Hannah is a 20 year old stigma-shaking-power-house with a traumatic past that has been injected into her passion to educate others and grab hold of real self-love. From a poor relationship with her body, an abusive partner, severe mental health and battling against endometriosis - this woman has an admirable message and one hell of a story to tell. Thank you, Hannah, for bearing your bare reality - a true inspiration.
Hannah is a lifeguard and party bus host who loves pole dancing, surfing, Zumba, playing piano and running her sex education/feminist blog. Walking her dog and festivals put a smile on her face, but her passion for women’s rights, sex education and reproductive wellbeing and knowledge is the real fire in her belly - literally. How would you describe your relationship with your body when you were a teenager?
I’ve had a difficult relationship with my body as a teenager. When I was 10 or 11, we did one of those “fit for life” measurement things and I got given a whole information pack about how I was obese and what to do about it. If you look at pictures of me at that age, you can see that I, in fact, was not obese. I was also swimming training twice a week, so I wasn’t unfit either. Just a bit chunky. My family are also very weight conscious and this also had a massive negative impact on my relationship with my body.
When I was 15, I suffered my first sexual trauma. As a result of this, I developed quite serious bulimia and began to obsessively train. I lost about 3 stone over 4 months. I was told it was the best I’ve ever looked. It’s one of the worst I’ve ever felt. It was really conflicting for me to hear all this praise whilst doing so much damage to myself.
I stopped rowing and got my mental health back on track and started putting weight back on. This was also around the time I really started having sex with other people. I’m going to be honest, I consider myself to be a confident and independent woman, but having many men telling me how sexy or gorgeous I was, despite me putting my weight back on, did improve how I felt about my body. I’m not saying it was right or defending the comments, but it did help.
Towards the end of my teens I started to be recognised as “curvy” as my weight started to settle. I got my nipples and bellybutton pierced and that made me feel more confident because it gave people something to stare at, rather than worrying about it. In December 2018 I realised I had been and still was struggling with mild depression and started to hate my body again and I didn’t like that. I’m the kind of woman who if she doesn’t like something, she changes it. So I did. I dumped the guy I was seeing (he was a big influence on my increase in weight and a dirty liar), started going down the gym more, and cleaned up my diet.
Going to university was a blessing because it suddenly meant that I could decide what kind of people were in my environment, and that meant getting rid of anyone who made me feel self conscious or put added emphasis on their bodies in a less than positive way. It has really improved my relationship with my body.
First memories of gynae health
I remember sitting behind some girls in science and one of them saying to the other “I’ve got thrush again” and thinking to myself “you’re allowed to say that out loud?!” There was a period of my life where I kept treating myself to cheap, lacey Primark underwear and constantly had thrush. I tried everything. Yoghurt on a tampon, sudo cream in my vagina, washing every day. Nothing worked. I was waking up in the middle of the night to itch myself. It got to a point and I spoke to my mum because I did not know what else to do. It was then that she informed me that since I was a babe, I had always reacted to cheap lace by developing thrush. If I’d spoken to her sooner, I would have saved myself months of aggro. But having had a strong sense of privacy and shame instilled in me about my vulva since I was younger, it took a while to pluck up the courage to say anything.
Gynae health wasn’t really something we spoke about until my friends and I started becoming sexually active. It was in this time I found out I had an allergy to flavoured lube (and yes, I found out exactly the way you imagine), which I didn’t know was a thing. Also I’d have sex with little to no lube and the get a burning sensation when my partner ejaculated inside me and I didn’t understand why that happened – turns out internal friction burn is not my best friend. We also used to refer to our vuvlas as “china” after I saw it in a program. We all felt really awkward saying “vagina” and “pussy”, so that at least helped us discuss the topic, even if the terminology wasn’t correct.
On one occasion my partner fingered me so incorrectly I had to go to the doctor and she told me I had had a muscle spasm and it would heal in about six weeks. My friendship group at the time made a joke of it, which I was fine with, but it pushed me to be more comfortable with talking about sexual/vaginal wellbeing.
How would you describe your relationship with your body now?
I can’t get enough of myself. Sometimes I look in the mirror and think to myself “damn, how did I get to be so good looking?” And you know what, why shouldn’t I feel like that? Why shouldn’t I look at myself the way I want to be looked at? I’ve spent two years growing my hair out and now it looks so curly and amazing, I live a lifestyle based on intuitive eating and health rather than weight and calorie counting, and I have developed a style that reflects my personality rather than what I am “supposed” to wear. I take a lot of pride in my appearance, but at no compromise to my activism or rowdiness. Working for health rather than for size has been one of the best decisions I’ve made and I will not be going back from it. One of my favourite phrases people have said to me is “I could tell it was you.” That recognition of an unmistakeable identity that is me. I couldn’t be prouder of myself.
Finding your voice
Being a sex educator booted any sense of shame or worry I had about talking about sexual and reproductive health. Once you’ve said “vaginal penetration” on a mic in front of a room of people, you kind of get over it.
It’s actually a topic I really enjoy discussing. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the phrase “someone else will have the same question but will be too scared to put their hand up” is true. It’s not necessarily about those directly involved in the conversation, but those who are overhearing it.
Last September was when we found out I had endometriosis and I did not know what to do. I come from a big Irish family and I’ve got an aunt who is a nurse so I’d spoken to her about me going for my scans and whatnot. It got to December and she was giving me a lift to a train station and I was on my period. I was bleeding a lot. A lot a lot. So I said to her “aunt, I’m really scared – there’s a lot of blood and I’m worried” to which she responded “if you pass out, you pass out.” A tough love approach, but it did make me feel comfortable talking to her about it.
From this I also found out that my cousin was struggling her periods, so her and I have been able to open up that discussion as well to stop her feeling isolated by these problems, and the same with her sister. Period problems have a massive genetic link, and opening up these conversations with my family have been really validating and helpful.
Discussions about vulvas are wonderful, even if they don’t seem it. Saying “I tried on these bikini bottoms but one of my lips was hanging out the whole time so it was a no from me” and being met with “that’s a mood” is so destigmatizing in the best way possible. There has been a massive effort amongst the feminist and sex educator communities to move away from the “porn pussy” ideology and normalising vulvas that aren’t all tucked in, or tiny clits, or freshly shaved, and one of the quickest and biggest ways to get comfortable having these conversations is to have them. And in case doing all of this hasn’t made it clear enough, I am comfortable having those conversations, regardless of how awkward they might be.
I have been quite lucky in terms of my experience with medical professionals. I walked into the clinic with a list of symptoms, told them I was concerned because it wasn’t my normal, and then they said it sounded like endo and sent me off for a scan. The scan was inconclusive because they couldn’t see anything major but it was likely I still had it. That’s been the end of that. The pain is tolerable or I put myself in a position where it’s not going to affect what I’m doing. There’s not much that can be done about bloating. The pill doesn’t agree with me so I take iron supplements to stop me passing out. There isn’t much anyone can do for me, but I look after myself in every way I can.
As you can imagine I’ve had a lot of conversations with my mum about this, but I’ve actually had quite a few with my dad. At the end of the day, he cares about my wellbeing, even if it is a little bit awkward talking about it. It’s really helped, plus it means he knows where I’m at if something is wrong.
Relationship with your vulva?
For a long time I felt very ashamed of my vulva. I remember being quite little and sitting with my legs crossed in a nightie with no underwear on and being told I needed to shut my legs and I didn’t understand why, but only that it was being said in quite a stern tone. When I started becoming sexually active, I wouldn’t take my underwear off. I felt really uncomfortable with it. I remember when I was about 15, someone went down on me after I’d had a shower and pulled one of my long head-hairs out of their mouth and I wanted the world to swallow me up on the spot. I was mortified.
For more time than I should have allowed it to go on for, my partner’s weren’t making me climax and it made me feel really broken, like it was my fault they weren’t doing things properly, so I didn’t want anyone near my vulva. It took me a while to get over but I eventually did. I moved onto new partners and whilst sexting one of them, I said something to the effect of “do you want to see this pretty pussy of mine?” and he was like “you do have a pretty pussy” and from then on I decided I had a good looking vulva, and no one has challenged me on that which fills me with confidence.
It’s given me a sense of power in my underwear.
When I was 18, I got my clit pierced. If I didn’t have a pretty vulva beforehand, chucking a sparkly bit of metal in it certainly helped. My nipple piercings are very obvious and visible, but when people ask where else I’ve got piercings and I can gesture downwards with a smirk on my face, it makes many a knee weak.
The confidence I have when I’m naked is a massive part of how I feel about my vulva. Being able to sit with your legs spread and have someone just stare at you without getting uncomfortable or wanting to cover up is a difficult thing to learn to do, but once you can, no one will question how your vulva looks. Feeling good about my vulva gives me the prowess to do a move like that, and seeing how people react when I do so makes me feel confident about how I look.
I’m in control, I’ll decide how pretty I look, and I’ll decide how long you get to enjoy this sight for.
Do you think there is a stigma attached to talking about our genealogical health?
I definitely think there is still a stigma attached to talking about genealogical and women’s health still. We’ve come a long way, but I still see women flinching at the word “vagina” or using every word under the sun to describe their vulva, except “vulva”. I’m part of an Endo support group on facebook, and the amount of women who say “We thought it might have been XYZ” or “I didn’t even know there was a problem for years, I just thought it was bad periods” shows that we really aren’t talking about it enough. I went to an all-girls school from years 9 to 13 and we discussed periods in biology for a couple of lessons at GCSE and that was the extent of it.
Just the other day I was at a family BBQ and there were three of my aunts, my mum, my uncle and myself all sat around the pool in 34°C heat. One of my aunts says to me “would you like to borrow some shorts so you can get in?” to which I responded “I’m on my period so I’d need to borrow a tampon but that would be great” and everyone turned around in shock that I’d said that out loud and then I got told “maybe you shouldn’t say that around your uncle” as if he doesn’t have 4 sisters, a wife, a mother, and 8 nieces.
Cis men need to get as comfortable with the conversation as the women involved, because they are half the problem.
I shouldn’t have to feel like I can’t talk about it because someone isn’t the same gender as me, because it’s not a topic you will permanently escape or can be ignorant of. I went to see a male comedian who said that they thought a pad worked like a plaster and you stuck it sticky side up to your vulva. I mean what the hell. I also shouldn’t have to feel like I’ve got to be secretive about something my body does naturally and within any control over. You may also get a male doctor and you need to be able to talk about these things in front of them with no shame. It’s not just women who get periods, and it shouldn’t just be those who get periods who discuss the subject.
Personal Gynae health experiences
I definitely feel more free to say “I’ve bled onto my skirt/tights/shorts so need to borrow some/go home” or talking about bad period experiences. Endometriosis has put me in a position where being shy about the topic is no longer an option because of the help I’ve needed.
I think something that’s never mentioned in a personal way is what normal is. We got taught what “normal” was (3-5 teaspoons of blood, 3-7 periods, all of that good stuff), but no one ever told me to learn what was normal for my body so that I could spot a problem.
I also carried on bleeding after I got my implant fitted so any period problems or irregularities I had was just put down to that. It wasn’t until I couldn’t get up for three days because of the PMS cramps I was experiencing that I went “hang on a sec, this isn’t right” and went to the doctor. When I have reflected on previous periods, I realised there were symptoms well before I took any action (throwback to when I had cramps so bad I threw up a whole Pizza Hut buffet in the middle of Thorpe Park).
Also on a similar note – becoming comfortable with saying if something is wrong with my vulva/vagina. Saying that I’m being checked for an STD or that I have thrush or that I’m bleeding when I shouldn’t be. At the end of the day, 1 in 2 people will get an STD in their lifetime, 95% will experience a yeast infection or something similar, and sometimes your vagina just does it’s own thing. I don’t think we realise how many people experience a similar thing to us until it’s bought up.
Fertility is a bit of a touchy subject for me. I want to have a baby. I’m not fussed about a marriage or long term partner, I just want to hold my own baby in my body. And then finding out at 19 that I have endo which has the potential to stop that put a spanner in the works. My nana is one of 7, my mum is one of 9, I am one of 4 and one of 18 grandchildren. So fertility does run in the family, as well as uterine problems. I think I’ll be okay, but it is a worry for the future that we won’t be able to find out any more about until I start trying for baby.
There’s still a big stigma around having a uterine condition because of that immediate association with infertility. But when 1 in 10 uterus owners suffer with this condition, 67% are misdiagnosed, the average diagnostic period is 7-10 years (that’s potentially 120 periods of suffering), and the causes are outdated, we’ve got to do something about it. We cannot keep suffering, and we will not stay silent about it.
There is a six month period of my life that I have blocked out due the state of my mental health. I was in an abusive relationship and developed schizophrenia at the same time (they were not because of each other, although the schizophrenia made the abuse worse).
To this day, my friends don’t fully understand my side of the situation and it was brutal. Call me a stove because I was gaslit. In this same period of time I suffered my first sexual trauma.
Again, a completely unrelated event, but it contributed. If I’m honest, I kind of went insane. There’s only so much a girl can handle, and at 15, I had a full plate plus all the sides – I was just trying to do my GCSEs. After this period, my mental health continued to deteriorate but I also had some good things going for me. I can tell you what begins to happen. I told my boyfriend at the time how everything was effecting me (on another Thorpe park trip surprisingly enough) and he cried.
I didn’t understand why, so I asked him and he said “because that’s terrible and I wish I could make it go away for you.” So I guess you could say it was pretty bad.
I got better but never got rid of schizophrenia, and I still had PTSD. It’s not always as bad as the dramatized versions you see on telly. There’s this concept that if you’ve got it, all you’ll hear are voices in your head telling you to kill yourself or to self-harm. I’m not going to deny that that’s never been the case for me, but it’s also just like having people around to talk to except I might not say anything out loud. In times of panic, it feels like there’s more than one person to help me rationalise the situation and plan what to do next. Sometimes I’ll say something nasty about someone in my head and “someone” else says “there was actually no need for that, what’s your problem?” It’s something I’ve learned to live along side of, rather than trying to get rid of.
Every now and then I feel a flare up coming on and it can be quite scary. In January 2019 I dealt with quite a serious bout of period psychosis and for about 4 or 5 days I was a threat to myself and everyone around me. I literally sat in my room by myself for the most part. I had to go to work on one of the days and at the time I was working on a meat and fish counter, surrounded by massive sharp knives. I was so scared my whole shift of what I might do. Thank god the worst I did was tell a customer to “fuck off” down the phone.
The next day I woke up and it felt like there was loads of room in my head and it was eerily silent, compared to the masses of nasty and aggressive voices I’d been hearing on the days prior. I did some research and discovered that period psychosis can occur when the oestrogen levels drop and dopamine binds as a result, and with a predisposition for psychosis, I had a higher risk of it. I’m lucky that has been my only time experiencing it, but it’s definitely something that needs to be raised awareness of.
As I previously mentioned, towards the end of 2018 I realised I was struggling with mild depression. I was growing out my hair, it was dark, the relationship I was in was not helping, lots of my friends had moved away for university, my job was a bit shit (I really didn’t enjoy smelling like fish every Sunday). The problem was there was only so much I could do to help myself. Hair grows at it’s own pace. I still had six months till I left for uni. I needed to work to pay for my summer. I did dump the guy I was seeing which helped but it was still not ideal. Summer came around and I got better, but I remember about a week before I was moving out I had a massive breakdown on a night out. It had been a long time since I’d cried like that.
Moving to uni in Newcastle was the best thing that’s ever happened to my mental health. I finally had the time and facilities to do whatever I needed to do for me. I didn’t have to pretend to be in a good mood if I wasn’t because I didn’t want to talk about it. I could sit in my room and be by myself. If I wanted to eat once a day, I could, no one was going to stop me. In my first term I dealt with one serious event and 2 traumatic events. Having spent 4 years rebuilding my mental health and being at it’s peak, it’s not hard to imagine that dealing with all three of these events in the space of 2 months was like getting booted in the face. After Christmas I went into counselling through uni and was put on a waiting list for external help as well. I don’t know if you can redevelop PTSD or if it just stays with you and gets worse, but I now had new things that were bringing back to light.
In case anybody wasn’t aware, we are in a global pandemic. Suddenly, in the space of a day, everything I put in place to help me get better was gone. My aim was no longer “get better” but “don’t get worse”. It’s been really hard. I am the definition of extroverted. I have definitely gotten better because I didn’t get worse, and having nothing to do meant that I just had to sit and accept my feelings. I will continue to get better once I move back up as well.
Conversations about mental health are so important, even if they are just “look, I’m not feeling great – do you mind if we just take a walk and talk nonsense for an hour?” It doesn’t always have to be intense or leads to you going through a whole box of tissues. It’s important to be able to say how you actually are instead of acting like everything is fine. Because it really doesn’t have to be, nor does it have to be to your friends. Make use of phonelines and counsellors/therapists because it’s amazing how much it can do for you. I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t able to talk about these things with my counsellor and friends.
If you could give your younger, teenage self, ANY advice or leave her a message...
First of all, cis heterosexual men are going to be the biggest waste of time in your teenage life and do not even bother with interacting with them.
Being single is a wonderful thing and utilise every second of it to make yourself the woman you’ll become in a few years time.
Period underwear are a god send and please treat yourself to some. The pain you are getting through tampons is a red flag.
Speak to your family about your periods because they’ll be able to help, even if that help comes in the form of your mother telling you her periods were “never that bad”.
What people used to call you “weird” for is the same reason you’ll help people.
You are incredible and will do incredible things and I love you so much, even though you don’t love yourself right now.
What does WOMANHOOD mean to you?
One of my favourite musicals is Chicago. There’s a scene where Roxie (who I will be going as for Halloween btw) is doing a monologue song where she’s in a skimpy sequin dress and talking about how “they're gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose” whilst gesturing to said body parts. That physicality and expression is a big part of my femininity. It’s the make up I decorate myself with. It’s the thongs that I slip into my partner’s pocket in the car.
It’s walking into an all-male room in a pink skirt and button up shirt and knowing that I’m the most powerful one there.
It’s shaking my ass next to my mum in Zumba. It’s crying with my cousins because we’ve both go cramps at the same time. It’s the way we link arms and hold hands on our way home from a night out. It’s the way my voice sounds first thing in the morning. It’s knowing I can carry a whole human being in my womb. It’s the way my nipple piercings poke through my shirt. It’s standing on the same team as my sisters and knowing that we are a force to be reckoned with and a safe haven for each other. That’s what womanhood means to me.
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