Why Are We Still Afraid of Periods?

My usual scour of social media this morning led to me to a hashtag I haven’t seen before. Although #Livetweetyourperiod was started last year—by a user called Baenerys who declared “MY TITS HURT SO BAD I JUST WANT TO DIE”—the hashtag has only recently gone bonkers viral (don’t you just love Twitter?). The witty, frank tweets cover everything from chocolate cravings to period pain to puffiness (“I look like a marshmallow tied up in rubber bands”) to “embarrassing” leaking, with the aim of removing the taboo surrounding menstruation. And the Twitterers are getting creative. One image shows the blood-soaked protagonist from Carrie, another a hysterical Alice (let’s just say her world is not feeling like a wonderland right about now), and another a creature bursting out from John Hurt’s chest in Alien. Yep. Creative.

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I immediately thought of the Rupi Kaur vs. Instagram saga earlier this year and then a bigger question loomed: Why are we still so afraid of talking about periods? How is Kaur’s photograph of a fully-clothed woman with what appeared to be a period stain too—gasp—shocking for Instagram, whereas countless photos of near-naked female bodies (no nipples, of course) sexing it up for the male gaze are perfectly fine? “I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human,” said Kaur at the time. New York Times writer Jenna Wortham echoes her concerns: “Social media is saturated with images of hypersexualized women, but these are rarely considered as scandalous as content that dares to reveal how a woman’s body actually functions.” Why is the P-word still a dirty word?

I remember getting my period like it was yesterday. The women in my family start menstruating early and when a spot of blood appeared in my undies when I was nine, my mom took my hand and looked at me with a face that said, “It’s time.” Although this was a false alarm and I didn’t properly start menstruating until over a year later, I remember feeling very private, slightly scared, and definitely overwhelmed by it all. My breasts were developing at a rapid pace and after a male classmate told me that I reminded him of his favorite actress from Baywatch, Pamela Anderson, while staring at said developing breasts (there’s absolutely nothing else about me that could have reminded him of her), I retreated back into myself and didn’t reveal to anyone that I had my period until I was well into my high school years. The brunt of being too adult too soon was too much to bear.

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But regardless of whether girls get their periods at nine or 16, it is still a very uncertain time. Your head explodes with all this new stuff you have to deal with. Which sanitary products to use? Why is my stomach so sore? Why I do I feel like devouring the entire range of Baskins-Robbins? Pass me the hot water bottle (I didn’t even know about their existence before my period came). Back when I was growing up there were no teenage YouTube sensations advising on how to use tampons and avoid PMS. There were no blogs or tongue-in-cheek zines dedicated to that time of the month. And there were definitely no ads showing pubescent girls delighted to get their periods, like this one by HelloFlo.com does (more on it later). Our society tells us that in this time of blooming womanhood—and it’s not only periods we have to worry about, but also busting out with boobs and zits—we must remain hush-hush. In 2010, the Journal of Pediatrics reported that girls are starting puberty ever earlier, with some developing breasts as young as seven. Do we really want seven-year-olds feeling stigmatized about their looming maturity? I thought Aunty Flo is meant to be a nice lady who comes over once a month with cookies.

I remember one day, I must have been 13 or 14, we had a substitute teacher in class. She was dressed in a tight, white skirt, and when she approached to write on the blackboard, a ‘besmirching’ red spot was revealed. Most of the class erupted in laughter, some teenagers cruelly pointed. The teacher ran out of the classroom and took leave until things cooled off.

A few years later, a group of girlfriends and I were shocked to discover that a male friend didn’t know what the sanitary boxes in the bathrooms were for. “Is that what they’re for?” he asked, overhearing our conversation, eyes widening. Not to mention that all throughout high school, a surefire way to get out of gym class was to play the period card—especially to male teachers who went bright red at the mention of the word and wrote a note excusing me for the entire week.

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HelloFlo’s Camp Gyno ad

But it’s not only men. My girlfriends and I are very open about our bodily functions and discuss the highs (your lover bringing you whatever you want and serving it to you in bed) and the lows (list is too long) of menstruating. But some women find it difficult to talk about periods even amongst themselves. Surveys consistently report that women are uncomfortable discussing the subject with their family, mother and sisters included, writes Hannah Betts in The Telegraph. She tells another story in her compelling article about why we’re so silent on the subject of periods: Invited to participate in a committee on building new washing facilities at Oxford University, the “inquiries were so coded that [she] was mystified as to her presence, until a senior tutor said: ‘What we’re trying to ask is: are there certain times of the month when women might prefer a bath to a shower?’”

These anecdotes suggest that periods are some mysterious, strange, gross things, rather than a natural process of a woman’s reproductive system. Even though things appear to be slowly changing in Western societies—although Rupi Kaur’s menstruating woman being taken down by Instagram really threw a spanner in the works—our sisters in other parts of the world get straight up ostracized. The women of the Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea, for instance, are shunned during their periods and isolated until they stop bleeding (they literally have to live elsewhere, with other women, until their period stops). The patriarchal tribe believes this will protect the sanctity of their semen and role in society. Ummm…ok.

Traditional Hindus and Muslims deem menstruating women impure and don’t allow them into temples, mosques, or other holy places. In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman could scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning, and rid crop fields of pests. She’s a dangerous menstruating beast! It seems only the Cherokee culture has a positive spin on the subject—they believe that menstrual blood is a source of feminine strength and has the power to destroy enemies. Maybe the Sambia women should use it on their men.

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These myths and notions of menstruating women being unclean, dangerous, or—as my male gym teachers would constantly remind me—something to fear are super detrimental to women and especially young girls. Dr. Miranda A. Farage, a research fellow at Procter & Gamble, points out that, “girls across cultures view menarche as a negative experience and report being horrified, frightened, confused, and embarrassed by [it].” If periods were seen for what they really are—natural and frankly rather unexciting bodily processes—and discussed freely, then maybe girls wouldn’t need to discreetly take out tampons from their purse and hide it in their bras as they scurried to the bathroom. Instead, they would swing tampons by their strings as their proudly skip to soak up their womanhood.

That’s why I’m grateful for Rupi Kaur, #Livetweetyourperiod, and HelloFlo. These platforms aim to demystify menstruation and, well, celebrate it….whichever angle they take. HelloFlo offers expert advice, sends you super cute care packages (filled with lollypops), and has a blog section where all matters of #girlstuff are discussed. I wish it around when I was growing up. Maybe then I wouldn’t have had to skip gym class.

Main image courtesy of Gustaf Brundin (Getty Images).

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