Girl, you’ll be a woman soon
I was ten years old when it happened. I woke up and saw it, and ran to my mum in a fit of tears, not knowing what the hell was wrong with me. She calmed me down and reassured me that this was normal, I was just growing up. I washed, used one of the sanitary towels she put out for me, and went downstairs sheepishly to eat my breakfast.
Yes, that’s right. I got my period when I was ten. After I learned that I wasn’t exploding from the inside out, I tried to carry on as normal but everyone around me was so weird about it. Mum looked like she was about to burst into happy tears half of the time, my dad kept telling me that I wasn’t a little girl anymore, and my brother spoke to me affectionately but awkwardly, not knowing how to act around me.
I felt grim, unclean, not like myself at all. I wasn’t particularly comfortable in my own skin anyway, but the burden of a new and unwelcome bodily function made me hate it even more. My friends looked at me in awe, I was the first one of us to be inflicted with the crimson plague and they found it and me fascinating. It was a very strange thing to attract attention for something I didn’t exactly revel in, and in the months that followed I became even more awkward and retreated into myself for a few days every four to five weeks. My mum would write a note in my school diary to excuse me from swimming lessons when the time came, and in the warmer summer months, I would be so paranoid that I had bled through my blue and white checked school dress that I would constantly check my behind in any mirrors or windows I passed to look for even the tiniest stain.]
It took a couple of years to get used to it, and I think in the end I found the whole experience oddly empowering. As I learned more about the menstrual cycle in Biology lessons, I realised that the process my body went through every month was actually pretty cool. Don’t deny it, women are basically the human equivalent of unicorns our bodies are that magical.
Two years ago I found Dominique Cristina’s epic poem about this very subject in which she slams an idiot on Twitter for gleefully dumping his girlfriend for daring to menstruate during sex. It sums up how I felt when the penny dropped. She says:
“Dear nameless dummy on Twitter: You’re the reason my daughter cried funeral tears when she started her period. The sudden grief all young girls feel after the matriculation from childhood, and the induction into a reality that they don’t have to negotiate, you and your disdain for what a woman’s body can do. Herein begins an anatomy lesson infused with feminist politics because I hate you.
“There is a thing called the uterus. It sheds itself every 28 days or so, or in my case every 23 days, I’ve always been a rule breaker. That’s the anatomy part of it, I digress.”
“The feminist politic part, is that women know how to let things go, how to let a dying thing leave the body, how to become new, how to regenerate, how to wax and wane, not unlike the moon and tides, both of which influence how you behave, I digress.”
This is the really good bit:
“…when your mother carried you, the ocean in her belly is what made you buoyant, made you possible. You had it under your tongue when you burst through her skin, wet and panting from the heat of her body, the body whose machinery you now mock on social media, that body, wrapped you in everything that was miraculous about, and then sung you lullabies laced in platelets, without which you wouldn’t have no Twitter account at all motherfucker. I digress.”
After reading it, every fibre of my being screamed “YES!” in solidarity with Cristina, and I decided once and for all that I would call out anyone who dared to shame women and girls for this natural and frankly beautiful process of renewal.
Periods are a wonderful thing, and yet so taboo. Humans (as we know ourselves now) have existed for some 200,000 years. Only in 2016 did we finally see an advert for feminine hygiene products which actually features a woman putting on a sanitary towel. She then goes on to perform a trapeze act, because in case you hadn’t noticed, life carries on for a menstruating woman.
I hope this will bring about a change of seismic proportions to the way in which we see periods. They are reviled for their messiness, or we women hide sanitary towels or tampons in our sleeves/down our tops/tucked into trousers or skirts. Why are we so embarrassed by them? I remember when they would sneak up on me with ninja-like stealth, I would ask my friends in hushed tones if they had any spare supplies. Like we were in a secret battle with our bodies.
Can we stop being embarrassed? If Dominique Cristina proves anything in her poem, it’s that we should be proud of our periods. The female body is comprised of incredibly sophisticated biological engineering, so powerful that it gives life. This is nothing to poke fun at a la “dummy on Twitter”, but to celebrate. So let’s do that. Let’s do away with the shame.
Unfortunately, the shame of periods does permeate through multiple parts of human existence, including religion. This is something I’ve dealt with, and makes me even more convinced that we need this seismic change. I was a deeply religious teenager, and went to a Hare Krishna Mandir in Birmingham. It was a close knit community of well meaning people, and I did enjoy being part of something bigger than myself. It all went down hill, however, after one Autumn afternoon.
It was a typical Sunday, I was at the Mandir and offered to help cook dinner for the evening. Before I could enter the kitchen, one of my friends stopped me and asked “Are you clean?” to which I naively replied “Uh yes, I’ve just washed my hands”. “No no” she said, “are you “clean”?” She might as well have winked and nudged my arm she was that subtle. I told her that I was, and so she let me in and I started peeling potatoes.
All well and good, you might think, but only moments after we had finished dinner, I went to the loo. My uterine walls decided that this was the opportune moment to smugly “ta-dah!”, jazz hands and all. I was racked with guilt. I felt awful, convincing myself that I had unjustly convinced my friend that I was clean and pure enough to prepare dinner, and that because I had been so irresponsible unleashing my womanly germs on the devotees, something awful would happen. Looking back, I may as well have been running away from a band of schoolboys pointing their fingers and yelling about my “lurgy” it feels that ridiculously inane. But I did feel awful, and I know many others who have too. This isn’t ok, and it needs to stop.
Knowingly or not, my parents raised me to be a staunch feminist. When I was a child, I would look to female Hindu deities and knew that I was being raised in a tradition which celebrated rather than denigrated women. We are strong, and Durga, Laxmi, Kali and the thousands more are constant and important reminders of this. In the stories we learned as children, it was these women who vanquished demons and saved humanity from the clutches of evil. Women. Strong, fierce, indomitable women.
It’s exactly this celebration of women that makes shaming us for our bodily functions so ridiculous. Is it that we are wondrous beings apart from our periods? Every part of and everything about a woman is a marvel to rejoice at, apart from the blood she sheds every month. That’s the exception to the rule, it’s icky. The reason why I was stopped before I entered the Mandir kitchen that day was because my friend feared that my purity might have been compromised, that my innocence had been breached. One of the most basic parts of the female experience dared to rebel and make me dirty.
I hear young Hindu women say that they can’t do X, Y and Z because of their period getting in the way, and I can’t help but challenge them to see how ridiculous the arguments for this are. Who set these restrictions on women’s behaviour because our bodies dare to do what they were made to do? Why do we not challenge them? I’ve asked people why and how this rule was dreamt up, and so far they all seem to be as unaware as I am. This goes on unquestioned and unchallenged, and so other women and girls are stopped at Mandir kitchen doors.
The female body falls under scrutiny on multiple occasions throughout her lifetime, and the fight for autonomy over what we do with them rages on.
Our forebears had to fight hard for access safe and reliable contraception, and in the countries where it is available to all women, not just married women, it is emblematic of a woman’s autonomy over her body, not the state’s and not religion’s. It gives women the choice to enjoy sex freely, protecting ourselves against unwanted pregnancy. It makes it absolutely clear that sex is for our pleasure as much as it is for men, and it serves an oh so brilliant and euphoric purpose beyond procreation.
I’ll admit that I’ve taken access to birth control for granted. As soon as I needed it, I saw a nurse who told me about my options, and since then I’ve taken a pill every morning which takes away the worry of impending pregnancy. To think that a tiny white pill enacts your decision to not have a child just yet is pretty incredible, and, given all of the crazy people out there who assume jurisdiction over the female body, this is both an important and necessary two-fingered salute in their direction. Every morning, I make myself a cup of tea and take my little white pill and a tiny but loud voice inside me sings “Hallelujah” knowing that I won’t have to pee on stick and wait anxiously on the loo for two minutes while my fate decides which way it’s going to lean.
Men, however, have long been able to enjoy sex without the burden of proof. Forget that they don’t have to carry a foetus for nine months, they enjoy sex without judgement and without fear of their reputation being tarnished. Nathaniel Hawthorne, legend that he was, knew this, and told us how wrong this is by bringing Hester Prynne to life. Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, and the need for society to pay attention and listen to his message is an necessary as it was then.
I can count on both hands and feet the number of times I’ve been called a slut. As a thirteen year old, I was followed home from school by a group of boys. I confronted them and they came back with the age old, unoriginal insult. This carried on, to the point that I have been pushed up against a wall in a club, touched inappropriately on the bus, and have ran away from men in nightclubs. All of these men snatched my autonomy away from me, and I hate that fact that this has happened, and will happen to every single one of us women, even when we are girls.
When men call us sluts they put themselves firmly on that patriarchal parapet and tell us we’re only worthy if they deem us to be. If we say no, we’re aberrations undeserving of their respect. People know this is wrong, that’s easy to grasp. What makes this really fucked up is how it filters down into the normal, casual everyday. Throwaway comments are made about a woman and her sexual activity and we’re told it’s all in jest. That we should get over it and take a joke. It’s harmless fun. When a girl becomes a woman, this is the reality she is told she has to face on a daily basis.
Excuse me while I call this out for what it truly is. Whether we have sex or not, we’re shamed. To prevent this, it would seem that we should play ball and obey their rules. Our sexual identities are only relevant if we put men ahead of our own pleasure, and far too often, our safety.
Please, let’s no longer pretend that sex is exclusively for men, trust me, we women will keep doing it as much as we please.
The game has been played for 200,000 years and we have arrived on the field. We’re here to have as much fun as you, and if you’re good you can join us. You’ll need to respect us, though, and of course you’ll get the same in return. Remember that.
As you might have guessed, I’m pretty open about sex. This has led to some interesting situations, my personal favourite being when I exclaimed “sex is amazing!” in a room full representatives of various faiths.
When I lived with my parents a few years ago, I got roped into attending an interfaith event, where the main subject was tackling underage sex and he need to provide proper sex education. I’m not exactly a fan of interfaith, as it’s unproductive tripe, so I decided to have some fun. Besides a couple of people looking at me like I was a complete nutter, my outburst was met positively, especially by the two Anglican women sitting opposite me. I won’t lie, I felt quite proud that my comment made the two septuagenarians smile approvingly at me across the room.
Thinking back to the sex education I received, it was severely lacking. I didn’t even get to experience that patent right of passage: putting a condom on a banana. Instead, it focused on the mechanics of sex, and when it did focus on the emotional, we were only ever told about the risks of having sex to the point that most of us were scared shitless of having it. I don’t wish to deny that there are risks, of course there are, but this is why safe sex, not no sex is what we should be promoting.
Consensual, respectful, fun sex between adults. Simple.
The way we talk about the first sexual experience we have is messed up too. Why is it that we “lose” our virginity? Like we left it on the bus, open prey to preying vultures? One would think that we should expect to lament over our first time, like we had lost a phone on the tube or earring at a bar. Losing something is bad, but sex isn’t, and we should demand that the first time like the thousands, millions more that follow are at least good, if not a little fumbly and awkward when we start out. Telling young people or indeed adults otherwise is unhelpful and damaging, setting us up for a lifetime of underwhelming and lacklustre sex.
Surely we deserve better?
Yes we do. So rather than scaring pre-teens in classrooms, why not tell them how great sex can be, that it’s something to look forward to? Teach them to own their sexuality, to cherish it and demand that it is respected. Teach them that they must not tolerate being shamed for this, and that they must not shame others. Call out slut-shaming for the disgusting bullshit it is, and make it clear that both men and women are free to enjoy sex as much as the other, and no one should demand anything but.