By Jess Colvin
Aunt Flo, that time of the month, the red tide, your monthly visitor, the cranberry woman is coming, code red… it’s funny to list all the ways we avoid talking about periods.
It’s funny too, how having your period feels like a massive secret people carry with them once a month, yet every other person shares this same ‘secret’. We seem to sidestep around the conversation of a period through euphemism or silence instead of being upfront about our experiences.
Stories are so often kept hidden or shared with a hushed tone, kept closed in the fist of your hand as you stealthily reach into your bag and grab a tampon to take to the bathroom. These secrets lie in the obtrusive and unforgiving opening of tampon wrappers in the bathroom stall at uni, in suspicious side eyes when purchasing menstrual products in the supermarket or in the quick scurry to wash the blood out of our underwear and sheets before it’s seen. We can feel impolite, vulgar or dirty in addressing what ultimately makes us very human and natural.
Public forums such as advertisements, pop culture and the media, don’t seem to want to directly address what we go through, and often the true nature of a period is not mirrored or respected. Somewhere along the line reality is getting very lost in translation. And what about the experiences of those who identify with different cultures? The cost of it all? Who is bearing the brunt of the stigma and silence surrounding periods?
Looking back, most conversations I’ve had with others about their periods have been spoken about in a context that has to do with embarrassment, or humour to cover this embarrassment. There’s always been a general hesitation as to how much is ‘okay’ to share.
Personally, I put my own hesitation partly down to the way having a period was depicted in the media when I was growing up. Sanitary product advertisements felt more like an instruction on how to get away with murder, or on the best way to cover up a copious amount of blood with as tiny a tampon as possible, than an accurate depiction of what it is like to have your period. The words blood or period were never mentioned. To me these ads sent the message that it was best to be as discreet as possible, the alternative, that being honest about it, was being vulgar. Naturally I felt slightly awkward to talk to friends and family about my period and for the first few years I kept my period a secret because I felt real shame and embarrassment. I never dared bring it up in a casual or public context.
Recently, I sat down with my female flatmates to look at what advertisements we could find on YouTube. They really were missing the point. Period blood isn’t blue, we don’t dance around in our underwear on white sheets and women certainly don’t frolic down the beach wearing all white when they have their period either.
However, there was a recent UK video we found called ‘blood’. The video showed women in various physical athletic pursuits, showing real blood as they injured themselves and likening this to qualities of strength and perseverance in the face of physical setbacks. That advertisement had us feeling proud and uplifted. I wish I had seen that on television as a kid. We deserve a little bit more than the flowery and sugar-coated depictions on television that only serve to save the faint at heart from flinching at the sight of human blood or the word ‘period.’ Every space in a public forum to discuss and represent the experiences of women is an opportunity to feel united with other women and remind ourselves that we all go through the same messy, gruelling and painful experience each month – and most importantly – it’s not shameful to talk about.
With this in mind, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the way she was raised to tip-toe around the subject with her family because of her culture. It got me thinking not only about the way I have experienced the representation of periods in the media, but how different cultures around the world may treat them.
While I have felt mixed messages as to the way I should reference my own period, I have never considered a world where it is banned or overtly shamed. My friend told me she lived under the strict instruction to “keep it to yourself,” it was a discussion preferred not to have been bought up in her household for the ‘gross’ nature of it. She was not allowed to attend any religious events when on her period as she was considered unclean.
After some research I found this to be a common rule amongst several religions. In Nepal where the Hindu practice chaupadi, women are banished to makeshift huts in poor conditions for a week, every month. Here they are kept away from livestock, people and the land as they are considered impure and unclean when menstruating. Women frequently fall ill, and sometimes die. This practise is illegal but the shame and stigma means women are still forced to continue on with such rituals. In many countries such as Egypt and Iran, there is a belief that if you wear ‘tampons’ you are no longer a virgin.
In some cultures, it’s a different story and women are praised and seen as powerful. In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, women are treated like royalty, given gifts and the period is referred to by the religious leader on the ivory coast as “like the flower of a tree. You need the flower before the tree”. I’m talking about extreme ends of the spectrum here but my point is, is that we should be mindful of the fact there are some women who are oppressed from even bringing up the conversation of periods at all. The representation of women’s periods and the way the conversations about periods are sometimes silenced only serve to forge us deeper in to an oppressive state where we are to be ladylike, demure, polite and quiet.
Whatever you may call it a woman’s period is a very personal experience. Periods are a shared experience; we all have our own stories to tell. There should be no shame in telling them. If we are going to talk about it, if its going to be an ‘issue’ to talk about it, let’s tell the real stories. Ladies, please rip those pad wrappers open without hesitation, buy those super tampons with pride and remind yourself of how bloody shamelessly humanly woman you are.
When my mother was pregnant
with her second child I was four
I pointed at her swollen belly confused at how
My mother had gotten so big in such little time
my father scooped me in his tree trunk arms and
said the closest thing to god on this earth
is a woman’s body its where life comes from
and to have a grown man tell me something
so powerful at such a young age
changed me to see the entire universe
rested at my mothers feet
– Rupi Kaur