The public dialogue around periods has started to open up a crack (no apologies, plenty more where that came from. Ha.).
From menstruating athletes to better sex education in schools, we are talking about periods a little more. But who is talking? Is it, as I suspect, still menstruators having these conversations, while cis men smile benignly and zone out or, worse, display disgust and revulsion and ask us to take it elsewhere?
I’m going to speak to those who haven’t ever had a period. Please, please don’t zone out or disappear – this is for you.
Let's take a trip back in time. Go back to your 11-year-old self. You are gauche and insecure; friends and relationships largely dominate your life. School is a social testing-ground. Your body, taken for granted for so long to be reliable when you need it, begins to betray you.
Hair sprouts; parts enlarge; you morph daily and alarmingly. Embarrassment is a hot glow that pools around almost everything you do. You want so badly to be noticed, but also to be invisible. So far, so common to most people's experiences of puberty.
Now add pain, the kind of pain you haven’t felt before because it is neither injury nor illness. It is not the kind of pain that adults give you sympathy for. There is no upside to this pain – no invalid treatment, no daytime TV and staying at home with a parent, no ice cream and indulgence.
It is not the kind of pain that starts with a bang and slowly heals. It is the kind that lasts and lasts, that seems endless and wanes and then strikes again with no regular pattern. It is the kind of pain that inconveniences and embarrasses everyone around you and makes you an inconvenience and an embarrassment.
Sometimes it brings you to your knees, sobbing; sometimes it is so distracting you cannot concentrate on anything else for days. Adults soon tire of reassuring you. It is not going away. It cannot be cured, and it must be endured.
With the pain comes the steady drip, drip, drip of bodily fluid. Like snot, earwax or vomit. People reel in disgust from it and you are required to remove it from sight immediately. If left, it congeals, crusts and smells. The fluid is red or brown and eye-catchingly obvious whenever it leaks. The flow of it is unpredictable and difficult to anticipate, sometimes flooding with no warning.
You are pierced with embarrassment that you might show a stain or a smell to others. You are paranoid that you haven’t been careful enough to cover it up. You cannot even tell people what is the matter, when they ask.
If you speak its name, they look shocked and uncomfortable and you know you have done something wrong. This is the Western, developed, world in 2017.
I have had periods for 18 years of my life.
By my calculation, I have spent around three and a half years’ worth of time – 1296 days or 31104 hours or 1.8 million minutes – having a period. For roughly half of that time, I probably haven’t noticed it too much – just a quick extra trip to the loo to change a tampon, a brief twinge every now and then, a noticeable temperature change in my body.
But for the rest – nearly two years – I have been doubled over and howling in private, grim and tight-lipped and on the verge of tears in public. At the very least, we need to be able to talk about this.
When someone asks me if I’m ok, I need to be able to say ‘No, I’m not ok. I’m having a particularly brutal period.’ Which is what I do say, now - and note the reactions. Some people – kind, thoughtful, compassionate – swallow down their surprise, commiserate or give practical help.
Many, many others are shocked and disquieted and even offended. They are not awful people; it’s just we don’t know generally how to form a dialogue around periods in public, yet.
Here’s some handy suggestions from me:
- If you see someone (not just women get periods) with a hot-water bottle or bent over in pain, ask them - actively – if they’re having an awful period. Say the word ‘period’.
- If you are the person above, and someone asks you what is wrong, say the word ‘period’. Use an adjective if, like me, you feel you might not be taken seriously enough. ‘Brutal, appalling, savage, remorseless’ are all nice and clear.
- If you use tampons, a mooncup or sanitary pads, don’t hide them (let's stop sneaking 'em up our sleeves please!). If you see one, don’t flinch or remark on it.
- If you’re a parent or a teacher, talk to children – of all genders – about periods. Normalise it and say the words clearly. Set a precedent for allowing children dealing with a period to have a hot-water bottle, a blanket, a more comfortable chair if they need it. Make compassion more important than embarrassment in your reaction.
- Ask for a box of sanitary products (for free) to be placed in your toilets at your place of work. Not in a drawer, or hidden in a cupboard, but arranged prettily in a basket and displayed prominently.
A period is - literally - a wound that never heals.
For those who have never had one, I can understand the revulsion and embarrassment, the desire to ignore them and sanitise them and make them go away. But this reaction simply makes the wound a psychological one, too.
By reacting in this manner, we are telling those who have periods that their pain and their fear is not important. We are telling them – some of them eight and nine year olds – that they must prioritise being compliant and polite over getting help when they need it. Bleed out in the corner if you must, but do it quietly, please.