Ever wondered why we actually have discharge, if you can get addicted to vibrators and why you find it hard to resist a glass of wine?
You need to listen to Am I Making You Uncomfortable? HuffPost UK’s weekly podcast on women’s health, bodies and private lives.
Against our better judgement, we launched the podcast in lockdown and have been joined by the most knowledgeable (and downright funny) guests every week since. We’ve covered everything from porn to periods, discussing women’s complex identities in relation to work, motherhood, money and friendship in between. There have been plenty of laughs, but also a lot of lessons.
We’re taking a short break before season two resumes later this autumn, but until then, here are 20 things we learned during season one. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts – and be sure to tell your friends.
1. Blame the billboards for negative body image
We kicked off the series by talking about body image in lockdown – and why we sometimes feel negatively about ourselves, even though we think we should “know better”.
Body image and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon explained negative thoughts can sneak into our brains via what we see on the high street.
“Your unconscious brain learns through repetition, whether that’s words, images, or experiences,” she said. “So let’s say you’re walking down a street and you pass a bus stop with a diet advert on it and then a row of magazines and you see a billboard with a very conventionally attractive woman on it. And then you pass two people discussing how they’re going to go on a diet. And then maybe you pass a gym and your unconscious brain is drinking in from that idea that you’re not good enough and that you need to be changed.”
2. There’s a reason for vaginal discharge
Dr Anita Mitra, aka Gynae Geek, taught us that vaginal discharge is more than an inconvenience. It’s actually pretty cool when you know what it’s for.
“It’s a kind of mucus that you find in your vagina that comes from the cervix and also from the walls of the vagina,” Dr Mitra explained. “It contains lots of protective compounds like peptides. They are little proteins that we actually call natural antibiotics and they protect us from bacterial infections and from viruses. You also need discharge to actually allow sperm to swim through the vagina, up through the cervix, to meet the egg. It’s got so many crucial roles.”
3. You don’t need to worry about vibrators
One of the most common questions sex educator Alix Fox is asked about masturbation is whether there’s any risk of addiction or damage when using a vibrator.
“It would be extremely difficult to create lasting nerve damage by buzzing the fuzz, so don’t worry too much about that,” she reassured listeners. “Having said that, if you are repeatedly relying on particularly powerful sex toys – you know the ones that you plug into the mains and your lights dip and your energy bill goes through the roof, like the ones I prefer – your body can start to get used to a very intense form of stimulation.
“That does not mean that you and your poon are ruined forevermore. It just means that you need to maybe wind that down, take a step back for a few weeks and learn to rely on your digit rather than your widgets and your gadgets for a bit.”
4. We have complicated relationships with our nipples
In episode four we explored our changing relationships with our nipples and heard from lots of our listeners, whether that was about nipples post-cancer, nipples post-breastfeeding or nipples post-piercing.
We also heard from several people who said the only nipples that are remotely normalised in the media belong to white, cisgender women.
“I guess the first time I realised that I even had nipples was when I was about 10 and getting changed in the school changing room. And one of the other girls was quite shocked by the appearance of my nipples and asked me why they were so dark,” one listener told us.
“I think that was my first realisation, not only that that felt uncomfortable (someone else commenting on your body) but perhaps also the one of the first realisations that I wasn’t white, and that was one of the more prominent markers of that as I’m a white-passing, mixed-race person. And I think that that experience probably did mean that I carried certain prejudices towards my own breasts moving into adulthood.”
5. There’s a lot of stereotyping in porn
Sex educator Sangeeta Pillai told us she’s not against porn as a concept – and believes it can boost your solo sex life or relationship if consumed in the right way. But, she said, the industry needs to stop racial stereotyping.
“I think the issue is that already as brown or black women, we’re already occupying really small spaces. And then when you get into porn, those boxes become smaller,” she said. “Particularly if you’re South Asian, you’re meant to be the submissive, good wife material that we’re trained all our lives to be. It doesn’t capture who we are and it is a particular kind of fetishisation, I think, which is not healthy.
“The other thing is I have yet to see a South Asian couple on porn, on any porn film that looks anything like my experience or anywhere that I recognise myself.”
6. Motherhood shifts your identity
You can lose yourself in the early years of motherhood, guests Candice Brathwaite and Kate Everall told us in episode six. But give it time and you might prefer the new you.
“I haven’t found myself again. It’s just a new self. And, to be honest, I’m not embarrassed of the woman I was before my kids, but I see them as really separate entities,” said Brathwaite.
“There are just some risks now or things I did back then that I just wouldn’t do now because I have a responsibility to another two humans here. And, actually, I prefer this version. She’s more measured. She’s calmer.”
Everall added: “I feel as my son has got older he’s made my activism for gay rights a lot stronger, because actually I’m seeing the effects of the inequalities on him. You know, he’s not represented in the media, in children’s books.
“So actually, by becoming a mother, I’ve seen things that still need to be done in society whereas before I had a very almost rudimentary outlook on what was needed. But actually, since having him, I’ve been able to improve on that and other things.”
7. Vaginismus isn’t just about sex
Lisa Mackenzie, from the Vaginismus Network, taught us that the condition – which causes the vaginal muscles to involuntarily tighten – affects millions of people around the world.
“For some women, they can’t insert the tip of their finger, a tampon, a moon cup. It makes cervical smear tests incredibly difficult or traumatic,” she said. “So it’s definitely penetration more broadly. I think that’s an important point to remember actually, because people often think it’s just about sex and that’s the only way it’s impacting. But it’s definitely more broader than that.”
8. It’s a myth that women are prone to overspending
Women do not get into debt because we love shopping, said Josie Warner, from the debt charity StepChange. In fact, men are more likely to have higher debts on credit cards and other credit products, while women are more likely to be behind on household bills.
The majority of those who approach the charity do so due to “environmental and economical” reasons, such as being caregivers, being more likely to be on insecure work contracts and suffering the gender pay gap.
9. You don’t have to accept heavy periods
“You think you’ve got heavy periods, you have heavy periods, and telling somebody, you don’t have heavy periods because you don’t bleed enough, that’s not that helpful,” said Dr Brooke Vandermolen in episode nine, adding that women should visit their GP.
“I think if you find the bleeding is too much for you, it affects your everyday life, then you can seek help for that.”
10. Infertility is overlooked
At the series halfway point, we spoke about the NHS IVF postcode lottery and the impact this – and infertility in general – has on women.
“The strain that IVF and infertility places on someone is enormous. The mental health impact I’ve had over the past six years is something I never expected to happen to me,” one listener told us. “The isolation, the loss of identity, feeling incomplete as a woman. Infertility being overlooked by so many as a medical condition. The hours, days, weeks, months and years waiting for blood tests, scan results, phone calls. I don’t know who I am anymore without IVF.”
11. It’s possible to reframe envy
Envy is an ugly and embarrassing emotion, but in episode 11, comparison coach Lucy Sheridan taught us how to reframe envy as inspiration. By recognising it proactively, envy can help us realise what we want in life – then make a plan to get it, she said.
“Let yourself feel it,” she added. ”[Ask] ‘what is this telling me? What’s really going on here? What’s my insight?’ But allow yourself to feel it. There’s nothing to fear, it can’t hurt you. It’s just you.”
12. We see alcohol as a treat
Anjula Mutanda, social scientist and relationship psychologist, taught us that women are catching up men when it comes to drinking. She believes we’ve all been conditioned to see it as a “treat”.
“Think about that coming of age, it’s your 18th. It’s your 21st. It’s your wedding anniversary. It’s your bar mitzvah. Whatever it is, we’ve got, ‘Hey, let’s get the alcohol out,’ because it feels like it’s something that brings people together. It’s a celebration, isn’t it?” she said. “And a couple of units, and it’s a celebration because we get a little bit warmed up, feel a little bit looser, the heart races a little bit, the blood vessels open. We feel that warm glow, get a little bit more chatty. So we feel a little bit more sociable.”
13. Social anxiety isn’t the same as shyness
Social anxiety is “where people suffer an overwhelming sense of fear or dread, about any kind of situation where they are going to meet other people” explained psychotherapist Lucy Beresford in episode 13. It’s very different to shyness.
“Social anxiety becomes very overwhelming, very crippling. It gets in the way of all sorts of activities, like trying to get another job, or dating,” she added. “Shyness is more of a personality trait. It’s something that sometimes never goes, but it doesn’t necessarily preoccupy them to quite the same degree that social anxiety does.”
14. There’s no logical reason for the orgasm gap
There’s a common belief that it’s easier to orgasm if you have a penis, but in episode 14, sex educator Portia Brown told us this just isn’t true. In her words, if you can’t find the clitoris “you’re probably not looking for it”.
“There are people that still believe that it’s harder for people with vulvas to achieve orgasm, or that women have to have some sort of crazy emotional, psychological connection in order to achieve orgasm,” she added. “There’s a lot of shame about women that seek pleasure, that own sex toys, that demand that their partners pleasure them in the way that they want to be pleasured and not in this weird way that men have been told that women’s bodies work. Needless to say, none of that is true.”
15. We are not defined by our jobs
We explored the question “who am I without my job?” in episode 15, at a time when many will be facing furlough, redundancy or unemployment. Career coach Emily Liou taught us the first step in dealing with job loss is learning there’s nothing shameful about it, because it doesn’t define you.
“In my opinion, starts with getting comfortable with understanding it’s okay to not have a title. It’s okay to have that status of unemployment. In the immediate term, I think it’s really important to have that healing process,” she said.
“A lot of job seekers feel like, ‘Well, I must’ve done something wrong. It must have been me because I was the one laid off from the company.’ But we have to understand the economic climate. And there are some things that are just beyond our control.”
16. Friendship therapy is ‘a thing’
We chatted about the (platonic) one that got away in episode 16 and learned that, yes, friendship therapy exists. Aminatou Sow, who co-hosts the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, told us about her experience of attending therapy with her long-term, long-distance friend Ann Friedman.
“We entered this period of a couple of years where we really missing each other and we were mis-communicating,” said Sow, who’s based in New York, while Friedman lives in California. “There were a lot of things that were left unsaid, and I think that the overwhelming feeling for both of us was really like: ‘Is she doing that on purpose? What’s going on here?’ The friendship itself was becoming increasingly more fraught because there were so many things we were not talking about to each other.”
17. Perimenopause is more than hot flushes
We heard from listeners about their experience of perimenopause – the transitional period before menopause – in episode 17. The two main takeaways were that it can start younger than you think (possibly in your thirties) and is about way more than hot flushes.
“The thing that surprised me most about the perimenopause: it’s not just night sweats and hot flushes, it’s all the other symptoms that go with it,” one listener told us. “For me it’s the anxiety, I thought I was going insane. I keep
forgetting things, my mood is so low, I felt exhausted. My skin was dry, my hair was dry, everything is dry. And that’s the thing that really did surprise me the most.”
18. As many women cheat as men
The cheating gender gap has closed and in episode 18, we discuss why women now cheat as frequently as men. Therapist Miranda Christophers believes our access to work lives and technology is partly behind the stats.
“It’s a lot easier from that point of view to have an affair now, to be able to
text somebody to be able to arrange a rendezvous, to be able to flirt, to meet somebody on Instagram or to rekindle an old relationship with an old school friend,” she said. “All of these things are so much more accessible and I think for women today. And I think for some women it is about really looking at situations and thinking if men are able to do something, then women are too.”
19. There isn’t enough support for incontinence
One in three women experience urinary incontinence, but in episode 19 we heard heartbreaking stories from listeners, some of whom have been struggling for more than 20 years.
“I am 49-years-old. I have suffered with stress and urge incontinence since the birth of my son 20 years ago,” one listener told us. “It’s been pretty horrendous, actually embarrassing. Always having to think about, if I’m out somewhere, I need to be near a toilet, I need to make sure I go to the toilet before I leave anywhere. And there have been times when I have wet proper wet myself, which is mortifying.”
20. Body hair is political
In the series finale, we discuss how the policing of body hair from a young age limits all women – with women of colour and trans women (two already marginalised groups) often under the most scrutiny.
“It really benefits society for us to have these imagined two genders, where there’s women and there’s men, right? We know that that’s not true. We
know that there are loads of intersex people who exist across the binary. There are trans people. There’s a lot going on there: gender’s much more complicated than that. But body hair is one of the most successful ways of enforcing that division. Policing that gender,” said our guest Aisha Mirza.
“It’s visual: it gives you a lot of visual cues about what someone’s gender is supposed to be, and therefore how they’re supposed to be acting, and therefore what their place is in society and what they are and aren’t allowed to do. The knock-on effects are actually huge.”