#13: Breaking Barriers: In Conversation With Women on Their Menstrual Journey
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my journey with periods and the stigma attached to it. So I decided to ask a few friends of mine what they went through as well.
— — — —
The heavy taboo attached to menstruation is a common feature world over. For years now, women have been undeterred in their efforts to normalize menstruation. Normalizing menstruation can not only culminate in the appropriate exercise of personal agency, but can also increase access to information, better healthcare, and hygienic practices. Manasa Ram Raj spoke to a few people on their journeys with menstruation, and what they would say to their younger self re-menstruation. Here is what they had to say.
“What would you tell your 12-year-old self about your journey with periods”
Dear 12-year-old Harini, I hope you’re aware of the changes your body is going through right now. I’m writing to let you know that it’s alright! Those little bloodstains on your bed? They’re alright. Those late-night cravings and bloating? They’re alright. I want you to know that it’s alright to talk to people about this because it happens to every single woman and it is completely natural. I know it’s embarrassing to walk to your corner shop and buy a heavily wrapped pack of pads, and to do the ‘walk of shame’ back; but, it’s alright. Because guess what, in 2019 you will be able to talk about these things unabashedly. The world gets more aware and open. You’ll grow into your imperfections and be more accepting of yourself. Listen to your body, comfort your friends during their time of the month, break the taboo, embrace your changes, and endure. We’ll meet soon, 24-year-old Harini.
Just two things, young one. One, ASK every question that comes to mind because at 25, 27, 29, and 30, the answers come in too late. Don’t make shame your destination — this is happening to your body and you own your body. If you are the boss of your body, why not do all the research it takes to know how to work with it? Two, you do you. Don’t pile on all those random pieces of advice people throw at you. You don’t need to try something because that’s what tradition dictates and you don’t need to stay off the support you need to handle the pain because that is what you are told to do. If soda works, so be it. If moving works, so be it. Keep chocolate on your person until you turn 19, after that, I take over and you become allergic, though.
If I could go back in time and have a conversation about periods with my 12-year-old self, I would try to first normalize the concept by telling her every woman has been through this and lives with it, and it’s not that big a deal. “Geez, you aren’t alone, so calm down!” I would want to tell her that this feeling of embarrassment and paranoia is only temporary and absolutely unnecessary, and it’s even better if not paid heed to. That she would grow up and realize that although this transition is huge for a girl, it’s easily going to fit into the usual course of her life. I would let her know that among the many other reasons, periods will always remain a subject of bond with her girlfriends, and to an extent with all the women of this world. So much so that the syncing of cycles with close friends is going to be celebrated as a sign of closeness. People will empathize with your cramps, get rather pampered with hot water bags and parcels of ice-cream tubs. Moreover, for all the times she is unprepared and her period pulls a fast one on her, she’ll always find a woman right around the corner coming to her rescue. Such is its power. So relax, your period, for all reasons, will remain to be a bearer of good news and good news only!
Carissa Mary D’Almeida
Thinking back to when it was about 6 months since you got your period and were still uncomfortable with it. You’re embarrassed to ask your friends or the school nurse for a sanitary napkin. No matter what, you feel you can’t ever stain your clothes because then EVERYONE would know, EVERYONE will judge you for having your period and no one would want to come near you because it’s icky, it’s dirty and it’s shameful. Fast forward seven years later, you’re going to be laughing at how naive you were. You must know one thing — you are not to blame — you’re just another by-product of the cultural taboo surrounding it.
Menstruation is a natural process and instead of being ashamed about it, you should feel empowered by it. No matter the pain, discomfort, shame, anxiety, and isolation caused by the way our bodies break down and fix itself back up is pure science and beautiful in its own way. Embrace it, overcome it and you’ll see yourself blossom. What you should work towards, however, is breaking the stereotype around it, something so fascinating and common should be discussed and not shunned. Such dialogues would only be for the greater good and benefit of all women. If we don’t look out for ourselves, who will?
Oops. Huh? Ew.
This is what I remember of my first period. I was 14 at the time. On my way to my math tuition (as if that wasn’t bad enough), I felt something wet down there. And I mean really WET. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t try. But my stomach felt weird too. Odd, I thought. But I didn’t care to check. Back home after a strange hour of discomfort, I went to the washroom and looked down at my panties, only to feel even more confused. CRIMSON.
Needless to say, I did what any girl would — called out to my mother and asked her what it meant. “Oh, no”, she went. She felt sorry. “You’ve got your period.” And my heart sunk.
You see, I was relatively, and gratefully, quite late to this party. All the girls I knew around me had got their first period, and many after. They hated it, and I reveled in not having to suffer that. But I was only biding my time. And my time, well, it had come. So then we sat down, discussed what it meant in detail (my mother is a scientist and now a science teacher) and how I had to deal with it. So out came the pads, and a future of monthly absolute discomfort.
Immediately, I despised the restriction, anguish, and agony. I stained every skirt, every underwear and ever bedsheet for a long time. It was an immediate embarrassment. But unlike most stories we hear, my parents never made me feel like it was taboo. I studied in a school that didn’t either. The boys knew about it, but they were kids and bound to feel awkward. The girls were open and fairly vocal and the teachers hardly intrusive.
But it was when I moved schools, I started to realize that there was in fact, a stigma. I learned that the general populace didn’t like talking about periods, although several Indian communities celebrated it. I guess there was an overarching double standard. Pads were hidden in books or under a hoodie to be used, the word “pad” was whispered under your breath because God forbid anyone found out about the workings of your body! It bothered me deeply that what was supposed to be so revered was so vilely stigmatized.
So I started my own rebellion. I held my pads openly, passed them around openly, asked for them openly, spoke about them openly, spoke about my period and what I go through with it openly. There is no shame. I figured, heck, what are you gonna do to hurt me? I’m already bleeding!
So if I have to tell my 12-year-old self something, I’d say — roll around in the mud a little more, no one cares about that stain. And even if they do, all you need to ask yourself is — do you?
The first time I got my period was when I was dancing for an event at school. I got my periods a little later than all my friends when I was 15 years old. I had all the basic information from my friends about menstruation till that time of course. I frankly didn’t expect it to happen for the first time while I was dancing on stage. Surprisingly, it did not hurt much as compared to what my friends encounter.
I am an epileptic patient too, so I was moody and grumpy because I always have been on medication since I was 14 years old. I was constantly worried about why my periods last only 5 days and not 7 days like all my other friends? Was there something wrong with me? My mood got worse during my periods and I started getting more anger issues. The pain was quite bearable but I had the most trouble managing my emotions. But my mother helped me a lot. She told me to not think about it as a hindrance in your life. It’s a part of your life and you have to eventually accept it. She then told take it as a gift. Easier said than done right?
When I look back now, I just want to remind my younger self that it will be easy in the future, it is nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody is different, the pain is different too. I want to tell my younger self I am proud of her for being through furious emotional troubles and hanging in there, talking about it out loud to the people around, for never skipping a basketball match or a dance class because of periods.
I got my periods when I was in 7th grade, much earlier than most of my friends and family around me. Initially, nobody told me anything about it, I had absolutely no idea what it was when I got it for the first time. I remember being in the swimming pool and looking at the red-brown color, I thought it could be mud from outside. But it kept happening for the next three days and was super uncomfortable. On the third day when I told my mother and then she explained it to me. She told me I need to start wearing pads!
Although, I wish I was aware of my options before getting my periods for the first time. I wish I was told about different products as well for instance using tampons instead of pads. I used to have really bad and painful periods, so I would have been comfortable wearing tampons instead of sticky and icky pads. I also wish someone told me to eat better during those days and to exercise regularly. It really helps with cramps. I wish I had also taught myself better about the female anatomy. It was such a big deal back then, but over the years I have gotten comfortable with it.
Dear 12 year old me, I want you to know that your period is the reason for all life, it is your body constantly trying to preserve and progress. Every girl and woman out there has it and every boy and man encounters and learns about it. There’s nothing to hide, it’s okay to carry a packet of pads across the supermarket through to the billing counter, it’s okay to tell your dad you’re on your period and it’s okay to acknowledge it loudly. Periods are okay, normal and regular. You’re going to live a long life with it, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. And don’t use it as an excuse to skip PE, you’re better than that.
Luckily, I knew enough about periods before I actually got them. A couple of my friends got it much before me and we used to discuss it in class, so I wasn’t scared when I got it. I knew it was natural and happens to every girl. But that being said, I would say to my 12-year-old self to never restrict yourself from doing any activity or playing any sport when you are on your periods. I would also my younger self that it is as common as getting hurt but also to be more cautious. It shouldn’t scare you in any way. You should attach no stigma to it.
Although, my biggest worry as a 12-year-old sailing enthusiast taking part in competitions worldwide was the fear of it leaking out water or that periods would leave me too tired to sail at all. Naturally, I was scared that I couldn’t give my 100% and the constant worry about having to change pads while at sea was daunting. Mainly because as children, we weren’t encouraged to wear tampons. Coming from an orthodox Indian community, tampons were not really the go-to for sports as well. Over the years I realized that getting your period while on competition is no big deal. The body works in mysterious ways, for it knows the extent of physical exercise during practice, so it internalizes the exertion to make periods last only for a day. This came as a surprise to me. I initially taught that was not normal, but my mother, grandmother, and doctor confirmed that the body does that when you indulge in intense physical exercise. I guess it was the universe’s way of telling me that it’s got my back.
I was 14 years old when I got it for the first time. I was at home when I noticed a stain on my panties and spoke to my mother about it. I knew about periods so I wasn’t really shocked but the stain itself did stun me. I had always been scared of blood and it made me very queasy every time I saw it. My biggest problem, however, was not the blood or pain or shock or awkwardness, but a very real problem all of us face but talk very little about. My issue was & is how sticky and gross a pad feels on your butt.
I wore a pad on my first period and I hated it so much that I spent my first month researching other alternatives I could use. I came across the concept of tampons. My mother had never used tampons and neither did anybody I knew in my school. To be frank, I didn’t really have an open discussion with my classmates about it at the time. I finally found OB tampons. They were simple, with just a string, and did not have any sort of ejecting mechanism. (The olden days!) I was really excited to use them and got a pack before my next period was to come. This time, I got it when I was in school. I promptly went to the bathroom to try my new product. I walked like a duck for the rest of the day, but I felt magical. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world to not have a wet, sticky pad on but at the same time I had to get used to something inside me for 5 days. I couldn’t tell people around me what I was going through at the time. I even slept with it until a few years later when a friend told me about toxic shock syndrome and how it’s not a good idea to wear a pad for more than 8 hours so, most definitely, sleeping with a tampon may be dangerous.
Despite coming from an educated and liberal family that believed that nothing was taboo, I had to go through the entire process of research and trial & error to tackle my individual inhibition of talking about ‘that gross thing’. It’s been an interesting journey. I still use tampons and am not comfortable with menstrual cups yet but I hope to move towards more eco-friendly products that don’t make me feel icky the whole day. It’s quite horrendous and no one should go through that.
— — — —
I also spoke to a few good menfolk on what their experience with menstruation was and how they perceived the stigma— click here to read what they had to say.