Words: Rosa Gilder (She/Her)
For 7 days a month, I lie on the sofa, eating copious amounts of sweets and complaining to my boyfriend (who I’ve taught to get me a hot water bottle and a cup of tea when I feel like this) about a tummy ache. For me, the monthly release of blood from my uterus is a slight annoyance, resulting in the occasional crime scene on the sheets and the swallowing of a couple of painkillers. However, as a trainee doctor friend pointed out, there is ‘no consistent period for everyone’: crippling menstrual pain, PMDD (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder), breakouts, low sex drive etc., are monthly occurrences for many people. On average, periods take up 10 years of your life. So, why has menstrual health long been a neglected topic?
My early memories of periods tend to include embarrassment, from the sloppily taught sexual health classes to bleeding through whitewashed jeans. After trying to hide my periods from my parents – washing dirty bed linen and using loo roll in place of sanitary pads – my mum eventually showed me the magic of ‘Always Ultra’ pads.
Chatting to a friend about first period stories, she said, ‘my mother’s aunt, a 70-year-old Jewish woman who I’ve met three times, sent a card saying, “Welcome to Womanhood”‘. This equation of periods with womanhood draws a box around “the female experience”. Writing to Ruby Cup, a period company whose survey directly ends if you ticked male, Myriam, a transgender male, explained, ‘not all women have periods and not everyone who has periods are women’. Trans, non-binary, genderfluid and nonconforming people might get/not get periods too. Some cisgender women have periods, and some don’t; birth control and other medication, menopause, illness and hysterectomies all affect your cycle. In 2019, Always, removed the Venus symbol from their product branding after receiving tweets questioning why they ‘have the female symbol on their sanitary products?’. Just from researching this article, I encountered a huge number of gendered pronouns. It’s not necessary to gender body parts, bodily functions or to label menstruation-related products as only for feminine hygiene. Unlike gender, menstruation is about your body – your uterus.
Moving away from the very problematic linkage between periods and womanhood, my friend’s story made me question why I felt coyness surrounding an entirely natural occurrence. We are currently fighting a culture of silence surrounding menstruation. Tanya Barron, Chief Executive of Plan International, notes that ‘as a society, we obsessively euphemize, belittle and silence menstruation,’ with silly period euphemisms, including ‘visit from Aunt Flo’, ‘On the Rag’ and ‘Lady Business’. This stems from our inability to discuss periods openly. It wasn’t until 1985 that Courteney Cox was the first to say the word, period, on an American TV commercial, and even with today’s more open dialogue, people squirm at the red liquid used in product advertisements. Considered controversial, Kiran Gandhi, who ran the London Marathon whilst free bleeding, put it beautifully: ‘I just wanted it to not matter. But it does matter in our society, right?’
It took a long time for humans to determine precisely what menstruation was. For the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, period blood caused worldly catastrophes; in Papua New Guinea, the Mae Enga tribe believed period blood made men ill, and Hippocrates declared that women need menstruation to flush out impurities. Despite the introduction of painful-looking sanitary belts, this ancient world mindset continued into the Victorian Era, with menstrual hysteria widely written about in society. Religion also reverberated negative, unclean portrayals of periods, with cramps viewed as a reminder of Eve’s original sin.
Thankfully, the period tides are slowly turning, and, in Western culture, at least, periods are slowly becoming normalised and open for public discussion. As a result, we have better access than ever to a diverse range of period products – menstrual cups, reusable pads, absorbent disposable pads and tampons – as well as greater menstrual awareness online.
However, we are a long way from breaking the ongoing stigma, period poverty, gender inequalities and shaming that menstruating people experience globally. Worldwide, 500 million people still cannot manage their periods safely, hygienically, and embarrassment free. In countries such as Nepal and India, period-related myths keep those menstruating from their education. TikTok showcased the widely ineffective sex education curriculum a bit closer to home. The funny yet incredibly alarming viral audio ‘Wait a second. Oh, it’s not actually on your vagina?’, highlighted the ignorance and misguided notions surrounding sanitary pads.
Conversations about menstruation should occur openly, with engagement from all genders. Split by sex, my sexual education involved sniggering at dildos and watching cringy videos about that time of the month. Whilst technically part of the national curriculum, almost 15% of young people say they were taught nothing about menstruation. That means no chats were had about period science, symptoms and bodily change or how to prepare for monthly blood flow. Although children today are a Google search away from accurate information, this has silenced menstruation into a few clicks rather than an open discussion.
For the last few years, I have tried to be open about my emotions during my period. Yet the thought of outwardly proclaiming that my period is to blame for my mood swings fills me with embarrassment. Still, I cringe when my pad makes a crinkling sound or when I bleed through my pyjamas. The more we discuss periods and dispel myths and speculations, the more we can move toward general acceptance of menstruation. So, next time you’re menstruating, remember that 800 million people are too.