‘Menstruate with Pride’ – Sarah Maple (I’m an art history student… what can you do?)
Let me paint a picture for you. It’s a quiet afternoon in St Andrews library. Everyone has his or her head down. All you can hear is the occasional whispered conversation between students, the light tap of laptop keys and the slurping of coffee. I’m smack in the centre of the room, enjoying the peace, working on my essay. Suddenly, hunger strikes me. I have a few squares of chocolate in my bag – fortunately I’d just stopped by the supermarket to do a quick shop. I open up my rucksack (if only I knew at the time what a fatal decision this was). My other purchases from earlier that day are all crammed in there – apples, peanut butter (which make a beautiful sandwich together by the way), shampoo etc. Oh, and one more thing (the devil in the bag), sanitary towels. They’re wedged in there tightly with everything else. Decision time. Do I risk exposing my womanly needs for the sake of chocolate? That day, I really wanted chocolate. As I said, everything is tightly packed – I pull hard to get the chocolate out. Chaos ensues… The packet of sanitary towels (slippery little bugger) flies upwards and sails across the room. They’re bloody aerodynamic – doing flips all over the place. Like any self-respecting woman, I throw myself across the room after them, praying to God that no one has noticed (ha, not likely). “Not the sanitary towels! Anything but the sanitary towels! These library folk cannot know of my period! They must remain under the illusion that I am a perfect woman who never bleeds! Oh the shame!”
… Wait a second… What? The shame? The shame of what exactly? The shame of people knowing that like over half of the population of this Earth I menstruate? The shame of people knowing that my body is carrying out its regular biological rhythms as it does every month?
There were a lot of emotions present in that moment. If I had to pinpoint the overarching feeling of that experience it would be embarrassment. Subsequently, I’ve come to ask myself – What exactly is there to be embarrassed of? Why is there so much taboo around menstruation?
It has been my feeling for a long time, and the feeling of other women that I have spoken to, that one’s period is a private matter. Naturally, when amongst a group of girls, period talk is not uncommon. You recommend hot water bottles to ease the pain, discuss various embarrassments like my library episode, or just tell each other, plain and simple, that it feels like your “uterus is actually trying to claw its way out of your body”. However, if there is a male or stranger present do you speak of this? No. You bite your lip and try to act natural, even if it does feel like your uterus is making a break for it.
Frankly, in my mind it has always felt like periods are a taboo subject. They are something that a young woman should take care of discreetly. I can think of numerous code words friends have used to talk about their periods – ‘that time of the month’, ‘the painters are in’, ‘mother nature is visiting’, ‘I’m out of service’, ‘I’m on the blob’, or, my personal favourite, one friend of mine spoke of her ‘lady curse’! I can remember wanting to sink in to a hole of embarrassment when explaining to a past boyfriend that I was having a certain female experience that meant I was not in the mood to engage in certain activities one evening. My father, bless his soul (who does make an active effort to not be embarrassed about these things), has three daughters and yet his teeth still chatter when talks of womanly matters – periods, boys, boobs etc. – arise.
For a long time this has seemed natural to me. I just accepted that periods are an embarrassing subject. Upon reflection I’ve realised why this is. It’s a notion I’ve grown up with. I remember clearly how things began with my school education. I can remember when we were deemed old enough to learn about puberty, periods, sex (all those glorious things you get hilarious classes about – I’m one of the lucky few who can say I’ve put a condom on a banana – my friend then proceeded to break the banana and swing it around in the condom over her head like a lasso – it was brilliant). Well, when the time came for us to learn about these things the girls and boys were separated to be educated. The general tone was that this is a ‘sensitive’ subject for young ladies and they must learn of the hell their bodies shall go through once a month in peace. From the very beginning there was a sense that periods are a private female issue that must be spoken of and dealt with quietly. In part, I can understand this. Do not get me wrong – I do not at all want to undermine the importance of the female experience of getting your period. It’s new – it can be alarming if you’re not in the know. It’s definitely something to get used to and manage. But, soon enough, like all other regular things in your life, it becomes part of the routine. Each month you deal with it. It’s actually more alarming to cut your finger and lose a small amount of blood in comparison to the greater amount you lose during your period.
However, this instant separation and tiptoeing around girls with the subject can make matters worse in two ways. Firstly, the stress on ‘taking the girls away to tell them something’ sparked male focus on the subject of periods. Not talking openly made it something to torment the girls about. The teasing kicked off right away. I’m twenty-one years old, at university and it still happens now – you get ever so slightly upset and boys start joking about it being ‘your time’ (actually no, my period was a few weeks ago, you’re just being an arse). Secondly, from the female experience, this separation and heightened ‘sensitive’ atmosphere meant from the off that it felt like your period was something to hide. A sense of separation and secrecy had been established from the start.
As I’ve noted before, getting one’s period is a big moment for a girl. You don’t forget the day you got your period. So, the question to be asked is how to deal with this? Yes, it should be taken in to account that it is a personal topic for many girls, so perhaps separation at the beginning of discussing these sorts of things is appropriate. However, I do believe that there needs to be a stage where people are encouraged to talk openly about these topics. You don’t need to force it, but it should be made known that this should not be something for girls to be ashamed of. The taboo needs to be broken.
Just think of the recent phenomenon of ‘Fifty shades of Grey’ (actually please don’t give it that much of your time – it’s horrific). But, what is interesting from what I have heard about this novel is the stir the ‘tampon scene’ has caused. In short, Mr Grey (one of the most horrifying fictional characters I’ve ever heard of – how on earth this man is really ‘doing it’ for some women is beyond me) has sex with his… what should I call her…? victim? (Anastasia) whilst she is on her period. In the minds of many this scene was ground breaking. A man having sex with a woman on her period seemed unheard of. A man engaging with this private female matter seemed unheard of. This shows that this sense of taboo is not only something I experienced growing up, but a societal issue.
Menstruation is not something to be embarrassed about. Think about it. As I said before, it’s an experience that over half the population of the planet has once a month. A greater number of people on the Earth will have periods in their life than the number of people who will have mobile phones (women make up 51% of the world’s population, whilst 50% of people on this earth own mobile phones). If you’re in a room of women you can put money on the fact that more than one of them will be on their period. How can something so common be something to be ashamed of or a topic you cannot feel comfortable talking about? We don’t have to go shouting from the rooftops about our periods, or smack people in the fact with sanitary towels, but they shouldn’t be this difficult to discuss. In fact, my mother told me when I got my period that they’re a good sign. Your period is a way of your body telling you that it’s healthy and working properly. For many women they are biologically inevitable. Periods are natural. They are not something to be ashamed of.
Whilst talking about this topic with some friends I was reminded of something that I had not considered – privacy. We are all entitled to some privacy. I am by no means advocating that a girl who keeps the details of her period to herself is doing anything wrong. I am not saying that periods MUST be an intense topic of discussion over the dinner table, although if that’s what suits you then go ahead. I am saying that when the topic of periods does arise the shuffling of feet and red cheeks needs to stop. To tell someone that you have done or not done something because you are on your period should not be embarrassing – it is a natural process. There is a difference between being private about something and being ashamed of something.
So, what to do to make periods less of an issue? I just talk openly to be honest. I consciously remind myself to not hold back if I’m in a mixed group. Naturally, I don’t start rambling about my uterus’ intense escape plan just to make a point. “Men are here! I must discuss my period in great detail!” Just occasionally if I feel myself becoming embarrassed I think “If I was in a group of only girls would I say this right now? Yes. Then I should be able to say it with boys about too”. And if I’m buying sanitary towels in a pharmacy I slam them down on the counter with pride – “I am a fully functioning grown up woman and my needs must be met!” Enough of this staring at the floor and hoping for a female at the cash register.
And if a boy ever gives you any rubbish about being ‘overly hormonal’ and stating that it’s ‘clearly that time of the month’, just start giving them the lowdown on having a period (don’t be made to feel ashamed of it) – they tend to back off pretty quickly when you start being open about this sort of thing. Heck, maybe they’ll sympathise and treat you to some sanitary towels and chocolate. A girl can dream.