“I wish we talked more about…” Part 2: Periods

wishtalkpart2

periods2Part 1 – women and sex

Part 3 – Sexual Health

A while back one of my fellow humourless killjoy feminist friends came up with the idea of a list of “Things we wished people spoke more openly about”.

The conversation that ensued lead to several revelations amongst the group and numerous exclamations of “I am SO glad we’re talking about this” and “OMG I thought this was just me” and “why don’t we talk about this stuff? This is GREAT.”

So this is part two of my ongoing but irregular series – “Things we wish were talked about more openly.”

Just like last time, I am going to add a lengthy content warning, mainly for the benefit of my family who might not want to read about my intimate shizzle.

This blog, and indeed probably the whole series, will feature talk of things like sexual acts, body parts, bodily functions and fluids and other things that often make people (right across the gender spectrum) feel uncomfortable. It’s almost certainly going to make my family feel uncomfortable, so if you’re related to me, you might want to stop right here.

I am going to say, straight up, that a lot of the things that are likely to come up are things that I personally find really difficult to talk about. I spent a lot of time hating my body and not really wanting to look at it, feeling awkward and anxious about sexual acts, being ashamed and scared of things my body did and generally feeling unable to talk about it. So just as you might be leaving your comfort zone to read this, I am going out of my comfort zone to write it. So we’re on this journey together.

And so…

“I wish we spoke more openly about…

Menstruation and PMT”

I recall that my school education session on periods was woefully inadequate. It left us all with the impressions that:

  • If you have sex, you will get pregnant. So don’t.
  • When you are on your period you are gross KEEP IT A SECRET AT ALL COSTS
  • Periods are gross and icky. DON’T TALK TO BOYS ABOUT THEM
  • It’s just a few tablespoons of blood (LIES)
  • Vajayjays are dirty. Try not to touch them
  • EEEUUUW

I was never really told what was coming out of me was pretty amazing or marvellous or perfectly ok. It’s taken me decades to be able to unpick all this.

What does get talked about a lot is PMT – but it’s usually framed as a big joke as to why women are in a bad mood or being grouchy. There’s a lot of talk about OH LOL HORMONES BE MAKING GIRLS CRAZY BITCHES but it’s not taken terribly seriously. But PMT symptoms can be really serious, and varied and honestly? They can really really suck. Treating PMT as some ‘bitches be crazy lol’ thing does a great deal of harm to women who are having real physical and mental symptoms. So forgive me if someone makes some bullshit “on the rag lol” joke at me and I imagine ripping your fucking nipples off. It’s easy to be a humourless bitch when you’re not actually being funny.

periodxkcd

But there is no ‘once size fits all’ for PMT – and women experience all sorts of different symptoms. Some lucky ones don’t get any. Personally, I get really mood swingy, teary and grumpy and find it hard to concentrate. I don’t always connect the dots sometimes; I spend 3 days wanting to kill things/other people/myself and crying at fucking adverts and because of my history of mental ill health every time I’m like THE DEPRESSION IS COMING BACK. 3 days later I’m like “oh. Hello womb lining.” I have to pee way more, my IBS flares up. I don’t want to do anything. At all. I don’t even want to write this blog. I had to force myself to sit at this laptop today. My body temperature is higher and I feel hot all the time. Boyfriends haven’t always understood why I don’t want to snuggle when I am on my period. BECAUSE I AM MELTING GET OFF ME. I don’t get cramps – for which I am eternally grateful – but I do get hormonal migraines. Regular as anything, once a month. Full on, someone-is-trying-to-stab-their-way-out-of-my-eye-socket-with-an-icepick migraines. periods1Painkiller resistant, soul destroying, please kill me now migraines. Every period. I’ve been having periods since I was 14. So in theory I’ve been having migraines every month for over 20 years. That’s more than 240 migraines.

Only I haven’t, because (with the agreement of my GP) I run packets of pills together to avoid having periods for several months at a time. This suited me down to the ground for many years, as I still believed all the things I learned at school about periods (refer to the list above) and therefore was really happy to not have gross blood doing gross things euw gross.

A lot of crap is  talked about hormones and what they do (see the ‘boys will be boys‘ rubbish excuse) but that’s sort of the point isn’t it? Hormones are punchlines or excuses and that detracts from being able to talk about them in a meaningful way.

 

It took me many many years to get over the idea that my vagina-during-my-period was gross and untouchable. Vaginas are naturally self cleaning. Period blood is seen as a waste product, like poop or pee – but it’s not remotely the same thing. It’s the uterine lining that a woman’s body has prepared to grow a foetus. If you think about it, that’s probably the period3cleanest thing ever. It has to be – it’s going to grow, nurture and nourish a tiny potential life which hasn’t got its own immune system. It’s…kind of amazing when you think about it. But it also isn’t just blood. There’s all sorts of weird stuff coming out of there. Weird textured stuff. Clots. Weird stringy sticky stuff. I swear I thought I was completely abnormal for YEARS because this ‘couple of tablespoons of blood’ they’d told me about at school bore no relation to this flood of weird Xenomorph-acid-like substance. I thought I was ill or weird. It took a long time before I felt comfortable enough to talk to other women about this and you know what we discovered? We ALL thought our discharge was weird and we all wished we’d just talked about it years ago.

So why don’t we talk about this? When talking about it helps us understand each other better? Helps women feel they are normal and not alone, and helps guys understand what women are going through. It’s such a huge taboo that it has an entire Wikipedia page about it. Why is it such a huge taboo? In these enlightened times, does it need to be a taboo at all?

IfMenHadPeriods-24376Gloria Steinem wrote a rather marvellous essay imaging a world in which Men were the ones that menstruate. Of course, it’s satire, and not entirely serious. But it’s a refrain I’ve heard often. If men had periods, toilets would always have sinks inside the cubicle. Sanitary products would not only be not subject to VAT, they’d be FREE. If men had periods, there’d be allowance in job laws that allowed flexible time off for PMT.  If men had periods, it would be a sign of strength, not of weakness.

It’s been a ‘man’s world’ for a long time, and feminism has been making gains over the last 40 years in leaps and bounds. It may seem like a weird ask, but I would like a next big leap to be for the taboo over talking about periods to die in a fire. It’s not just an issue here in the UK with girls feeling confused and alone and scared/wary of their own bodies – in other countries it has serious ramifications for the education, welfare, safety and wellbeing of women and girls.

We need to be able to talk about menstruation, our own, other women’s, those of women the whole world over, without fear or revulsion or jokes or snarky jokes. Boys and girls both need to learn how normal and natural they are, that they aren’t dirty or weird. Men and women need to learn how to communicate properly about what their bodies do.

Periods are perfectly normal. Let’s talk about them.

 

 

 

 

RDPP

20 comments

  1. I love this Em. One of the most powerful things a parent has ever said to me as the teacher of their child is “This week, my daughter came home and wanted to talk to me about my periods. This is the first time, she’s felt comfortable asking me about them. I love that you’ve helped her to feel safe enough to ask that”. Wonderful. Also, talking to my whole class about it and explaining why the boys needed to know too: “You need to know about this because your mums, your sisters, your friends, your teachers, strangers in the street are going through this every month and it’s important that you are at least aware of what’s happening”. Let’s talk about things more and more..

  2. I went to a one hour session on menstruation at a women’s expo years ago that changed my life. No kidding. The very first thing the facilitator said was “OK, so who’s bleeding today? Raise your hands!”

    We all gasped and giggled nervously, and wondered where to look as a bunch of hands went up.

    “Keep them up there! Now look around – what do you notice? It’s about a quarter of the room, right? That’s about what you’d expect in a group of women of childbearing age. Since we all menstruate once every four weeks, in any given group of women in that age range, about a quarter of us are probably having our period.

    So why don’t we ever talk about it?”

  3. I could not agree more with you. The fact that so frequent a human function is still considered taboo is actually astounding. The fact that even women are in the dark about their own bodies is flabbergasting. I too was fed the lie about the quantity of blood lost. Therefore, when I first got my period (at a seal sanctuary in Cornwall) I was worried something was wrong with my period as there was way more blood in my knickers than was supposed to come out in the entire cycle.

    I’m with you on the symptoms too. I get very irritable and extremely fatigued in the run up to my period. In recent years there has become a correlation between my cycle and my experience of depression. I’m now in perimenopause so I’m almost housebound for the first two days of my cycle because I just spew blood. Two months ago I went through three pairs of jeans in under two hours. That then leads to anaemia and I just about get recovered in time for the next period. It’s gruesome.

    However, as horrendous as my period is, the women I really feel for are those living in cultures and circumstances where their menstruation is life-limiting. It may offend me that I have to shell out for feminine hygiene products but at least o have access to them and don’t have to fear infection and illness. Women around the world are denied education, employment and other basic rights simply because they bleed every few weeks. Many are also treated like pariahs and like sources of disease during their menses. THAT is why the taboo has to end.

    1. Absolutely – some traditional beliefs in some parts of Nepal stop women and girls from sleeping in their own houses when they menstruate, they sleep in barns on the outskirts of their villages. That is just one country.
      In many countries; India and Pakistan for example – girls stop school when they hit puberty because they don’t have access to sanitary items and feel they have to stay at home.

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more. I love that periods are becoming part of the conversation rather than what we as women whisper about to one another. Great post as usual.

  5. Excellent stuff!
    I got PMT in the form of being more clumsy than usual. Which in turn made me irritable and pissed off. My mother didn’t believe me, that i got clumsy at that time, she thought i just wasn’t paying attention until she saw it in action! I am still clumsy but it’s more random. I think. Some women have experienced vague period like symptoms even after menopause, in a generally similar cycle. So maybe my ongoing clumsiness is that because it’s not a daily occurrence or if it is, it only really irritates and frustrates me occasionally.

    I was lucky never to have headaches and only got cramps and/or backache the first few days. Menopause has it’s own charms 😉 Warning: If your memory starts blowing gaskets all over the place, you are likely *not* experiencing early dementia. Memory issues are menopause symptoms (and pre-men.). That’s my most recent frustration, forgetfulness.

  6. Your experience of PMT rang a bell for me. Every monthish, I remember that my period is probably due somewhere soon (except when it decides to mess with me), so I should look out for PMS. Every monthish, a couple of days later I am reliably in the foulest mood I can possibly experience, or teary, or depressed, or some fun combination of all three – AND I HAVE COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN that it is *just* PMS. Every monthish, a few days later, I get my period and am genuinely surprised, even though when I check the calendar dates it all makes perfect sense, and I have in fact been tracking them the entire time. *Palm-forehead* moment when I recognise that those moods were all to do with PMS. Remembrance that this happened last month(ish), and the one before, and the one before, etcetc…. Vow to self that I will *not* forget this next time, and will in fact not beat myself up further for the mood, but rather be gentle with myself because it’s PMS. I think I’m a fairly intelligent female. My body and mind should be in my control, at least just a little wee bit, and certainly over something that recurs so (mostly) regularly. Yet this cycle of PMS amnesia continues, time and time again…. Maybe it’s denial?

    1. This happens to me too! Every. Single. Month. I think you’re onto something with the suggestion that it might be denial – we’re encouraged to see periods and all things period-related as some kind of bizarre aberration, instead of part of an ongoing cycle. I certainly approach the end of mine with that sense of “phew, thank goodness that’s over!”

      I actually reached breaking point last month when I sat down and calculated that I have spent about 320 days of my life, so far, stuffing myself full of painkillers and smiling through the horrible discomfort, just so that I can remain a productive little worker bee in our society of hardworking people. And tampons STILL cost £2 for 2 in the workplace vending machine!

  7. I have no horror stories to share (I occasionally do have cramps and PMS caused migraine, but mostly hardly any at all), but I have some thoughts on this topic:

    One, I would like to know about more environmentally friendly ready-made hygiene products. So far, I only know about this firm: http://natracare.com/p25/en-GB/Why-Natracare.aspx that sells tampons and pads without chemicals.
    And, of course, there’s washable pads and menstruation cups / moon cups, which are not everyone’s cup of tea, though (no pun intended).

    For a long time I just used the cheapest brand of pad, because, hey, it costs me too much already. But with feminist consciousness came the realization: More likely than not, other women will have to suffer because of the chemicals and waste and maybe even harmful production? of those products. And while it is feminist to have more money for myself, it is not feminist to make other women suffer.

    Two, the tampon club is a very important thing. I feel this should be supported by the government, because it’s a damn scandal that we have to pay tax on something that we NEED. (Well, or we could just wear skirts and bleed on the floor. Maybe that should be tried as form of protest? Something like a bleed-in?)

    Three: That is something you probably know already: Herbal teas help some women to lessen their menstruation cramps. Lady’s mantle is one herb that is supposed to help. (I only know that from friends because I only drink it when I have pain, which is too seldom to gather any real data from.)

    1. I say menstruation cup is the absolute best way to go if you can physically do it (and I don’t see why not, unless you’re very young). That also clears it up about the notion that it only IS a small amount you bleed every month. Seriously, it’s not a lie. The thing is, it’s not _only_ blood you get, and it doesn’t come out neatly in a spoon like that. It gets smeared all over the pad all the time, no wonder everyone thinks it’s a ton. It’s not. Chill.

      Pads, to me, are also the reason I’ve thought periods are gross. I still think they are “dirty”. It is blood, after all. I know it’s all natural and that’s something that’s supposed to happen, and the blogger’s point about it having been sterile is no nonsense either, but I definitely haven’t felt all clean and nice during my period when I still used pads and tampons. And I think I’m allowed to feel that way, too.

      But honestly, not to be too annoying with this stuff, I’ve found the menstrual cup is, in reality, the only way I’ve actually been able to literally forget I’m on my period.

  8. This is a great topic to talk about. One aspect I wish we talked about more is that it doesn’t necessarily happen once a month. The cycle varies and is most often irregular among young girls, who are the most likely to think something is freakishly wrong with them because they don’t conform to the textbook account. For my part, I was very irregular and also not very frequent (6 to 8 weeks) up until I had kids, apart from a time when I was taking a contraceptive injection and had no periods, and then a horrible time coming off it when I had them every three weeks (which I could have done without, thankyou very much). Now it’s around every four weeks, but it’s still not completely regular and sometimes comes a few days early (and I know other women who’ve said their cycle got shorter after kids and as they got older). My non-standard cycle was a nuisance during my first pregnancy, as the midwives insisted on calculating my due date based on my last period plus a four-week cycle, which put everything two weeks wrong. They finally recalculated when the 20-week scan confirmed the dates I had given them.

    I also am a fan of the menstrual cup, but again – now this is TMI – it was less great after kids because, although it is sold in a larger size that’s supposed to be big enough for vaginas that have pushed out babies, I started to get a lot of leaks. I’ve gone back to it recently because my periods have lightened and it’s no longer such an issue. When they work, menstrual cups are definitely the best.

  9. I’m 47, and I only found out this year that constipation and/or the runs during your period are totally common and normal and I’m not the only one that suffers through this. Seems like something I should have known ages ago.

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