Welcome to Bearded & Flushed
Bearded & Flushed is a partnership between Naz, Sophia Forum, 4M and Positively UK and it was funded by the Public Health England Innovation Fund.
In a series of workshops from October 2021 Bearded & Flushed provided space for 16 women aging with HIV, to discover their creative voice over a series of writing workshops focussing on living well with HIV and living through the menopause. More and more women with HIV are getting older, and experiencing menopause, but they face a double taboo of stigma and invisibility. These writing workshops gave creative expression to one of the most under spoken and under researched areas of women's lives.
The result is a life affirming collection of stories, poems, haikus and love letters by women modelling extraordinary talent, courage and wisdom to countless other women going through the menopause and living with HIV.
Following on from these workshops, we filmed individual vignettes and a short film featuring the work and stories of some of the women from the courses, directed by Tom Line.
In 2018 approximately 11,100 women of potentially menopausal age (45-56) attended for HIV care in the UK, a 5-fold increase over 10 years. Women living with HIV are more likely to be at risk of early menopause than women without HIV. There are currently an estimated 30,400 women living with HIV in the UK, of those 1,800 are undiagnosed and 19,100 are Black African Women. This project took a fresh approach to growing older with HIV.
Using peer support, sex positive language and positive psychology to build safe places, the women explored living with HIV and the menopause. Over the course of the workshops the groups grew in confidence with their writing, through games and exercises, and in the support they gave each other. Their shared experience of living with HIV and journeying through the menopause highlighted similarities and differences culturally and emotionally, which provided a rich platform to write from.
Bearded & Flushed produced two live on-line performances of their writing, one for World Aids Day 2021 and one for Valentines Day 2022 called Love Letters To Lady Parts. The impact of performing and sharing their own work to a live audience was really empowering and thought provoking. Both events were an enormous success and highlighted the immense health and wellbeing benefits of creative writing and peer support.
The Bearded & Flushed workshops were devised and facilitated by writer and actor, Maggie Saunders.
Love letter to my eyes
Love letter to my eyes
Once large and brown
now more lizard like
with folds of soft skin, wrinkled
covering up eyeballs, tired from
looking, straining, focusing
The thick lashes are gone
the almond shape is too
But now its not about seeking
a pleasing gaze, looking back at me
I just see my oldest friend
reflected in the glass
She who gets me, knows me best
the heartaches, the joys, the giddiness.
Those eyes have seen my whole life
and like a trusted old camera
recorded all the images
that now make up my memories
These eyes still see colour, light and shape
like a new-born
they see love, sorrow, anger and hope
but also discern
the ironical arch of a friend's brow or
the smiles of my baby granddaughter
Remembering that same smile on my mother's face
My eyes perceive more than optics
They are truly the windows to the soul
Letter to My Tummy
Just to let you know I hear you.
I know we are not as flat and toned as we used to be. But just think of all the things we have been through.
So we may be may soft and squidgy now and I hear you say 'don't you mean fat !!
But we have two beautiful children, no stretch marks and skin so soft and smooth.
Let's love that tummy, coz you is still yummy.
I kind of liked you when you first appeared. You had sprouted from nowhere, tiny little dark buds that were squishy and triangular. You were new, and fun, and I was excited to meet you. I was proud of you. I remember feeling smug as a bug that we had something that the boys didn’t.
Through thick and thin, we have been through some tough times together. I remember the days when I couldn’t wait for you to get bigger. In high school, I wanted to wear a bra for the sake of being able to tell my friends “I am wearing a bra”. You were too small and flat to fit into a properly cupped bra, the luxurious, eye candy bras that other girls in the dorm wore.
Even after getting pregnant, you didn’t grow much – just up to a cup B. You however had a lot of milk for my boy who refused to bottle feed. For the first eleven months of his life, you kept him healthy. You shrunk like a sunny side fried egg when I stopped breastfeeding,
Years later, I am diagnosed with HIV, yes it was a shock for both of us. I lost so much weight that you were barely there – just the dark areola on my very skinny chest. We focussed on staying alive for the first few months after starting ART.
I settled into my HIV medication, my body started feeling and getting better. Suddenly you had grown to a full cup C. You became the proudest body part I owned. Wearing sexy bras, a cleavage to show off, we have never been so pleased. Our close friend gave us the name Sugar Tits (ST). They still address us like that today.
Further down the road I gained too much weight from the sugar and junk food craving of my menopause. I decided to do something about it. I took up walking and eating healthier. A year later I have lost a stone and you have shrunk too.
We have come “Full circle”
HAIKUS & “Twitter” stories
Woe is me since HIV, my fanny is dead and ceases to be.
Shuffled off this mortal coil, rarely revived with baby oil
A book with crumpled pages
What a beautiful story of ageing wisdom
Wow! Let me read again!
Over age and undercarriage, got a blockage, try some frottage, fornication, masturbation, great sensation, find yourself and where to go Ooh la la! Libido
This body of mine in transition and change
Leakages and flushes, night sweats and sleeplessness
Towels below, flannels above, wiping the night sweats, there is no control
The agony and discomfort, frustration is all
The female body, unpredictable and fickle, yet self-serving and sustaining, life giving and affirming.
Time to rest, time to sleep, the night sweats are a coming!
Drenched out, rinsed out, gosh! when will it end, this burden of mine!
These hot flushes of mine, relentless, uncontrollable, unpredictable too
The time has come, the end is near
The flushes are easing, the heavy periods are gone
At last a time to be free from this blundersome folly
Time for rebirth and renewal of me
No more flushes, night sweats and leakages,
No more limitations or restrictions at last!
It’s time to live and to be whole again
As I catch my breath, a sigh of relief comes over me
Ease and joy return for me.
Boomf! Boomf! Boomf! If my ears were speakers, I would wake up the neighbourhood. My heart pounding powerful palpitations jolts me out of sleep. It radiates like bass, bumping me out of dreaming into a soundscape of drumming.
The internal tectonic plates are shifting again. Intense heat erupts through my body like a volcano’s rising lava. I have no control over the fiery furnace within. Its searing heat sweeps across my body like the unstoppable waves of a tsunami, it engulfs me. I lie immersed until perspiration secretes and exudes steadily through my pores.
My body oozes, becoming a landscape of mini sweat streams that gently cascade, finding the creases of my eye lids and the crevices behind my knees, inner elbows, armpits and groin. My upper lip bejewelled like morning dew before it trickles and drains behind my ears and in the folds of my jowls. The back of my neck tingles with the dampness as it runs down and pools in the nape. My body stretches starfish across the bed begging for a cold spot, hair is wet and sprawled on the pillow like seaweed. Body soaked; the heat begins the retreat.
Awakened by the furnace and attracted by the damp, insomnia sniffs the anxiety of wakefulness and the sweet smell of exhaustion and takes her opportunity. Slithering into the night-time incessantly whispering and hissing cruel tormenting utterances. She jabs at all attempts at quiet stillness; she wraps herself around the thoughts inside my head sliding into memories and future plans, goading, ridiculing and disrupting. I notice her without a welcome or rejection, I know her haunting tricks well, she may have me for now but, soon I will be back in dreamland.
These are some of the reviews from the audience and reflections from the writers.
Bearded & Flushed is a genuinely ground breaking project - allowing us to engage with and understand the experiences of older women with HIV, a group who have been historically underrepresented in research and popular culture. As a clinician I learned so much. As a perimenopausal woman, I found comfort, solidarity and hope in these stories. Thank you for a powerful and moving evening.
Dr Shema Tariq PhD FRCP (she/her)
Postdoctoral Clinical Research Fellow & Consultant in HIV/Sexual Health UCL Centre for Clinical Research in Infection and Sexual Health
This creative journey has been a revelation. That we can talk about and tackle an issue which for centuries has been such a taboo subject, in a fun, thoughtful, provocative, sexy, loud and sensitive way. All rolled into one. It was amazing to learn, to share and to celebrate my writing with my fellow sisters living with HIV and going through the menopause. I didn't know what to expect when I signed up for the workshop. But boy was I glad I did. Because I made special, practical and fun memories with a group of incredible women.
Bearded & Flushed participant
To see so many women from similar yet different backgrounds, talking openly about subjects which are usually mentioned in brief, more likely never discussed, this was refreshing and uplifting to witness. The vast array of stories, some funny, some highly charged, others emotional, but all authentic, left me wanting more.
World AIDS Day audience member
It was inspiring, it got you going. It teased it out of me. I learnt so much – I’d never heard of a haiku. It was amazing to hear other women’s voices. I enjoyed this course so much I want to do it again!
Bearded & Flushed participant
All too often, material about menopause is solely comedic, laughing at ourselves before others laugh at us, ignoring the losses AND the gains of ageing. I’m grateful to the team who created this work for acknowledging the menopause can be a vital wake-up call to the life we have yet to live,as well as a releasing of the life we have already lived. Moreover, as a researcher into the embodied experience of post-menopause; a period of dynamic transition that lasts for between a quarter and a third of most of our lives - it is heartening to see a diverse range of people talking about their own experiences. The vast majority of menopause research is on the bodies of white and heterosexual women; many bodies menopause, it is time the experience of many of us were more widely shared.
Stella Duffy, Writer
It was one of the best World AIDS Day events I have been to. What made it special was how real and relatable it was - women openly sharing both the sorry and funny parts of their menopause journey.
Aditi Sharma, Activist
The Bearded and Flushed online event showcasing the creative writing of a talented and inspiring group of women living with HIV, about their experience with menopause – was a wild ride. Uplifting, poignant, funny, sad, honest, and deeply personal, the poems, diaries and scripted dialogues explored the complicated connections between age, sexuality, HIV status, personal history, and voice. I was blown away – congratulations to all involved!
Dana Rosenfeld, PhDVisiting Researcher, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,University of Westminster
These are some of the resources that give support and information: