“We need a kind of grace from people in order to do it at all, let alone to sustainably do it over time. If you’re not going to get that, there is a big limit on how much you can do.” Credit: Archie Bongiovanni

Writers Heather Corinna and Kimberly Dark got together to discuss recent writing, menopause, body image, and more this summer while west coast resident Kimberly was in Chicago visiting her son and his family. The pandemic made it difficult for them to host a public event, so they decided to share their conversation with Reader readers. Both Dark and Corinna have long been involved in making the personal political (and vice versa). Their new books feature stories of body sovereignty and moving through a world that marginalizes certain kinds of sexualities, ages, and genders.  

Kimberly Dark is the author of Damaged Like Me (AK Press, 2021), a collection of memoir-style essays about love, harm, and transformation. She’s a sociologist, storyteller, and activist focused on helping people reclaim their power as social creators—to remember that we are creating the world, even as it creates us. This requires personal reflection and resistance as well as organized systemic change.

Heather Corinna is the Chicago-based author of What Fresh Hell Is This? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You (Hachette Go!, 2021), an inclusive, intersectional, and also occasionally exhausted perimenopause survival guide-slash-memoir. What Fresh Hell is This? also includes some choice quotes from Dark on the bullshit of social hierarchies, beauty standards, and the difficulties of sleeping with a menopausal partner. They’re also the founder and director of the online sexuality and relationships education clearinghouse and organization Scarleteen, and a nearly lifelong activist and educator. 

Heather Corinna: There are so many areas where our books and the things we each write about cross over, but trauma is definitely something I want to talk about with you, including that trauma and menopause are so rarely discussed but so often involved. I feel like my book is one of the few that talks about both. Even finding information in order to be able to include research on how they interact in the book was very difficult. Obviously, some of that has to do with how trauma is a relatively new framework, but part of that is not about it being a new framework at all, but about the things that you write a lot about, especially the silencing of trauma, and how we don’t talk about trauma because it makes people uncomfortable.

Kimberly Dark: I think it’s funny, too, that there’s so little discussion about menopause and trauma, because it just feels like a foregone conclusion that non-male people will have so little credibility! If we lack “maleness,” we are forced to conform to so many standards in order to have basic credibility, basic humanity, and all of what we may have achieved through beauty or money or accomplishment is revocable with age! Not only do we begin with unattainable and unsustainable standards of appearance and achievement, we are all set to time out.

I took my teenage son to the opera once and we were watching the people in the dress circle—mostly older couples in their full-on male-female-rich-people drag. The women were in fur coats and the men in tuxedos and they walked like old people, but my son said, “Why do those women all look so young? But they’re not!” We discussed the pursuit of youth through all of that cosmetic surgery—and how it wasn’t needed for the men! The thing is, the illusion they’re trying to create is partially successful, because we know they’ve tried. Like, we know that there’s an effort being made, even though you don’t believe they’re actually 30 or 40 years old. The effort to conform counts for something even when the conformity is questionable. And what would lead a person to the pain and expense of those efforts, if not trauma? But we have normalized these efforts, rather than just allowing everyone the credibility of their own humanity.

Kimberly Dark Credit: Courtesy Kimberly Dark

HC: You bring up having to show people that you’re “trying” with aging and appearance, and it makes me think about some menopause experiences and cultural narratives. There’s not a lot of room made, and not a lot of cultural empathy, for people who have a bad experience and menopause. It’s like people think we’re having a bad time because we’re not “trying” hard enough or something. Or, if you’re having a bad experience, you’re supposed to try and pretend that you’re not: to just put it away, just shut up. Don’t talk about it. Don’t tell anybody. Just smile through the blood, sweat, and tears, often quite literally. You also have to be trying everything—no matter the cost, side effects, or risks to your health—to make it better. Right? Like, and maybe if you try everything, and still have a hard time, then maybe people will have some empathy or sympathy for you, but you can’t just be like, “Well, fuck it. I’m having a bad time. I’m gonna have a bad time then, I guess, until it’s over.” Just like you can’t be like, “Well, fuck it. I’m getting old. I’m just gonna get fucking old. And I’m just gonna look old.” You have to at least try not to be old, look old. You’re not allowed to just be old and embrace it.

KD: I mean, it’s the same thing with all of the appearance conformity, isn’t it? Like, you know, if you’re fat, and you choose to wear orange and pink, then you’re a rebel, right? Or maybe just an idiot for not understanding the rules!  But you know, if you only wear navy blue and black, at least you’re trying to camouflage your fatness; you don’t get full credibility, but at least you’re playing the game. These are capitalist standards that keep us buying, too. I don’t think we should forget that. So, even through menopause, you’re supposed to reject the shifts in your body’s behavior. What if we embrace that sleep may have different patterns, and that thinking may have different patterns? 

We could say, “Wow, what can the culture gain from this different way of the mind working and drawing connections, the different ways that sleep patterns may not just be during the night, but maybe sometimes during the day as well? What can the culture gain from these different ways of seeing?” The response is, “Well, hang on, you can’t sleep differently, because how will you get to work in the morning? And how will you stay productive?” So much about respectable appearance is about remaining employable and marriageable. No one’s actually mindful of our well-being as we age; we stay productive in a very narrow way.

HC: Which is why of course, they’re happy to make more products for us to buy in menopause, but not to use their capital to adapt the culture in ways they can in order to actually accommodate us as people.

Damaged Like Me is available from AK Press. Credit: Courtesy Kimberly Dark

KD: A big thing that I hope readers get from Damaged Like Me is the idea that people who see things differently have something profound to contribute to the culture. [We miss out] by not paying attention to the wisdom that Black women have gained from having to be vigilant about every aspect of the culture; they actually have something really important to give. The same is true for people who are aging as well. It’s just so hard to not to see folks as, like, timing out, as opposed to having something different to offer.

HC: Right? Even when you look at so much of the common language around all of this, it’s all so ableist and so ageist. It’s so normalized for people to talk about the way that our minds and our bodies change as decline rather than difference; as loss rather than change. I’ve been no exception! Over the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of work unpacking this kind of stuff in myself. I talked about some of it in What Fresh Hell Is This?, particularly with my brain. I spent a lifetime attached to being smart in this very specific way. I’ve been very afraid of the way that my brain was changing, and I was absolutely seeing it as decline and then Professor Sharon Lamb—in her perfect, strong but gentle way—called me in on that in her interview [for my book] so beautifully, thank goodness, you know, right and be like, it’s just, it’s just different, right? Of course it is. But when you listen to the way that people—we!—talk about it and absorb all that ableism and ageism, it’s all full of shame and embarrassment, it makes it so difficult to find any value in those changes. How can you find any value in them when you’re ashamed and embarrassed and in hiding, and you are not going to tell anybody about them, because you need to pretend that they’re not happening? That keeps you from finding value in those things and saying, “This is different now, what’s here for me now?,” instead of “What have I lost?”

KD: You know, this could be a very powerful first step when we think about how to heal from these kinds of ideas. That’s all they are: ideas that we’re supposed to maintain a certain way of being, and we’re supposed to maintain a certain appearance. 

Just notice what’s happening! Oh, the culture is doing its job to maintain the status quo. I really like to not make it a problem that this is how culture behaves, like it’s supposed to behave to teach you the ways of those in your family and community so when you’re little, you know how to fit in. That’s actually a good thing for a culture to do. The problem comes when the conformity is in service of capitalism or in service of greed, and the hierarchy of appearance and identity. 

If we accepted the function of culture, we might also be able to question the parts that don’t work. But because we don’t even see that culture is influencing us, we lose the ability. You’re right. People just hide things. “Oh, that makes people uncomfortable. And I’m not supposed to talk about that.”

I had an experience just the other day with my grandson at the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum. In the women’s room, a child saw me and felt surprise and blurted—as kids sometimes do—”she’s so big!” I was engaged in a conversation with a friend as we washed our hands, but the child was loud and clearly referencing me. If I were alone, I may have engaged directly, but instead, I just heard the conversation play out. The mom said, “Shh, yes, that lady is very tall.” And the child interjected, “No mom, she’s tall AND fat!” They left quickly, I’m sure hoping that I didn’t hear. In the past, when I’ve engaged children, I’ve said something like, “Oh yeah, I’m really big. Look, this is one of the ways bodies can be. Isn’t that cool?” In one way, the mom was not wrong to redirect the child’s comment and thereby erase fatness because fat is synonymous with insult for most. But also, those practices need to be disrupted and I try to do it as kindly as possible. I definitely want to disrupt the message that it’s not OK to be fat. Disruption is an important part of healing too. Just acknowledging the role of culture and conformity are important. It becomes possible to say, yes, menopause has been hard for me. And aging is difficult because people act like I’m invisible and maybe even stupid. Let’s talk about it.

Heather Corinna Credit: Courtesy Heather Corinna

HC: How can we learn to be and keep trying to risk being vulnerable in the culture that we exist in? When people say (and so many of them do) “Why didn’t I know anything about menopause going into it?”—one of the big reasons that people don’t talk about it is because in order to talk about it, people often have to make themselves vulnerable, sometimes very vulnerable, depending on their experience. And here we are, existing in this culture in which there’s the kind of silencing that happens with things that people decide aren’t things you are supposed to discuss in “polite” company or culture, things you’re supposed to be ashamed of. That list is long, but it absolutely includes menarche, menopause, and everything in between on that particular uterine or estrogenic continuum, especially if anything that happens isn’t tidy, neat, quiet. Like, if you couldn’t bring it to a PTA meeting, well? We also live in this culture that’s really mean, violent, hurtful, and toxic when it comes to these kinds of tender, vulnerable places, and these things about us that make people so uncomfortable. 

So, especially with things like fatness or things like menopause, where we’re afraid that if we talk about them, people may use our vulnerability to hurt us, and we know that: we usually learned it the hard way when we were kids. That’s a barrier too, but here we both are, knowing that we need to write, that we need to connect with each other, that we and others need to do all that to process our own pain and to heal and to grow but—wow.

KD: Yeah, vulnerability is a big step. I often remind people: you don’t have to be a warrior on behalf of these topics every day. I can have a conversation with a stranger in a public restroom about being fat on one day, but another day, I might just be tired, or triggered because I have a history of very real trauma about this topic. Things shift for us over time too—and not always in the direction of progress! For instance, I thought I had figured out the whole body acceptance thing in my 30s, but then, at some point in my 40s, I was naked, getting into a hot tub, and looked down and thought, What? Things have moved! I realized that we’re not ever done with body acceptance. We have to keep doing it when the body changes or ages and then do it again some more. We are constantly navigating vulnerability.  

HC: That’s a good reminder. There’s also the credibility problem that you and I have talked about before. Like, I’ve been thinking to myself lately: Do I just keep setting myself up for being endlessly considered not credible because I keep being so open? I mean, I don’t know if it’s even a choice for me. I’m a bad liar, and I think I’m almost compulsively open. But I think about intentional choices I’ve made without realizing the gravity or context of them, or how people would be—like being honest about being a sexual assault survivor while working in sex education that included supporting other survivors and anti-violence education, as a field back when it was absolutely considered something survivors just couldn’t do. We still are highly stigmatized in these fields, in every field, but back then as opposed to now, I took massive credibility hits in my work in sex ed, in my writing, in educating and supporting young people and advocating for other survivors, in a very public way. People would very publicly say, outrightly because I had experienced trauma, that I couldn’t possibly be good at this, that I was “too damaged” to do work in or around anything I had lived with. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so vile.

And I’m starting to get similar feelings around the way I’ve talked about my menopause experience. It’s not the same thing, but I do think there’s a link around badness and trauma and not having the “right” story or experience. I’m often talking about menopause right now without that kind of hero’s journey where I can say I went through hell but I have come through it—cue the trumpets!—stronger and better. I’m like, “Dude, I’m a mess. I came in a huge mess. I’ve been a mess in it. I’m still in it. And I’m still a fucking mess a lot of the time. I’m not happy and I’m not feeling good. I’m not a hero.” I don’t have the right kind of story. So, like, I’m not very credible, right? Because it’s like, if you didn’t make this experience full of magic for yourself, right, how can you make it full of magic for other people? I’m like, “Well, I’m not offering magic!” I’m not made of magic, just regular crummy people stuff like everyone else. But it is that thing again where if you are going through or went through any kind of trauma, or shit is or was bad for you, you have or will have a credibility problem, because only people who have not been hurt or harmed are credible. And if you’re vulnerable and open about your trauma or other bad stuff, you will doubly have a credibility problem. Especially because I think people think that means that you must be extra damaged, if you don’t know well enough to hide your wounds like a smart animal and act like it didn’t happen. Something must be really fucking wrong with you, if your shit is shitty and you’re putting it out there for other people to see.

KD: Yes to all of that! I think we’re addicted to the hero’s journey and I think that it’s a very male model. There’s a quest and some people thwart you and some help you and then you come through because of your own ingenuity! A really great model if somebody is doing your laundry and cooking your meals. This is the thing that I talked about in the introduction of Damaged Like Me is that we need stories that highlight complexity, because, look, the hero’s journey story is useful sometimes, right? Like, if you just need a little boost of inspiration, a simple story is super. The classic coming-out-gay story is like this, I think: I felt bad about myself and I was hiding and then I told the truth and people respected me and loved me. And now I have the courage to be myself. That’s OK. But it’s not a story that can transform the culture that oppresses people for divergent sexuality. It’s not a story that actually gives us insight into the human experience that is deep and complex and profound. 

When you said you’re not selling magic, it’s like: there’s something beyond magic, isn’t there? And that’s it from my mind. It is: how do we actually mine the experience of being human, for our own sake and the sake of others, and for the diversity that it offers? We have a culture that has never accepted that bodies are different, that people’s experiences in them are different. Because again, capitalist culture wants to sell you conformity: here’s the elixir that makes you conform and end up somewhere near the top of the heap. The fact is, some people are going to experience almost nothing going through menopause, and some people are going to experience great challenges and troubles and others probably, I don’t know their stories, but some people probably see lights and into the future or something. None of it’s bad, just different. We have to get comfortable talking about bodies. I’m glad you brought up sexual abuse too—still can’t talk about it and have credibility. Perpetrators know: it is not as bad to harm someone as it is to have survived harm.

HC: We normalize doing damage, but the same is absolutely not true for being damaged or being harmed. And we certainly are unwilling as a culture to normalize being a person who has been harmed unless you’re willing to be a martyr, of course, and you know, then you have to be the right kind of martyr at the the right time for the right people: it’s very, very, very specific, and there’s only a very limited number of spots.

More from Heather Corinna can be found at heathercorinna.com. Kimberly Dark is at kimberlydark.com.

KD: Yeah, you know, the title essay of Damaged Like Me talks about an experience I had going to speak with a group of psychologists and psychiatrists—a conference focused on child sexual abuse. I was representing a small nonprofit I cofounded, GenderPeace, which provided education about these topics, and about how we might transform the way we think about these things in order to create an environment that’s not hospitable to those things. I was in my 20s at the time, and inexperienced with psychology as a field of study. I didn’t understand, at first, that they were going to see me as a “patient” or a “client” because I spoke openly about my incest experience and actually claimed my experience as a site of wisdom. For them, it was absolutely impossible to have endured those things and still have anything incredible or worthwhile to offer. They could not see me as a colleague from another field of study and activism and instead, felt entitled to ask me a string of personal questions that no psychologist would answer on that same stage. Well, of course, no psychologist could’ve admitted to having those experiences either.  That was now more than 20 years ago, but I don’t feel like we’ve come very far with regard to how people use lived experience as part of their credibility.

HC: I think that one of the reasons that we like each other so much comes down to how open we both are in our work, even with very personal, vulnerable things that make people very uncomfortable.

KD: You know, and I want to say like, I respect you for that. And I think that these are respectable traits and skills that are not always acknowledged as such, right? Like, I think that sometimes people want to say that the kind of openness that we use in our writing or speaking or teaching is a result of damage, right. It’s like oversharing. I have this ongoing conversation with people who say, “Your writing is very confessional.” 

I usually say, “Oh, no, no, you’re mistaken actually. It’s revelatory. I’m revealing things that were previously concealed from you in the architecture of everyday life.” Isn’t it interesting that both confession and revelation are religious terms? Confession is also a thing you do with police. When you’ve murdered somebody you might confess. But what I’m actually doing is revelatory, about the culture around us. And hopefully, that helps us make better choices. “Confessional” is almost always an insult. It assumes you have concealed something you want to unburden. The fact is that not everyone has the skill of revelation. Not everyone has the skill and the ability, because there’s a fortitude that people like you and I have that allows us to give the specific gifts we give. I think that it is good to expect respect for that. Yeah, even if it’s not forthcoming for people.

HC: And with respect, I think we should also be extended a certain gentleness around it, right? Because it is so vulnerable, and it does ask so much of us. We need a kind of grace from people in order to do it at all, let alone to sustainably do it over time. If you’re not going to get that, there is a big limit on how much you can do. Because at a certain point, if not, you’re going to have to either take big breaks from that kind of sharing or just plain break. You know, I kept an online journal for almost a decade. There. There it is, there’s my confession, I’ve made it, I feel better. But I bet you know, as anybody who kept one can tell you, like you did, if you were really very earnest, and there were times that you did it, and then you had to stop. And a lot of it had to do with, you know, did more people encroach and violate boundaries, or did more people make you a little protective bubble of space and grace? There are authors and artists who live in small towns where the people there are very protective of them: whose neighbors make that bubble for them so they can exist and do what they do safely. We all need that kind of psychic and social bumper to be really open in big ways with so many people.

KD: I hope for that. Maybe we can do it for each other a bit. Friendships and alliances in this work are very important. I’ve spent the last 20-some years doing a lot of programs at colleges and universities. Some of those audiences are excited to have me and really engage deeply with my work. Sometimes though, they’re hostile audiences, chanting “feminazi” in the back of the room. The point is, often when I go to a campus, I’m not sure which it’s going to be. We have to find ways to take care of ourselves. Sometimes I am more guarded than others. I have a friend who always reminds me—when I’m going into something that is potentially hostile toward me—“just remember, they don’t know what your A game is.” You give them whatever you need to do. I think it’s really good advice. My C game is still good and even great if it helps me take care of myself.

What Fresh Hell is This? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You> is out now from Hachette Go, a division of Hachette Books. Credit: Courtesy Heather Corinna

HC: Absolutely. While we’re talking about forging connections and alliances, there’s a lot to talk about there in the menopause sphere, too. Menopause can be very isolating, and one of the things that both anecdote and broad research shows us is that one very big help for people in menopause is to build community and to talk to other people going through it. 

But we live in this world that we live in. And when we’re in something where we feel—where we are!—extra vulnerable, especially something in which there’s any kind of cultural shame, and there can be so much here. It’s really hard for a lot of people to even brave trying to talk to each other. When I was doing research for the book, I lurked on a lot of menopause support groups. “Support group” is a really weird term for some of them, because many were not even remotely supportive, or weren’t supportive of a lot of people in them, especially people on the margins. They often looked and felt like the worst parts of middle school. There were people talking who seemed to be having a good time, but so many of the things that those people were saying would prop up or comfort that one group of people while bashing or shaming another. Or the group talk would presume that certain groups of people weren’t there who probably (or when I was there lurking, absolutely) were there: queer people, nonbinary or trans people, disabled people, childfree people, people for whom diet and anti-fat culture is toxic. Or some groups or unmoderated conversations in them would normalize some really awful things, like verbal abuse in families or relationships.

It’s great to know that community and talking to other people in this is something that helps. But again, when you’re really vulnerable is certainly the time that you need people, but it’s also the scariest time to reach out and try and find people, especially with something like this. Even though everyone else is also vulnerable, that doesn’t mean that everyone is keeping that in mind. For some folks, it can mean they’re at their worst. Like, in some ways it can be a best time to connect with others, but it can also be one of the most dangerous because we’re so easily hurt and we can so easily do harm, too.

KD: It’s interesting to think about who a support group excludes. Support is not all equal! For instance, a group might be trying to support each other to feel better, but still uphold cultural norms and standards. Or a group might actually be trying to revise cultural norms and standards, and the latter, of course, is the most useful, and the most interesting, given the fact that our bodies are going to keep changing and the culture needs revision. This is like the difference between body positivity and body liberation. The body positivity movement is fueled by capitalism and the desire to sell more products, and to let more people into the club called Beauty. The aim is to actually think of yourself as fitting into the cultural norms and standards, versus the fat liberation/body liberation movement, which is focused on improving access to credibility and humanity for all people. Regardless of how you look or what you buy or how you behave. Some people might be eager to take any support they can find for menopause, without thinking this through.

I think a lot of times people don’t even believe that true body acceptance actually exists, that there are people who are real, and that they’re actually living better lives. It’s true though! Your book is contributing to that knowledge, that there are other ways to see menopause, and there are people who are actually not just imagining another way, but living it. This small world where people have inherent worth, and know their bodies are to be celebrated is real, and also it is encased in the broader culture, the one that wants us to hate ourselves for profit. And that is always going to place women’s experiences as less than men’s and then nonbinary folks are like not even on the map. So yeah, of course, we’re always interacting with that broader world. But that small one, where sovereignty is real? Holy shit, we’ve got to nurture that one. Yeah.