When we’re young, we always want to be older. If we’re five, we say we’re nearly six. If there are adult clothes around, we will dress in them. Makeup, that goes all over the face. But when our friends start getting their periods, we want to start ours too. We want to be part of the club. We want to feel like adults.
Except when we finally do get our periods, it’s safer not to talk about it. The boys taunt us. As soon as we do something they don’t like, we’re ‘on the rag’. They shame us with our own biology, and to protect ourselves, we don’t talk about our ruby-coloured lady fountain whenever male ears are around. That leaves us with uneducated men who scrunch up their faces and utter “ew” whenever a sanitary item falls from a purse or a woman complains of stomach pain. This juvenile squeamishness isn’t helpful.
My own shame led me to hide my sanitary pads. Clean ones were firmly zipped in bag pockets. Used ones were carefully hidden in the rubbish so as not to be seen or piled up in various places in my bedroom until I could find some litter to wrap around my scarlet shame. Hoarding of these items came to my mother’s attention when she was cleaning the house and asked me why I did it. I had no answer I was willing to voice. Make no mistake, I didn’t learn this negative attitude towards a natural bodily function at home.
Society had made it clear to me that being a menstruating woman was a bad thing. Newspapers endlessly print stories about the horrors of premenstrual syndrome, endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. TV shows like soap Eastenders run stories of a women with PMS so severe it turns them into domestic abusers, perhaps beating their partners on a monthly basis. And in the pages of fiction, books rarely touch on the realities of what goes on behind a bathroom door.
Men are advised to treat women at that ‘time of the month’ like they’re an infectious Typhoid Mary to avoid becoming a victim of their pain-induced wrath. In the 21st century we shouldn’t be encouraging women into locking themselves away from the world, in imposed confinement, for the duration of their period or after childbirth. Isolation and ostracism isn’t the answer, though this sadly still happens in many parts of the world.
Depriving women of access to clean, safe and reasonably priced sanitary products is depriving them of dignity, education and good health. Withholding pads from prisoners isn’t a form of rehabilitation. Whether access means tax-free or entirely free sanitary products is a discussion that needs to be had.
You rarely see articles about how men can support the women in their lives at a time when they may be feeling vulnerable. No, they’re told to run for dear life, to save themselves. Stereotypical ideas of the personality of a woman experiencing her period are harmful to the relationship between men and women. And advising men to abandon women during this time, which affects each woman differently, can only damage that relationship. It’s well known that male employers are prejudiced against hiring women for the possibility that they’ll take days off due to their period and the chance they’ll become pregnant, disappear on maternity leave, perhaps never to return.
We need to sweep away the stigma, harmful myths and taboos surrounding normal bodily functions with education. If talking to men about about periods were to become socially acceptable they’d develop more understanding and would hopefully be less likely to mock us. (Period jokes are rarely funny, mostly because they’re told by clueless men.) Knowledge is power. Enabling fathers to talk to their daughters on the subject without embarrassment can only be a good thing.
Instead of solely focusing on the negative, perhaps we need to be reminded that periods are an indicator of fertility – something which used to be celebrated with rites, idols and festivals. (And I speak as someone who doesn’t have a good time with her period.) We need a female equivalent of the Japanese penis festival, Kanamara Matsuri, where we can learn about the history of the tampon and laugh at the strange ideas people used to have about periods. That’s why Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28) and #MenstruationMatters are invaluable.
Image credit: GustafBrundin/Getty