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The Myth of ‘Biology Is Not Destiny’

Illustration of the female reproductive system

When Second Wave Feminists proclaimed ‘Biology is not Destiny’ they never expected that their thinking would be weaponised against them. They wanted to empower women to break free from gender roles and expectations. But Trans ideology severs female existence completely from female biological function with the use of dehumanising language like ‘cervix-havers’, ‘anyone with a cervix,’ ‘pregnant people’, ‘uterus-owners’, ‘vulva-owners,’ vagina-owners’ and ‘menstruators’. The old Patriarchy only valued us for our fertility; our ability to bear the young of the species. First and Second Wave Feminism sought to give us our full humanity. The New Woke Patriarchy cuts us off from our biological functions entirely, erasing our truth and disappearing sexism and structural inequality in the process – if anyone can get pregnant or breastfeed then the resultant discrimination no longer exists!

In this searing and beautifully-written autiobiographical piece, the author A.M. Scanlon traces her own life, through the episodic female experiences, specifically menarche, PMS and sickness during pregnancy. In the second part of this series, the writer will explore the Menopause from a cultural and personal perspective – Laoise Uí Aodha de Brún

I grew up in the era of ‘Biology is not destiny’. Women were told we could ‘have it all’. You could have a fabulous career, marriage, children and look damn good while doing it. ‘Biology is not destiny’ was a phrase intended to do away with all the stereotypes around the female sex – the fairer sex, the weaker sex, the fragile little flowers of womanhood.  These stereotypes are quite absurd. Any woman, and there are many of us, who experiences painful periods is not fragile. Any woman who has carried a child to term and given birth to it is far from weak. Biology is not destiny was intended to give women a fair crack of the whip. To level up. To get equality in life and in the workplace.

But for many of us biology is destiny. After all, we experience the world through our female bodies. Sexism is the expression of how the culture views us because of our sexed bodies. I  began my working life in the early 90s and have experienced overt and covert sexism in the workplace ever since. I have watched men get promoted over women (“because you just know she’ll be swanning off on maternity leave”). We still don’t get equal pay.  Our bodies have been used against us since Eve plucked the apple from the tree. Our lives are constrained by our biological functions from periods to pregnancy to menopause. These are things that only happen to females. To pretend otherwise is risible.

Imagine the worst sea sickness you’ve ever had.  Now multiply that by, let’s say, six. Now imagine that you are not on a boat and there is no destination where you can step off and leave the overwhelming nausea behind.

Perhaps you are one of those lucky people who has never been seasick.  OK, so remember the last time you had food poisoning. Remember how the nausea moved from your stomach and took over your entire body. Remember how you lay in your bed as the nausea intensified, until there was nothing in the world but you and the feeling of being totally toxic. And still it got even worse – until you vomited. Then there would be a period of relief before the sick feelings started to build again and this pattern was repeated until your body had ridded itself of whatever toxin had caused you to be sick.

Our bodies have been used against us since Eve plucked the apple from the tree. Our lives are constrained by our biological functions from periods to pregnancy to menopause.

Now imagine the moment before you are sick, the intensity of the nausea.  Now imagine that even though you may vomit, there will be no relief. The nausea is your life. It has pushed out everything else – work, family, friends, television, books. Your life is severe sickness – day in, day out, no relief.

That was me. That was my life. I’d never appreciated before just how important meals are. They are the frame we hang our days on. You get up and have breakfast, in the middle of the day you stop again to refuel and again in the evening. Sure, we all skip meals here and there but for the majority of us we eat at regular times every day. Me, I just woke up and threw up.

I lost weight. A lot of weight very quickly. I was skeletal and what my mother would call ‘a bad colour’.  At the start when the nausea was almost manageable I still left the house for work but that quickly became impossible. Rumours swirled. I was ill. I was dying.  I had cancer.  I had AIDS. I was in the advanced and terminal stages of anorexia. Only those closest to me knew the truth. I was pregnant.

I was suffering from a condition called Hyperemesis Gravidarum which is often described as ‘severe morning sickness’.  It is a ridiculous description, like saying a broken leg is a severe sprain. For the first trimester I survived on Sprite and Saltine crackers.  On a good day I would be able to eat an entire cracker – not all at once, but nibbling tiny pieces like a small, highly disciplined rodent. The Sprite went down in tiny sips. Anything more than the tiniest morsel or crumb would come back up immediately.

I tried everything to quell the nausea. The tablets I was prescribed. Ginger. Pressure bracelets. Nothing worked. At that time, I had been sober for 8 years and I even considered smoking some pot – as many Chemo patients recommend it as a way to quell the constant illness. Of course, I didn’t actually know where to get pot and the idea of inhaling smoke made me retch even more. As the malnutrition and dehydration took hold I was fit for nothing – physically and mentally debilitated. I became nothing but a body in increasing distress.

Friends called. Towards the end of the first trimester, when I could only sit up for ten minutes at a time, a school pal phoned. She later told me that I was speaking gibberish, not making sense. Another friend called daily. She was a cancer survivor. One day I complained that nobody understood, nobody could comprehend how unrelentingly bad I felt ALL THE TIME and she said something that truly scared me.  “Welcome to the land of the sick.”

I’m not sporty or athletic. I used to joke that my idea of exercise was taking the wrapping off a packet of fags and sparking up.  Before I became pregnant and incapable I took my body for granted.  I often toddled to the toilet in the middle of the night in a state of only near consciousness. I climbed the four flights to my apartment without a second thought. I’d had my poor eyesight corrected with lasers. I washed my hair and dried it while thinking about other things entirely. I could run for a bus if I needed to and it never took me that long to recover.

“Welcome to the land of the sick.” 

But that’s not to say that my relationship with my body was unproblematic.  I had my first period aged 12. I had never heard of PMS, but I experienced it the day before. I remember veering between grumpy and tearful, confused as to why.  You may wonder at such clear recollection of a random day decades ago.  But I do and that’s because of the school dog– a massive hairy eejit who was part German Shepard, part Yeti. Every day as I walked down the long drive from the school the dog would run out and jump on me and I would make a massive fuss of him, because I loved dogs.

That day, it was a Thursday, out he came, jumped up on me and left muddy paw marks on my uniform. This had never been an issue for me before – my mother yes, but me, no.  That day I roared at the poor animal for leaving stains on my tunic. I can still remember the dog, standing on his back legs, hovering uncertainly for a moment before running to place of safety. He was so confused by this sudden unexpected outburst. So was I.  As I was yelling at the dog, feeling rage surging through me, I felt like I was standing outside myself looking on and wondering why I was behaving that way.   I became accustomed to that feeling of seeing myself out of control over the next thirty years, but I can’t say I ever got used to it.

I would lose 15 of the next 30 years to PMS and PMDS. I would feel worthless, depressed, angry, full of rage…. All the negative emotions tried to elbow each other aside for my attention. At times I wanted to kill myself. At other times I was so enraged I was like a weapon. Sometimes I would start a tirade against someone I loved. It was the school dog all over again. Part of me would be looking on, horrified at the things I was saying and doing and even though I would want to stop, I couldn’t.

Then the pain would start. Some months the pain would last for days before my period arrived and no matter how bad it had been before it was only ever a prelude to the agonies of my womb shedding its lining. My back would hurt, my insides, my boobs.  Sometimes I puked. Sometimes I had headaches. There was often nausea. And throughout all this, I went to school and university. Got jobs, got promoted, wrote a book, got on with things as best I could, knowing that if I had four weeks instead of two how much better things would be.

Strangely despite half of my life being a write-off I never blamed my body. Sure, I was ‘unlucky’, compared to most of my friends but it was all just part of being a female. I’d grow out of it I was told.  I didn’t. I tried many different treatments over those three decades. None was in the least successful. “Don’t worry”, people consoled. “Once you have a baby it will all change”. My mother and grandmother had found relief after childbirth so that was something I was looking forward to.  (Spoiler. Yes, childbirth did impact my periods, it made them worse!)

This time though, as sick as I’ve ever been, I blamed my body.  You can bet I did. Pregnant women are supposed to ‘glow’ and ‘nest’ and be, if not happy, at least content. And this, this was the thing that my female body was designed for – to carry a baby and give birth. And my fucking body could not do the one thing it was specifically designed for. I worried about the baby. If I was surviving on a saltine cracker and a couple of sups of Sprite, how was the foetus getting the nourishment it needed?

It’s funny, I never blamed the baby. I blamed ‘the pregnancy’.  The pregnancy was making me ill. And I resented it. I resented being confined to bed. I hated not being able to care for myself. Everything that made me me was gone. I was not independent. I was not clever. I was not funny.  I was just a bag of bones that vomited constantly. I could not work. Or read. Or even watch the telly.  One time I was watching Are You Being Served? on BBC America and I had to turn it off as I just couldn’t keep up with the plot!  Life was meaningless.  Life was constant suffering. Life was unbearable.

My fucking body could not do the one thing it was specifically designed for.

It could not last. Of course it couldn’t. Many women with HG terminate their much-wanted pregnancies because they just can’t take the constant suffering any more. I arrived home from America to my mother in a wheelchair, in a state of collapse. I woke up the following morning in a pool of blood. On the way to the hospital I was terrified that I was miscarrying and yet the unbidden thought of ‘how long will it be after before the nausea stops’ slipped in to my mind. And with that the guilt. That guilt has never really gone either.

Amazingly the foetus was fine – a heartbeat going like the clappers. I was far from fine. The doctor told me I was on the verge of a coronary – I could ‘go’ at any second. Then he said I didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. “I do,” I said, “I just don’t care. I just want the sickness to stop.”  I was exhausted physically and mentally. If I was to die so be it because I could not go on. I just couldn’t.

I was admitted to hospital and had medication administered orally, anally, by IV and intra-muscular. That night I vomited violently every twenty minutes despite having nothing to throw up. I spent a week in the hospital and had to take anti-emetics for the rest of my pregnancy. The nausea never stopped. Most days it was manageable but some days it would spike again, and I spent my time with my head down the toilet. Eventually, after ten long months and an Emergency C-Section I gave birth to a perfect baby boy. Three hours later the persistent nausea ceased.

Anne Marie Scanlon is a Donegal native who has subsequently lived in Dublin, London and New York. As a journalist Anne Marie has contributed to newspapers and magazines in Ireland, Britain and the USA including The Sunday Independent, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Evening Herald, Woman & Home, Image, Woman’s Way, Essentials and The Irish Post, as well as broadcasting on RTE, the BBC and radio and TV in America. Anne Marie is the author of one book, has contributed to several others and appeared at the Henley Literary Festival twice. / Twitter @amscanlon

Part 2 of essay, “The Myth of ‘Biology is Not Destiny'” , “Knock Knock. Who’s there? Menopause!”