I’m Sorry, I Have My Period
my bloody mess
I recently had a cystoscopy and urethral dilation procedure done at the University of British Columbia Bladder Clinic. Of course, I got my period, with its usual vengeance, on that very same day. I felt gross and messy. And ashamed. I immediately apologized.
“I’m sorry,” I said in a quiet voice, “I have my period.”
I watched the doctor prepare his sterile field and his scope tools. His nurse fashioned a loin cloth for me from a tiny yellow wash cloth. For privacy. And to catch the bleeding mess sporadically gushing, sporadically dripping, from my vagina. Messy, bloody messy. We want, also, practically speaking, not to introduce blood into the bladder while we’re in there, having a look around. The doctor seemed entirely unfazed. So did his nurse.
What is it about our menses that creates such a disgust? It’s only blood, and bits of endometrial shedding. It’s me, it’s what’s inside me. It’s what makes life possible. Without the mysterious-not-so-mysterious mess of periods, not one of us would be here. Each and every one of us entered the world wrapped in a veil of our mother’s blood and uterine fluids. Menstruation is la force de vie. Why do we find it so gross and dirty and defiling?
I find it amusing that society has no trouble at all watching zombified humans get stabbed in the head for entertainment purposes, and yet spits out a collective, whiny, “Ewww! Gross,” when it comes to period stuff, menstrual blood. When I type ‘menstruation’ into the search box of the Online Etymology Dictionary, the following words appear onscreen: menstruation, menstruate, amenorrhea, curse, period, late, bloody. Because, presumably, the thinking is that amenorrhea is ideal, because menstruation is a curse, given its supposedly fickle and definitely bloody messiness.
When I type “menstruation and cleanliness” into the Google search box I get an endless list of hits telling me how to stay clean while I have my period. I especially ‘like’ the site that tells me to “Have a Clean Period!” It shows a picture of a young white women wearing a pair of lacy white knickers and holding a small bouquet of pink miniature roses in front of her pubic bone. Of course! Because I definitely feel like wearing white lacy boy short knickers when my uterus is gushing like the elevator from The Shining.
Apparently, a lot of disinfecting with Dettol and multiple underwear changes per day are required in order to have a clean period. Also, we mustn’t cross contaminate our underwear, we must have separate knickers for menstruating. And heaven help us if we end up with a lingering dried blood stain on our knickers! We may just get ourselves banished to that section of Hell for dirty girls. In fact, in some parts of the world girls and women who have their menses get removed from their homes, isolated from the community and banished to the hut.
A theme of divinity and purity certainly underlies our treatment of the feminine. Purity, portrayed as crisp and white, has moral authority, a divine superiority. Anything else defiles, renders itself impure. Menstruation, by these standards, pollutes we who menstruate. Menstruation renders us polluted, impure, sickly, even. The patriarchy goes deep and wide. The patriarchal ascetic casts female sexuality as the locus of all impurity, Catholics even have a name for it: original sin. The patriarchal ascetic values only the type of female spirituality rooted in self-sacrifice, submission and silence. Women must serve others above themselves, must obey men and mustn’t take up space.
Menstruation, like the females who do it, must be contained and controlled by means of purification and seclusion. Look at the language we use to discuss menstruation: feminine hygiene, napkins, paper. There’s that theme of clean, again: apparently our periods require purification, you know, like our drinking water does. What’s with all those TV ads for feminine hygiene that show women wearing white pants or shorts, horseback riding and that seem to tell us our menstrual fluid is a clear, blue fluid that resembles cleaning chemicals or mouthwash? I don’t know about you, but my menstrual flow is not clear blue liquid. It’s viscous, crimson coloured, with bits of gelatinous clots and shreds of endometrial tissue.
Since we cannot bear the disgust of discussing menstruation with proper grown-up language, we have taken to using all sorts cute of euphemisms in its place. In colloquial English, we say: on the rag, Aunt Flo, that time, shark week, crimson tide, Bloody Mary. Other cultures refer to lingonberry week, strawberry week, mad cow disease, communists in the funhouse, granny’s stuck in traffic, and the English have landed. Suddenly I have Joan Rivers’ voice inside my head asking, Can we talk? Because, wow. The communists are in the funhouse? Really? Where do we even begin, when unpacking such a euphemism? Do we really want to go there? Not to mention the obvious, the reason we euphemise.
Like Instagram, we want to censor menstruation. Apparently, blood is too graphic when it’s source is a vagina. Women live at the intersection of disgust and desire, and therefore, we must occupy as little space as possible. The space we do occupy must take the shape of the desires of those around us; disgust can be a kind of desire. All the transitional, messy bits of female biology require us to undergo extensive purification rituals. Femaleness makes women spiritually remedial, bloody messes.
Purity, by definition, has an exclusionary nature. Weaponized, it becomes a universal language. A weapon of mass oppression. Purity tells me that this bodily function I have — one entirely outside of my conscious control and one necessary for human procreation — renders me inferior and polluted. I have always felt a disturbing dichotomy about my period: shame and awe. Shame, at the bloody mess my body generates on its own precision clockwork. Awe, at the marvel of this inner precision clockwork. A great deal of tiny things have to happen with precision in order for menstruation to occur regularly: tiny things, hormonal, chemical processes, at the cellular level. Awe, also, at the fact that my period makes me a gatekeeper of a pro-creative power.
The inconvenience and mess feel burdensome, mostly, the responsibility of having this pro-creative power feels frightening, and the shame and disgust of making a monthly bloody mess don’t really go away. Women need to talk about our periods and acknowledging the ways in which it impacts our daily lives. You know that feeling when you’ve got your period early, and you’re not prepared? What if you had no access to pads, tampons or toilet paper? What do you do when you’re standing on the subway, and you suddenly get that feeling?
We need to talk about the real obstacles that women, particularly low income and homeless women, face in managing their menses. What do women do when they can’t afford to buy menstrual products? Some women use wads of toilet paper, which, ultimately, does not suffice. How does a woman move through her daily life if she cannot afford menstrual pads or tampons, has no access to laundry facilities or running water? We’ve made it shameful and gross to talk about periods, in addition to financially costly.
Equality means acknowledging the challenges women face associated with menstruation and reproductive health. It means granting menstrual leave. It means bridging the financial gap that prevents low income and homeless women from accessing safe, clean menstrual supplies. It means making menstrual supplies for girls and women as available and shamelessly accessible as we make condoms. It should be as easy for girls and women to get a pad or tampon as it is for them to get condoms. Its dead easy to get free condoms, not so easy to get free menstrual supplies. Why?
Equality form women means levelling the playing field. That means menstrual equality. That’s why organizations like Binti exist: to improve access to menstrual products, provide education about menstrual and work toward de-stigmatization by breaking the taboo and shame surrounding menstruation. Globally countries are considering menstrual leave, and within the USA some states have begun to consider menstrual equality laws to address the barriers associated with menstruation that impede women’s full participation in society.