Feminist Friday: Periods

Image via The Period Store
Image via The Period Store

I don’t actually remember how old I was when I started my period. I definitely don’t remember the exact day or what that first period was like, the way girls always do in books. But I must’ve been 11 or 12, because I know I’d started before I left middle school.

We hit a certain point—around 5th grade or so—when lots of conversations became about “menstruation” and what the hell that might mean. A few of us had been talked to or handed literature by our parents about periods. And it was a right of passage for us—my friends and I spent days and hours obsessing over whether we were developing breasts, talking about what it would be like to have a period. Even those of us who hadn’t gotten them yet carried around at least a pad in their purse or backpack “just in case.”

But that pad falling out of my purse was always a nightmare possibility. I remember dropping my purse once, the contents spilling onto the ground. The girl behind me, who wasn’t one of my close friends, noticed the pad. Her eyes got a little bigger. “Did you start,” she whispered to me. I blushed, told her not yet, but that I thought I would soon.

Once my period actually started, there were all sorts of difficult waters to navigate. What if I got blood on my clothes? How would I know when it stopped? How would I get myself into the bathroom with a pad without someone seeing? If I only carried my purse to the bathroom a few days out of the month, everyone would know what that meant! And somehow, having everyone know that I was on my period was just as bad as having people think that I was too undeveloped to get it yet.

Because periods are negatively pathologized.

Among some useful information about what was actually happening to my body was lots of social stigma and confusion. I was made to feel as though symptoms of PMS and PMDD were normal, everyday occurrences, when in fact those are medical disorders present in only a fraction of menstruating women. I was told that severe physical and psychological symptoms were normal, and as a consequence it was years before I sought the medical treatment that I needed to make my periods more bearable.

And that’s only here, that’s only my period.

Across the world, girls endure more difficulty than I can imagine connected with their periods. While I have the option of walking half a block and choosing from a multitude of disposable pads and tampons and/or ordering and using reusable cups or pads, that is not an option in many places.  Girls miss school, women miss work. They have to use unsanitary materials to catch the period blood. They are ostracized.

There are a lot of conversations going on about periods right now. Women are protesting taxes on sanitary products. New organizations are helping women and girls across the world gain access to sanitary products.

But we still have a long, long way to go.

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42 Comments

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  1. I remember my first period, I was nearly 13, it was Mother’s Day and I was at the beach with my dad… My mum (my parents, really, incl my stepmum) were always open about things and I’ve been the same with my daughter. She started puberty a couple of years ago and she’s been devouring books about puberty. She got her first period back in June (she’s nearly 12) and she was staying at a friend’s for weekend, didn’t tell anyone, just got her pads and did her stuff. She sent me a text the next day, saying ‘Oh I got my period yesterday’. When she came home a day later she was more excited to tell us about a boy she liked sitting next to her at the school assembly than about her period.
    On the one hand, I felt sad and slightly unneeded, on the other hand I felt proud of my daughter for the way she handled it, clearly we’d prepared her well for that eventuality.
    In 2011 I was working a conference and I asked a friend who was on the staff with me if she had any painkillers. Another lady who was working with us asked what was wrong with me. I told her that I had a sore back because of period pain and she did this shocked face, and told me that there were things people should not talk about in public. That woman has had kids and her reaction to my really not graphic comment makes me worry for her daughter when her time comes.

    You are right, we are lucky, but there is still so much stigma around periods. My daughter won’t change pads at school, in case someone sees her walking in the toilet with a pad in her pocket/hand/bag but she is very comfortable talking about it at home. I think that might be because my wife and I are very open about it and will answer any questions she has.
    I mean, our 5yo knows that a period is when blood comes out of your vagina… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there’s still a huge stigma around periods, even in places where we’re lucky enough not to be totally ostracized during our periods or to have to use unsanitary materials—I remember hiding my pads and tampons for years (as you mentioned about your daughter), and I’ve heard every possible thing blamed on PMS and periods: everything from bad moods to murder. We’ve still got a long way to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing! The conditions for women in less developed countries is both sad and dangerous. It’s a problem that really does need to be discussed and steps taken to fix it.

    The lack of education about human reproductive systems, including menstruation and other body changes during puberty, suffers from so many taboos, even in more developed countries. There’s a level of disgust and shame that gets attached to it which is very damaging. There’s a lot of misinformation, or worse it just isn’t talked about. I don’t ever recall being told about periods or the menstrual cycle either in school or from a female relative. In fact, I learned about what it was and what to expect from reading Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” quartet. Because I read those books when I was 9 or 10, I wasn’t looking forward to the beginning of menstruation, but at least I was prepared and knew more or less what to expect. And I’m lucky enough that the cramps can be handled with a few ibuprofen, I don’t get migraines, and my mood swings are pretty minimal. I’ve got friends who aren’t so fortunate. What was actually a bigger scare for me was breast budding. My family has a history of breast cancer, so when I felt a lump on my chest at about age 12, I freaked out big time. Luckily the doctor identified what was happening, but for a few days, I really thought I was going to die.

    Bottom line is, this kind of stuff needs to be talked about frankly without judgement or stigma. Body changes are weird enough without all that emotional baggage being attached.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree—I think that we have got to start talking about periods and about the changes that girls’ and women’s bodies go through. I feel as though a lot of our fundamental misconceptions about what it means to be a woman are bound up in periods and pregnancy and birth, and continuing not to talk about the point at which bodies change is causing more problems.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My aunt always referred to our periods as “falling off the roof” for whatever reason. Other than that little code, periods were simply NOT mentioned. Ever. They were something to be ashamed of.

    I’ve been so surprised to hear how much more open my daughter’s generation is. They’ll say “I’m on my period this week” without even blushing. I’m glad to see the shame fading, but — yeesh! — I cringe every time they say it so casually.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We didn’t talk much about periods, either, aside from the basic mechanics. Otherwise, they weren’t mentioned. I had to be an adult before I was comfortable talking about periods, and I’m still uncomfortable about it sometimes.

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  4. I was a late bloomer. 13..and convinced something was wrong with me! All my friends had started and it was almost like a right of passage. The excitement didn’t last long. With it came harassment from the boys and my brothers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have no idea how old I was when I got my first period, but I remember the circumstances. At the time, we were doing swimming for Phys. Ed., and when I got back to the locker room and took my panties out of my locker, there was blood on them. (The memory image doesn’t narrow down the time much, because I went to the same school from 7th-12th grade…) I freaked out a little, but also kind of hoped someone had put it there as a sick joke. (The locker room lockers didn’t actually lock.) I think I didn’t tell anyone about it until I got home, when I asked my mom about it. And when she told me that was what it was, I remember being annoyed, because the “instructional” video we’d been shown (or maybe it was a booklet that had been passed around?) had mentioned looking for “discoloration on the toilet paper” rather than the more freaking obvious “look for your panties being blood-stained”. I’m not sure that blood was, in fact, even mentioned.

    I used to really dread my periods, because they were short but super-heavy, and accompanied by killer cramps. Now I’m wondering where they went. They seem to come about once every four months, but I don’t think it’s even possible to hit menopause at 40. It seemed like it was thinking about coming today, but…I guess I’m headed back to the gynecologist. Again. This was the same reason I went in last time, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your story.

      It’s so odd how we’ve sanitized periods to the degree that we have. I suppose that’s the impulse in many cultures, which is why there’s a lot of shame and hiding and misconception.

      Good luck with the doctor—hope things are well.

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  6. I was lucky. My mom made my first so easy! I already sorta knew what it was (I started at NINE years old) and she always treated it like it was no big deal. It wasn’t until middle school when all the other girls started getting theirs that I realized that it was supposed to be something to hide or at least not mention. To the chagrin of my brothers, it was openly discussed in our home. It was simply a fact of life. It’s nothing that I’ve ever felt that I should be ashamed about or that I should hide. I know I’m lucky and not normal. However, to be honest, I was actually not aware that all women do not suffer from PMS. Must be nice. Mine have always been terrors and now I know why–I have the dreaded PCOS and my ovaries hate me. Thanks for an interesting post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your mom was such a lovely woman. 🙂

      I’ve always had bad PMS, and finally I got a real diagnosis of PMDD, which explains why my PMS is so bad. But it took me years to get a diagnosis because at first I thought a lot of my symptoms were normal because everyone had PMS.

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  7. It’s an important thing to talk about…with our daughters; with our sisters; with our friends; in general. There is definitely still a stigma attached to the most natural of bodily functions. There’s shame and humiliation. Very often the very ones that are charged with teaching us fail us when it comes to this topic (https://corinajoyc.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/1966/) and I don’t think it is changing as much as it should have since I was first starting. I started very young, in second grade when I was only eight years old and no one had told me about it so I thought I was dying or that I had done something horrible and was being punished for it. It would be another four years before I would be shown the filmstrip on menstruation at school and so for all those months, I thought I was dying. My mom never told me. Even when she knew I knew about it, she never talked about it. Even now. I’m 59 and my mom has never, ever discussed menstruation with me or with my sisters. So yeah this needs to change. WE need to change it. Thank you for this post, Diana!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Corina. I can’t imagine starting at 8, or not being able to at least mention it to my mom. Periods aren’t something we’ve ever talked a lot about, but she did hand me information to read when I was young and tell me the basics about having a period. But she told me zero about childbirth and pregnancy and what that entailed, so I understand there being something that just isn’t talked about in that respect. We definitely need to stop the silence and stigma around menstruation and pregnancy. It’s the root of a lot of misconceptions about women, I think.

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  8. I hate the cultural stigma around periods and the misunderstanding of pmdd. People don’t understand that I have an illness when I’m pmsing. I need time off from work, because I’m legitimately too ill to interact with people. It’s such a unique combination of physical and mental illness, at least for me. As far as managing the blood goes, I’ve begun to look for alternative methods to tampons and the cup. I don’t want to put anything that is toxic and can potentially lead to toxic shock syndrome up my vagina. I just don’t think that trying to gracefully hide the fact that I naturally bleed every month is worth the danger and I don’t think it’s fair that I’m even expected to take that risk in our society. We have caused so much destruction to our environment and unnecessary suffering other animals (via animal testing) just because of the stigma of periods. It’s kind of ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I have PMDD as well. It took me years to get a real diagnosis because not only was I convinced that I was just having normal PMS and was also depressed, but so were several doctors that I saw.

      I’m lucky in that I no longer bleed heavily, but when I was younger I did—7 days of mostly-heavy bleeding. I used so many tampons, and I had no idea about the potential damage I could cause myself or what I was using environmentally, because no one talked about it. The choices was “pad or tampon.” Only in the past few years have I realized how many other options are out there.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It true, the mere mention of “the period” is somehow taboo, shocking, disgusting to some. It is a fact of life and as natural as any bodily function and necessary for procreation. I passed out cold on the 2nd day of my first period. I was talking to my girlfriend and everything went black, I woke up in school clinic. I don’t have a clue why…I think I was totally stressed out by it.
    There’s a poem about Menstration…most find it unpleasant but the very “never” of this poetess describing this process in detail was a first! Hats off to here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh gosh-glad you were ok at least!

      I’m much less afraid to talk about such things now, but I can remember a time when saying “period” around really anyone other than a few of my close girlfriends would’ve made me uncomfortable.

      It’s a brave new world.

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  10. Living in an underdeveloped country, I saw firsthand how girls are ostracized when they have their period. Firstly, they don’t have access to the same information we do (even if that info is a bit lacking). Because of deeply-held religious beliefs, they are treated differently. It’s never discussed, so many girls are actually confused when it happens because they weren’t expecting it. What access they do have to any sanitary products is limited and expensive. Most use dirty rags. I think it’s great there are so many organizations addressing this now. Even the one I worked for, we taught girls how to make their own pads and how to clean them as part of our overall girls education program. We had girls camps so they had an open space to start talking about it and asking questions. Sadly though, even the organization I was with considered taking away our access to free products. May have seemed like a small issue, but they provided everything for our healthcare, even sunblock because of the outrageous expense it was while being there. We had some great men advocating for our free access too; they saw what a financial burden it was going to unfairly place on females. Thankfully, higher-ups backtracked after the outrage of both men and women working out in the villages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It blows my mind to think about considering taking away access to prepaid sanitary products but not sunblock, especially in a place where they would be exorbitantly expensive and probably difficult to get. I’m glad that problem was solved for you guys.

      I imagine it must be very difficult to be a girl in so many places. It can be so hard here in the U.S., and we have so many things that are out-of-reach in other places.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that might not be a bad idea. I’m just realizing in going through these comments how many different angles there are and different facets there are to the issue. I’m interested in what others have to say.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I remember by first period and I was also a 11 or 12 year old. I come from a small city in India, an in those days schools were not that open minded to share literature with students. It was my summer vacation and I was home. My Mum explained me what it was and hearing it for the first time that day, I reacted very maturely and was accepting unlike many girls who I knew. You are right – we still are privileged but that’s not the case all over the world. There is a long way to go.

    Read my post on menstruation stigmas when you get time – http://happinessandfood.com/mondaymusings-menstruation-stigmas/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, and for linking that post—I’ll give it a read.

      We’re very close-mouthed about periods in the U.S., and when we do discuss them it seems to be in a very sanitized way. There are advertisements for feminine hygiene products, for instance, but they have almost nothing to do with what periods are actually like, and everyone somehow still experiences them as an awkward thing. Girls and women hide the feminine products they’re using when they have to go and use a public restroom.

      Those things take their toll.

      And then thinking about women and girls in other areas where the stigma is even worse, where they are maybe ostracized during their periods and using unsanitary materials…It’s frustrating.

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  12. This is such an interesting topic – and I am far too sleep-deprived right now to give it justice but…
    Yes. It’s so frustrating how stigmatized this thing that pretty-much all women go through. There is a silence around it that’s ridiculous. The realization that not all women suffer from PMS symptoms was such a shocker to me because it’s just not something that is talked about.
    I do remember my first period, very clearly…but that’s because of circumstances — and in some ways I feel like that first period has helped to inform my attitude about my period (I carry my tampons in my hand when I go to the bathroom, not hiding it away) and think about how the early experiences and attitude of those around us can really have an effect on our future understandings.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes. It is a real problem that we think PMS and its symptoms are just normal. Women should be free to talk about those things when they experience the, but we should not present them as though they are part and parcel of having a period. We are so incredibly close-mouthed about periods, though, that it’s really difficult to find the “normal.”

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