The other day, I shared a post about a woman’s recent thesis about the taboo of menstruation with the following words: ‘Ffs. It happens to half the population of the world. Let's talk about it.’ And quite a few women did want to talk about it. For too long, the stigma of menstruation and having the biological equipment that enables it, has forced the vast majority of the menstruating population into hushed conspiratorial tones and a look of embarrassment whenever the topic rarely rears its head. Until very recently, all adverts regarding sanitary products contained blue liquid and women in very tight white jeans jumping about to upbeat music. Ask anyone who has ever menstruated and they will tell you that this is about the last thing you feel like doing and white anything is a massive, massive risk. And you won’t be accidentally dying your underwear blue either.
Some anecdotal facts about my menstruating experiences:
⦁ I have messed up two hotel beds in my life. This is crushingly embarrassing.
⦁ I started my period at school just before a chemistry lesson, and the sanitary towel the school nurse gave me looked and felt like a small mattress in my knickers. When I returned to the lab, I was convinced all the boys could see it poking my skirt out like some kind of compacted cotton wool banana.
⦁ I was introduced to my new immediate manager at a school (a man) at a Teacher Training Day who put out his hand to shake mine, but I couldn’t shake his because I had a tampon concealed in my right hand and up the sleeve in a ‘manoeuvre of shame’ and was on my way to the toilet at the time. Cue embarrassed shuffling, rustling and sleight of hand repositioning of the offending item worthy of Paul Daniels. Actually it wasn’t smooth. He saw it and got equally flustered.
⦁ I used to avoid male checkout staff if I was buying sanitary items because of, you know, the shame of it all.
⦁ I used to go out with a Tunisian man who genuinely believed that when you were on your period, you should not wash or allow any water to come into contact with your lady parts. He had two sisters who apparently observed this rule and goodness knows what kind of hideous discomfort they must have gone through every month.
⦁ Periods seem to make my body temperature rise and I don’t sleep well during mine. I have heard other women talk about this too, though it doesn’t seem like it’s a widely known phenomenon. However, I used to go out with someone who complained about sharing a bed with a woman on her period because it was like sleeping next to a furnace. Try being the furnace! Obviously his empathy knew no beginnings, unlike his sense of entitlement which knew no bounds. He also refused to ride buses because of their working class associations. I’m not entirely convinced these things are not linked. Funnily enough, the relationship did not last.
⦁ Sometimes my cramps are so bad that I feel like crying. Once, in an exam, I sat there with silent tears running down my face unable to write more than a page of mediocre scribble, which was unfortunate because this was an English exam. But mostly I am very stoic though I am known to groan a bit.
Not everyone experiences pain and suffering. Maybe a few drops of blood here and there and no cramps like my lucky sister who tells me of her quick wipe and then done monthly event. But some people, like me, have a truly spongy and prodigious womb lining experience on a regular basis. For example, I once tutored a young woman who had periods so bad that she vomited and had diarrhoea every month. I had to leave her house mid-session because she was too ill for the tutoring. As well as looking ashen and clearly being in a great deal of pain, she was also very embarrassed to tell me why she was so ill.
So what do these experiences tell me? They tell me that in spite of living in a relatively progressive country in such matters, we still have a very long way to go. The amount of ignorance surrounding menstruation is astonishing. Apparently, some men still believe that periods can be held in at will, like urine, and that any accident is a result of slovenly behaviour rather than something entirely involuntary. And the lack of understanding from non-menstruating human beings about the debilitating effects of menstruation, both physical and in terms of stigma and shame, not to mention the financial burden, is widespread and contributes to continuing suffering here and abroad. Period poverty is an issue in the UK whereby girls and women are missing school or work, or having to choose between food and sanitary items because they just can’t afford them. This should not be happening in a civilised society.
Women and girls should not be made to feel ashamed for a biological function that ultimately results in the existence of every single human being who walks the globe and who has ever done so.
On an optimistic note, I have to extol the virtues of the glorious menstrual cup. For someone who struggled with tampons until my late twenties, the idea of shoving something with a rather wider circumference into my vagina did not appeal. And indeed, I did struggle with it when I first bought it over five years ago. However, I decided to give it another go this year after getting some tips on insertion from the wonderful women at No More Taboo, a not-for-profit social enterprise who tackle period poverty and challenge taboos around menstruation. Six months on and I am pleased to say that the combination of the cup and reusable pad means I am no longer shelling out for disposable sanitary products every month (sticking it to The Man), or cluttering up landfill, or subjecting my delicate areas with irritating chemical treated cotton wool. I can honestly say that I get fewer cramps. And you can leave the cup in pretty much all day and sort it out when you get home. That said, I have mastered the wash out in public bathrooms as well so it’s all good. And far from being icky and disgusting, it is actually a more hygienic alternative to more conventional methods.
The fact that menstruation is still considered a taboo topic, a 'dirty shame' the world over, tells us all we need to know about how much the world hates women. This is one part of the struggle for true equity but a fundamental one, as ideas about women's bodies and attempts to control and deny our basic biological functions underpin so many other dysfunctional behaviours towards women and girls. Perhaps when we start educating everyone properly... properly about menstruation; men and boys as well, and treat the process with the respect it deserves, we will see an end to the segregation of women and girls during menses from communities in developing parts of the world. This has resulted in actual deaths. Perhaps this destigmatisation of the so-called ‘mysteries’ of female biology will result in a greater respect for female bodily autonomy. Perhaps we will see an end to a tax on essential sanitary items which is without question a tax on female biology. Perhaps we will also see an end to other terrible behaviours towards women, like FGM, as women and girls gain a greater understanding of their own bodies and what a healthy one looks and feels like.
The last time I had my period, I took a hot water bottle to work tutoring. My two male students asked me why. I told them. Period pain. I would not have shared that information a few years ago. In fact, I would have left the hot water bottle at home as I would have prioritised their potential discomfort at learning their tutor was an adult woman who menstruates above my own very real physical pain. Did they faint? Nope. They filled it up with hot water for me. Perhaps, finally, the times are changing. I certainly hope so.