On genitalia

In the shower this morning I practised a talk I may or may not give next week at a story telling event.  All depends on how much courage I can muster. 

The theme is bodies, a topic dear to my heart, given I write about it and avoid it in equal measure. 

I hear the word body and my own tense relationship to my body erupts.

Like most people, I have two arms and two legs, a head, two eyes, ears and all that goes between. And by all that I don’t mean those vital organs: heart, kidneys, lungs, liver and intestines.  

I mean the unmentionable.


For me, as a woman, my vagina and breasts and all the other bits around that signify bodily desire.

Only I tend to put mine on hold. 

I’m not planning to say this in my talk.

In my talk I’ll hedge around. It’s easier to do this.

To talk about my life at boarding school when I could not stop eating and ballooned three sizes, to the point I planned to stay hidden behind my uniform like the nuns in their habits. 

When I first decided the life of a nun would be easier than that of a woman in the world.

To my mind then nuns did not eat, at least not in public, and I imagined they were even more discreet about using showers or baths. 

Their bodies were the temples of their souls, useless merchandise, like the wrapping that goes around birthday presents. 

A nun’s body shape didn’t matter, only her body needed to function sufficient for her to get up in the morning and go about her nun’s business. 

In the case of my nuns, The Faithful Companions of Jesus, their primary function, besides dedication to Christ – the women at the foot of his cross after crucifixion – was to teach.

With a few exceptions. Those who were considered ineligible for teaching and wound up in the kitchen feeding the other nuns and the boarders, me among them. 

The diet was carbohydrate heavy. Stodge in vast quantities and sugar. Hence my inability to control my size, given the urge to eat all the biscuits and fruit buns on offer. 

The bread rolls at breakfast, cast off by the local baker and offered to the kitchen nuns who sprinkled them with water and then tossed them in the oven.

The white rolls came up crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. It was like eating clouds layered with butter and honey. 

As many as we wanted. I ate two or three per breakfast and before I knew it, had stretched to accommodate all the other changes happening throughout my adolescence. 

Out of control, and in contrast to Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. She writes about the extent to which hunger can give you a sense of mastery and control, a control I lacked in those days. 

This was fine as long as I could hide behind my school uniform. Outside school it was another matter. 

To talk about such things in public without the benefit of my notes is scary. I know enough from public speaking classes that it won’t do to rote learn. 

Better to riff off bullet points in your head and flesh things out. Know your stuff through practice. 

To practice a speech, you need a quiet place where no one can hear and you need to go through the fantasy of speaking to your audience. 

I tried recording my talk on the telephone the other day. It helped, up to a point, the telephone my audience. Recording added that element of anxiety provoking expectation. 

‘You will do this properly,’ the voice that urges me to take myself seriously and perform well says. 

Much of the time I want only to chuck it in. Not bother taking my turn on the stage. Let other women have their ten minutes to speak about their bodies. 

I have a friend who is a natural at this. She doesn’t even prepare. If she decides to get up and speak, depending on the topic and her state of mind on the day, she can get up and chat away to her audience with not a skerrick of angst. 

I could no more get up unrehearsed than fly. 

I am not so paralysed that I cannot give it a go, and I can rise to the occasion, but is the anxiety worth it? 

Have a listen. 

One thought on “On genitalia”

  1. Christ knows how many times I’ve had to address an audience over the years. Dozens, easily, but it never got easy. I’m not a natural public speaker nor do I enjoy being the centre of attention. Even when I was a trainer I rarely addressed the class en masse. I far preferred to deal with the students on an individual basis as much as possible or maybe two or three at a time. Because it was a rolling class with people at different points in the course this was really the best approach albeit the more demanding.

    When I have given talks they were always meticulously prepared and rehearsed into the ground. (I’m sure that comes as no surprise.) Basically I read the damn thing. I could do it no other way. Others could improvise and skip bits if they looked like they might run over but not me. I liked writing the talks but not delivering them. A part of me wished I could simply hand out printed copies and leave it at that.

    I did go over my material out loud over and over AND OVER again and I’m not sure there’s a better way but what you might try is using text to speech software to distance yourself from the material so all you have to do is hear the words. I’ve tried this with my fiction and it’s helpful. Here’s a link you might find useful: https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/the-best-free-text-to-speech-software

    Mostly I avoided first person singular in my talks. I don’t mind being cleverer than people—I’ve found it pretty much unavoidable over the years—but no one likes and, more importantly, listens to anyone who presents themselves as superior. So, if I was going to talk about me, it would be in self-deprecatory tones. I doubt there’ll be anyone in your audience who’s not gone through puberty and although we all have our own memories of how miserable that was we do all remember it as a miserable time. People bond over that kind of shit. It’s why we like sitcoms because mostly it’s about people suffering who aren’t us but were (or could easily have been) us. I’m not saying turn your talk into a comedy set but take a leaf out of their book. Bodies are funny. Don’t take them so seriously. Listen to some Billy Connolly talking about old age and take it from there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-5YuglDcmg

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