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“That car’s just too big for you love, you can’t handle it.”
I have just eased effortlessly into traffic and a man in a neighbouring car has made it his business to roll down his window and shout at me. Instinctively, active bitch face kicks in.
“You need something smaller, that’s a man’s car, sweetheart.”
A lifetime of socialisation has taught me the three options available here: smile, grimace or ignore, and I confess I briefly consider each one. But a lifetime of socialisation has also given me rage and all its glorious power. I make eye contact as my window descends.
“What did you say?”
He raises his eyebrows, seemingly affronted, almost hurt. He is mid-fifties and, groomed and suited, does not have the appearance of one in the business of building, selling or repairing cars.
“I just meant that you’d be better off with a more suitable car, no offence.”
I’m glad he adds that little addendum, it gives me the push to proceed. My oversized machine is in Park before he’s had time to turn away and he looks nervously from me to the traffic lights and back as I approach.
“Do you make a habit of insulting women on your way to work every morning?”
“Just don’t do it anymore, ok?”
As I make a speedy return to my car, cheeks flushed and ears ringing, I imagine him running through his options: smile/grimace/ignore.
I’ve been building up to this moment all my life. For more than four decades. Every time I’ve been too polite to comment, too startled to reply, too scared of retribution, I have wished for this outcome. For each smart retort that came to me hours later, that just wasn’t my time. But now, I am ready and I am armed.
It starts small, a flippant comment, a bit of banter. I am eleven when I am first heckled in the street.
“Nice tits,” he says, turning to share a laugh with his friend as he shoulders me out of his way.
The words pound in my head, pushing the surrounding traffic and bustle into a faraway, muffled haze. Why did he say it? And why did he say it to me? Tits are rude, sexual, perverse; does he think I’m rude, sexual, perverse?
“Nice tits, nice tits, nice tits,” I whisper inside or outside my head. Say it enough and it will be over. Keep walking, look straight ahead, pretend it didn’t happen. Go away, leave me and my disgusting body alone.
The first cut is the deepest. It lets the anger in.
By my teens, I have perfected a snarl, a withering look for such occasions. I will not grant those words the humiliation they seek but I have no power over their intent. So I become a bitch.
I am a bitch when I won’t smile, accept a compliment or a drink. I graduate to cunt when I don’t want to be groped, or when I do want to be groped but by somebody else. By the time I can drive, I have collected an entire urban dictionary of insults.
Cut, slash, prick. The anger takes shape.
Turns out I do have nice tits. Personally, I hate them, they’re too big. However, they are currency and that gives me leverage. Over men and over women too. Especially as I’m “not like other girls”, I like music and football and drugs and sex. Always up for it. I have grey-area one-night stands because I am a cool girl, not a weak girl.
Cuts come from inside too.
I don’t see it until I became a mother. Sexism, misogyny, exclusion, anger, all internalised, normalised. Then the blindfold begins to slip – at first it is work opportunities and childcare costs, later healthcare and reproductive rights. Men often say they became a feminist when they had a daughter (but not a girlfriend or wife). There is also an element of this, of wanting more for your children, of allowing yourself to feel a lifetime of betrayal so that they might not have to.
The cuts become a call to battle. The anger begins to evolve.
And yet, this is peak inequality. A time of unpaid caring, for children, for parents and all their related emotional labour. Everything is connected, there is no longer a simple separation between work, home and play. Too many people to support, to placate. So I smile politely and say “No problem” to prove how capable I am, even when I have a giant fucking pain in my arse. I also start swearing profusely. (My spellcheck suggests “sweating” instead of “swearing”. Yes, that too.)
Anger is momentary, a bell-shaped curve. Rage takes time, it needs to be tended, fed, suppressed, allowed to grow. It can lie gurgling inside, rising and falling, instinct versus conditioning. Without a purposeful outlet, it is destructive, lashing out at those in its path but take control and it can transform the world. Grant me the courage to change the things I can and the rage to change the rest.
And then one day I realise that I don’t want to say “Yes” any more. What I really want to say is “Fuck off” and I can’t think of any reason not to. In fact, I wonder why I haven’t been saying it all along. This is menopause.
Ok, it doesn’t just happen. The moment of awakening comes after several years of exhaustion and anxiety where you think you’re going crazy but instead of asking for help, you keep going and keep going because that’s what you’ve always done. I thought I only had to claw my way to the finish line and then it would be over. Nope. The end of fertility is only the start of menopause. Did you know it can last for ten years? Neither does anyone else until they are in it. The first rule of menopause is…
Yes, there are hot flushes but really, who gives a shit about that? More importantly, there is osteoporosis and heart disease and depression and insomnia and the loss of patriarchal status as a fuckable baby-maker. And there is rage.
Rage against your partner, your kids, your colleagues, your clients. Rage when your authority is challenged, your expertise is questioned, your demands are not met. Rage because you don’t need help with technology, parking, reading a map. Rage because bodily autonomy, violence against women, equal pay and everyday sexism are still up for debate.
Navigating the rage can seem overwhelming at first. It helps to accept that people are annoying and you probably are too. But people are also kind and generous and supportive when motivated so find your niche or your tribe and channel your energy into all the things you’ve been putting off for the last thirty years.
Because now you are free. Free from the pressure to be thin, beautiful, fertile, accommodating, likeable. Free to make some noise: speak your mind, sing aloud, belch in public (sorry not sorry). Free to be the person you were before you were burdened with the weight of expectation. You never left her behind, she was there all along, buried under schedules and commitments and ticking clocks. Remember all the things she hoped she’d do when she was older? Now is the time.
And there is time. Because you no longer give it away freely. There is also an urgency, a sense of now or never. You may die without bungee jumping or visiting Kazakhstan but that’s ok, as long as that marathon gets run or that novel gets written (note to self). Whatever time you have left, it is yours. There will always be those who try to spoil or steal it but your hard-earned rage will ensure that you no longer waste any of it on them. Apart from payback of course, every second of that bitch is pure pleasure.