Time to talk periods

This was originally posted at The Lay Scientist.

A while ago I wrote a post at Vagina Dentata about periods. I was sick of menstruation being a hidden and taboo issue and one that we as a Western society fail to talk about. That post got the biggest response I have had both in terms of comments on the blog and in person from women and men alike.

This response included a great post from Arikia (The Millikan Daily) about tampon scarcity in Brooklyn – yep land of the free, with not a red mouse between them.

My main point was that ‘having the painters and decorators in’ was a feature of pretty much every woman’s life for most of her life. We’re all blobbing, so why is it so rarely talked about? Because it’s dirty that’s why – Biblically unclean.

Girls and boys are rarely told about the ‘stuff’ that happens to the opposite sex during puberty and beyond. It leads to fear, misunderstanding, shame and repulsion. The natural functions of women have for millennia resulted in the notion of women as fundamentally filthy (and not in a good smutty way). If you touch a woman during her monthly period you will be unclean till evening (Leviticus, which is all about the periods, and sleeping with animals). It has spawned a fascination and abhorrence with female functions and feminine ‘dirt’.

But this means that an important and recurring aspect of women’s lives doesn’t get discussed. There are gruesome facts about perioding that rarely get mentioned: that you shit differently, sometimes it hurts so much you vomit, it can make you uncoordinated and bump into things/knock things over, your breasts can swell and hurt, you get incredibly hot at night and can’t sleep, you get water-retention and go up a dress-size (BTW these things don’t happen every time or all at once, that would be really inconvenient).

All women have had to make make-shift sanitary towels out of bog-roll at one time or other. We’ve all had to get blood stains out of our favourite pants and jeans. We all have stories about when we found out about what periods were, when we started, the chats with our mothers, sisters or teachers. But those chats were always hushed and never involved men.

But since that blog post I’ve come across some more interesting posts and issues. I was writing from my own experience and so very much contextualised what I was saying as being a ‘Western’ issue. But of course it isn’t. While the period taboo is a pain in the vadge in the UK, it is a serious developmental problem in poorer countries around the world.

This is a brilliant campaigning film by the Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) program which helps local women in developing countries “jump-start their own businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality, and eco-friendly sanitary pads.”

So it seems ‘menstrual silence’ can lead to girls missing out on school and women missing out on an income.

This reminded me of the equally excellent Dignity! Period campaign in Zimbabwe where one of the added consequences of the economic crisis is that women cannot afford sanitary products. This in turn affects their health, education and threatens their dignity. For many ordinary women sanitary products are a ‘luxury’ that they can no longer afford or access, as many manufacturers have fled Zimbabwe causing shortages of the products.

The common factor in the UK, US, Zimbabwe and Uganda is the ‘menstrual silence’. How many times do sanitary products get talked about in terms of human necessity? We have broken the taboo on talking about condoms (Vatican notwithstanding) in order to address HIV/AIDs, we need to break the taboo on periods to talk about the very real affect that they have on women’s lives and health and the very real need that women have for sanitary towels and tampons.

These aren’t luxuries. I don’t feel like I’m indulging myself when I buy them (even though I’m likely to be buying 5kgs of chocolate at the same time). And the thought of having to fashion a towel out of leaves and rags while having limited or no access to toilets and/or cleaning facilities is too grim to contemplate.

And if you think I’m being prim by suggesting that tampons/towels are a human necessity – you think about bleeding (including blood clots and womb lining) for a week into what is already a warm, moist, bacteria-loving area covered in hair and consider not being able to keep that clean. Then think about that taking place in a hot climate where you have to walk a lot. Is this seeming like an issue now? If so, go and donate to:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research blog is a thing of wonder and introduced me to SHE.

3 Responses to “Time to talk periods”

  • Bill Michtom Says:

    When my sister and I were growing up, my parents and we two talked about such things as a normal parts of conversation (she and I are now in our 60s). It was so commonplace in my mind (and, I assume, hers) that I remember her running home one day from her best friend’s up the street and yelling at the top of her voice, D_ got her period! This was a major, and exciting, accomplishment.

    Since then, I have discovered that my family was on on the, as it were, bleeding edge on this and all aspects of sexuality and gender relationships.

    Realizing that most people are mightily screwed up about their bodies, sex and sexuality has always made me sad.

  • Elizabeth Kissling Says:

    Thanks for the shout out to re:Cycling! We’ve added Vagina Dentata to our blogroll.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    *gasp* I’m sooo proud!

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