‘I thought it would be funny to make a book to show them the awful truth’
Ladybeard: What was the motivation behind the book?
Tallulah Pomeroy: I set up a Facebook group to discover how many things my friends had done, or did regularly, that would be considered ‘unladylike’. I was mainly motivated by nosiness, but the idea also stemmed from a feeling that a lot of people think girls don’t do gross things. I thought it would be funny to make a book to show them the awful truth. I didn’t expect people to be quite so eager to share. There was a collective sense of relief and fascination, a bit like taking off a heavy coat. I thought I’d get a couple of stories, but it was an awful, wonderful flood. I hadn’t realised we’d needed this outlet. It showed me how much we keep under wraps.
Can you talk a little about the process of illustrating each story?
I use pen straight on the paper with no planning or first drafts – I like that immediate, rough look. In the same way, I left all the stories written in the way they had been on the Facebook group. It’s not about them being right or good, just about letting out the ideas that come to mind, wobbly bodies and weird anatomy.
You’re right about this ‘sense of relief and fascination’ – I really felt that when reading the book. It is also so funny! What are some of your favourite stories?
I love the stories that have been written almost like haikus. Little disgusting haikus. ‘I sometimes use my hair to floss between my teeth.’ So simple, so effective, I can imagine a wise Japanese poet reciting it into the wind. The big confessions are also great: when someone is finally getting it off their chest, alleviating the shame around that time they leaked period on their aunt’s white sofa. But I think my favourite stories are about the little things we all do without thinking: ‘I like smelling my knickers when I’m on the toilet’.
In some ways we’re living in an ‘enlightened’ age: women talk freely about sex, money, power (all previously taboo topics). Why do you think we still struggle to talk about the less delicate aspects of personal hygiene – like poo, periods and farts?
It starts young, with girls not wanting to appear disgusting. Sex, money and power come along later in life and we learn how to talk about them. But our bodily functions have been made ‘gross’ at a very young age, so it’s harder to come out and start talking about them again! It makes us vulnerable.
I love the two stories about periods we are sharing on Ladybeard. They remind me of when I got my mooncup stuck while at work (the cup filled up with blood and created a kind of vacuum). It was a very messy excavation but the thing I was most upset about was not having someone to tell the story to. Why are periods still such a taboo topic?
One of my best friends won’t say the word above a whisper. Maybe it starts at school, when girls are knowingly taken aside from the boys to learn about ‘The Menstrual Cycle’; right then it becomes a secret, and something the boys don’t learn about. Ignorance is fear, and in response to fear, boys act like it’s something awful and disgusting, and girls feel ashamed. Even among women though, it’s not widely discussed. There is the deeply-held belief that it is dirty. It’s such a magical thing though. The mooncup is changing the way we see periods: actually seeing all the blood, not just shoving a tampon into the bin, makes me feel closer to my cycle and less ashamed.
What do you find frustrating about mainstream conversations about women’s health and bodies?
My least favourite thing is hygienic euphemisms for vaginas. Isn’t ‘intimate’ the worst word? ‘Intimate area’? Delicate feminine wash? Ugh. Femininity is presented so cleanly. Oh how I would love to see some hairy-legged women on the telly, and for that not to even be the focus.
How do we combat this ‘clean’ notion of femininity?
The more versions of femininity we have available from a young age, the more accepting we will be of ourselves. I’m inspired by Arundhati Roy, because she broke taboos with her writing, but she didn’t carry on writing just because it did well. She fights for what she believes in and is a political activist and lots of other things. She only wrote another book twenty years later. She’s single and says she likes it that way. I think she’s so cool.
In your ‘Foreword’, you talk about ‘discharge’ as a kind of forbidden word in common conversation – which other words should we be using more often?
‘Fanny lips’, ‘gooch’, ‘chocolate starfish’.
Interview by Madeleine Dunnigan and illustration courtesy of Tallulah Pomeroy
A Girl’s Guide to Personal Hygiene by Tallulah Pomeroy is published by Softskull Press.