International Women’s Day 2023

How does it feel to be a woman? Not good. Today, every bit of me hurts

Lots of women have ships and boats named after them. But very few own them, writes Tracey Emin

Wednesday 08 March 2023 08:10 GMT
I’m much more comfortable with my tube being visible and carrying my night bag in my Fortnum & Mason upmarket tote
I’m much more comfortable with my tube being visible and carrying my night bag in my Fortnum & Mason upmarket tote (Tracey Emin)

I’ve been asked to write a few words on what it feels like to be a woman in 2023 – today it doesn’t actually feel very good.

I’ve just opened my eyes. I’m in Paris, in a beautiful giant room in Hotel Costes. It’s all very white and heavenly. I’m here at Andreas’s show – Vivienne’s husband, the man that’s been behind Vivienne [Westwood] for the last 30 years. Today is his first runway show without her; her first runway show from another world. I didn’t go to Vivienne’s funeral because I didn’t feel well enough – I promised Andreas then that I would be there for his show in Paris. The irony is that I feel more unwell today than I have in a long time.

It’s now 10.30am and I’ve been awake half the night. I’m in chronic pain – I swear to God that there’s not one single part of my body that doesn’t hurt. I tried to get up, but my night bag is full. My piss is bright orange.

I pick the bag up and hobble to the bathroom. I unplug myself and tear open the bag – two litres of urine go down the pan; some accidentally onto the floor. Suddenly, the stench hits me – it’s a fan-dangled electric toilet and it flushes on its own. I can still smell the stench and I go to get one of the small fluffy, fluffy, fluffy towels and lay it on the floor. The white fluff begins to immediately stain a pretty peachy orange.

I brush my teeth and look in the mirror. I look terrible: black sunken eyes, grey skin, dry tight lips. I pour a glass of water and take all my pills. I hate taking them – they make me feel ill. The bitter taste makes me feel bitter.

I stare into the mirror. A strong light from above illuminates every wrinkle and flaw – my body looks old. My bag looks giant today. I hate it, but most days I’m philosophical; knowing that it keeps me alive – but today I feel like it will drag me down to hell. I have an hour to get my act together and get to a very glamorous fashion show. I want to look and feel good for Andreas and the memory of Vivienne.

The pain in my hands and feet and every part of me is just too much. Just the idea of anything tight touching my body puts me into mental pain. I go to the toilet and empty my bag – the pan is a crimson red; a splash of colour in all the white, a tint of pink. I look in the mirror and spray the top of my bag with adhesive remover. I peel it back – my stoma is bleeding. I clean it with a medical wipe and then make my way to this humungous shower – it is giant, massive, the size of a small house.

Emin’s image for International Women’s Day
Emin’s image for International Women’s Day (Tracey Emin Studio)

I decide not to wash my hair, as I want to look a bit rock and roll. I take the handheld shower and start to spray ice cold water all over me. My body is starting to feel alive and responsive – I’m so tempted to wet my head, I need to get my brain into action. I turn on the hot water, then the cold, then the hot. Some of the pain starts to fade – I wrap myself up in another white giant fluffy, fluffy towel.

I usually have about a minute before the urine starts to pour out of my stoma. Sometimes it’s a small drizzle and other times it’s completely out of control. It’s like Russian roulette – I have to dry as much of myself as possible before putting on a new bag, all this now is second nature. At the beginning, I was tearful and confused – it’s hard coming to terms with a new hole in your body. My bags kept leaking and I kept making mistakes. I think it was down to the vast quantities of morphine I had to take. I felt nothing – just numbness, at the beginning.

One of my greatest golden moments was when my entire bag came off in Chanel on Bond Street: a tsunami of piss cascading down my body crashing to the champagne-carpeted floor. Everyone was lovely and understood, Chanel even sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. It was after that, that I decided to start plugging into my night bag. There is a travel bag: it’s long and big and it straps to the side of your thigh or around your ankle. When it’s full, it’s like a giant zeppelin full of piss.

I’m much more comfortable with my tube being visible and carrying my night bag in my Fortnum & Mason upmarket tote.

I started to get dressed: underwear, leggings, my favourite Westwood socks and now my dress. I stood in front of the mirror trying to zip it up – my bag was filling up and I could feel it pressing against my dress. Everything was hurting. I took my dress off it. It wasn’t going to work, my bag had been filling up with blood.

Fashion shows may only last 20 minutes, but they never start on time. I disappointedly slipped into my everyday clothes – T-shirt and skirt with elasticated waist. I tied my cashmere cardigan around me and put my Westwood coat over the top. I looked at my face in the mirror; my make-up for me was to the max – but for the fashion world it was barely there. Everything was the best that I could do.

We arrived at the Place de la Concorde stunningly early, but there was so much splendour to take in. I went backstage to see Andreas – he kissed me and said: “Darling, you made it.”

I took my seat. I was sitting between Xavier Hufkens – my Belgian gallerist – and Jean Paul Gaultier. I was in the same row as Jeff Banks, Juergen Teller and Jefferson Hack. Diagonally opposite was Anna Wintour and the Corre–Westwood clan. All the while, my tube dangled beneath my coat. I could see the blood and piss running through it as I tucked my bag under my seat.

Andreas’s show was spectacular – a triumph, classical Westwood and so inclusive. When he came out to take his bow he strode like a Saxon king; his eyes wide open, holding back the tears. Beauty and courage are there for us all.

Marriage to myself

When I first became friends with Vivienne she had a fantasy about me marrying myself. She would say: “I can see you walking down the aisle on your own, just like the young Queen Elizabeth I.” She made a beautiful wedding dress with me in mind. It’s recently been modelled by her granddaughter, Cora Corre.

I’m almost 60, I’ve achieved more in the last three years than I have in the whole of my life. I’m more content than I’ve ever been; and with all its hell and disabilities, the cancer has made me like myself so much more, and yes – now, I’d really like to marry someone like me.

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