Published by Monstrous Regiment, an independent and intersectional publishing house, So Hormonal challenges us to realise the daily trials and tribulations that hormone changes bring to people’s lives. Review by MSunnia
I read the book as I was coming to the end of a diagnostic process and wrote this review while trialing Duloxetine, an antidepressant also prescribed to those with fibromyalgia. By the time this piece comes out, I hope to have purged all traces of this failed medication from my body. At this stage, it’s worth mentioning that the book’s helpful ‘trigger warning’ section came in handy as I went through my own hormonal episode. The turbulent waves of chemical imbalances heightened my navigation into the contributors’ testimonies on pain, relationships, and desires, making this a difficult, yet affirming read.
In the first chapter, Donna Alexander situates her Irish upbringing to memories of being forced to mask her neurodiverse symptoms. Her failed attempts at being normal often resulted in sexist and ableist microaggressive reactions from others,
“My father looked at me with disgust and said, ‘Why can’t you just be normal like the other kids?’ If I wasn’t so afraid of his temper, my response would have been a nine-year-old’s version of, ‘Because I don’t have the attention span to learn something when it doesn’t interest me, because I have overwhelming anxiety attached to failure due to the constant reminders that I don’t fit into socially-constructed roles of girlhood and womanhood’. But in the moment, I just absorbed the shame, and it pickled inside me.”
Diagnosed with ADHD and Cluster Heads (CH) in her adult life, Alexander discerns that, “popular opinion is that these are male disorders”. Due to social and medical sexism, women and girls are rarely diagnosed with conditions such as neurodiversity. Her ironic use of the Jerry Hall quote is a critique of socially constructed roles that demand women be “a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom”. Indeed, as most disabled women fail to live up to these unreasonable expectations of femininity, they are discriminatorily categorised as failing their gender, and are often considered as ‘un-womanly’.
Following the recurring gender theme, Alexia Pepper de Caires hinges on the removal of her ovaries (as part of the NHS cancer treatment) to critique the UK health system. Caires laments the lack of holistic and integrated care which saw her mental health illness deteriorate as she underwent surgery, intensive chemical treatments and post-operative recovery. Like other pieces in the book, this heartfelt account of interactions with medical professionals, brought me to realise the extent to which our increasingly privatised healthcare system has become, uncaring. Incidentally, this lack of care reinforces experiences of stigma and discrimination among women, queers and people of colour.
In a different context, James Hudson writes about his decision to stop transgender hormone therapy. Here, we come to realise that Hudson’s prior motive for starting hormone therapy was grounded in his desire to avoid being misgendered, or more plainly – to stop experiencing transphobia. His experience speaks against the flawed understanding that the legitimate way to exist as trans is through the use of hormones, gender-reassignment surgery, or both. Hudson challenges us to broaden our perspectives on the diverse ways that trans people choose to express their identities. In that respect, the book’s representation of complex queer and trans health experiences makes it a gratifying read. Other essays, such as Lj Gray’s introspection on non-binary identity and living with polycystic ovary syndrome, and Maya Posch’s experience of puberty as an intersex person, further add to the intersectional depth of the anthology.
The collection which comprises thirty-six essays, occasionally left me hanging with a feeling of incompletion. They felt primarily constructed ‘to educate’ the public about hormones. Indeed, at the end of each chapter are what co-editor Emily Horgan writes in her introduction as “suggestions for what you can do next”. These were a list of websites and organisations which readers could access to gain further information or support on the issues covered in the essays. With a list of references at the end, it is a thoroughly researched literary piece, albeit reinforcing the ‘need to educate’ the feel of the book. The anthology repeatedly exposes the varied and intricate ways marginalised people are traumatised by medical systems. Often, these read as transnational, humorous and diverse stories of struggles, triumphs, and notwithstanding the realities of living with chronic illness. As such, the book can be read as a social and political commentary on health inequalities. However, not explicitly so, as most essays constructively explore the contributors’ personal and cultural experiences of hormone change.
Despite the systemic critiques of healthcare, medical intervention is considered as valid, important and helpful. Sigrid Nielsen illustrates that medical support brought her painful periods to an end. While Rita Faire had a mostly positive experience with medicines, her account denotes that their effects may alter over time. Like many stories in this collection, Faire’s essay further prompts us to query the lack of research and medical development in reproductive health. More broadly, the effects of hormones on bodies, identity, how we relate to each other and the choices we make are interwoven into the political inequalities that we exist in. The authors bravely share their personal stories which in turn lead us to asking questions such as: Why do medical professionals know so little about women’s bodies? How come Black women suffer the most within the NHS? Why must queer and trans people struggle so much when it comes to reproductive health?
Contributor Annabel Sowemimo observes that,“By default, conditions that affect under-represented groups have a history of being neglected – for example, the slow progress in sickle-cell disease research, a condition which mostly affects those of African descent, or the struggle for effective antiretroviral drugs for HIV, which predominantly affects Black and queer communities. Male, white and cis-gendered bodies have been presented as dominant, the archetype, and everything else inferior.”
Whether it’s through politically thoughtful pieces such as Sowemino’s or Hudson’s personal account of hormone therapy, So Hormonal is a publication with an agenda. It defies us to examine the ways in which institutions such as the NHS become extending arms of violence thereby inflicting harm on marginalised communities. This new publication is an interesting comparison to Rianna Walcott’s (also a contributor) Colour of Madness (2018), another anthology with an agenda. Both books advocate for a just healthcare system. So Hormonal does so by relying primarily on testimonial narratives to make its point. The contributors’ relatable stories will inspire readers to think about their own cultural experiences of interacting with healthcare institutions.
As I reflect on my recent experience of hormone change, I cannot help but relate it to the broader social and medical misunderstandings of chronic conditions. In that respect, So Hormonal invites the public to think about how interactions with hormones intersect with social and political issues that exist in society.
So Hormonal: A Collection Of Essays On Hormones is edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson. Copies are available from the Monstrous Regiment website priced £11.99