC taking away the opportunities for education from the poor, black population is an evil scheme to keep power, not a race struggle. They play the race card to keep these people angry. When these poor black people serve white people in supermarkets or as domestic workers in white homes or send their children to formerly white schools, however, they cannot help but notice that not much has changed.

Some black families have managed to live better lives in the new South Africa. Their children have grown up to be good accountants, doctors, lawyers and businessmen or artists, able to live a good life. Money opens many doors between races, but for the most part, black and white people in South Africa still live separate lives. For poor black people - as I have said before - there has been little or no difference.

When I was in a certain part of Soweto two weeks ago, I was such a rare event that little children (they barely came up to my waist) gathered at the gate of the house I was visiting. I was there with two black men (my boyfriend and his friend). They therefore wanted to know if I had been bought. In other words, whether I was a prostitute.

The three of us had a good laugh: to be mistaken for a prostitute in Soweto was definitely something I can tell my grandchildren one day and laugh about. If I think of the real implications of the situation, however I am more inclined to feel sombre. It reminds me of when I went to Fort Hare University (Alice Campus) with fellow opera singers. I haven't often felt so scrutinised. It was clear that young white students (rather than the few old white lecturers at Fort Hare) were unheard of at this university. When Intervarsity expanded to include Fort Hare a little while ago, the Rhodes students set up an intervarsity party in Grahamstown rather than drive through to Fort Hare. I don't believe it was done with racist intentions, but perhaps those students wouldn't have found me such an oddity if the two universities had more to do with each other.

By the same token, Soweto is perhaps the most cosmopolitan township in the country. If - usually - a white woman only appears in parts of it when she is paid to do so, I can only imagine how little people from different races really do mingle outside of the few mixed race schools and the workplace. Few steps can be taken to erase inherited prejudices when people of different races spend little to no time in each other's company, as equals.

*A postscript: I have written about white people and black people simply because it is such a complex topic as it is that I have not space to include further complexities of Asian, Indian, Arab and Coloured/Mixed Race relations. There are more blogs to follow on this topic (this first one contains the bare musical notes so to speak), so perhaps one day I will remedy my omission.