Bloody Hell: Part 1

Swimming was the first casualty of my period.

My mother was a firm believer that tampons weren’t for younger girls. (She wasn’t alone; the idea that tampons could somehow harm young people has been a decades-long misconception.) This meant I was all about that With Wings life. It also meant I had no protective options that could be worn with a bikini bottom.

Which was, frankly, fine by me. In those early days of painful cramps and unpredictable spotting, my 12-year-old self had a lot more going on than worrying about blood stains, like my ruthless self-consciousness and budding eating disorder. The rule about No Swimming While Mensing came, then, as a kind of salvation — it was my Get Out of a Swimsuit Free card, and it worked pretty well until I was 15.

Me getting out of swimming as a preteen.

After years of strategically scheduling my poolside days, my period finally came busting through at a time when swimming could not be avoided: On a school-related out-of-town trip that involved a pool. I accepted my fate accordingly — by trying to bail.

“I can’t go,” I told one of the chaperones in a hushed tone, “because I’m on my period.”

“Of course you can go,” she said, handing me the biggest tampon I’d ever seen.

My friend’s mother was basically this advertisement from 1950.

This patient woman coached me (and several other girls who’d been in the same boat, so to speak) through a locker-room door. Together, we somewhat effectively ventured into the water on the proverbial rag. From then on, I believed there was nothing I couldn’t do during that time of the month.

This is, of course, an extremely privileged position: the freedom to do whatever you please on your period. It’s a feeling that makers of period products —specifically, tampons — have been hocking for decades. And it wouldn’t be such effective marketing if it didn’t exist in stark contrast to the expected restrictions on menstrual life.

For centuries and across religious, ethnic, and geographic divides, mensing humans have been shunned, sequestered, silenced, segregated, and generally shut out of regular life. From the admonishments of the Bible to the advice in women’s magazines, menstruation has long served as a convenient way to restrict the movements and activities of the people who experience it (who are often, but not always, women).

Sidebar: Many people who have periods are not women; however, in multiple instances, I’ll be referring to traditions or cultural taboos wherein the assumption is that only women have periods (and that periods are a way to subjugate women). In those instances, I’ll be using the term “women,” but I want to acknowledge that menstruation is not specific to one gender.

It’s certainly not a bygone notion, either; in parts of the world where indoor plumbing, running water, and sanitary products are luxuries, not givens, periods keep kids home from school and adults out of the workplace. Even here in the United States, menstrual products are neither readily accessible nor affordable — and in institutions of incarceration, they’re even held as a kind of ransom.

Even in the modern era, when teens (and their parents) are more comfortable with tampons, and new innovations like THINX have created next-level mobility for period-havers, there remain a whole lot of people who can’t do a whole lot of things just because they’ve got their period.

You Can’t Share Spaces with Others

The existence of menstrual huts and barbaric murders of mensing women are often trotted out to prove that being stuck in a restroom without a tampon in sight is nothing compared to what other women have to deal with — but the truth is these practices endure. Menstrual huts still exist in areas ranging from Nepal to Mexico — and they are extremely miserable places.

Among people who follow the Chhaupadi tradition, menstruating women are sent to stay in sheds and huts, where they’re forbidden from performing some chores, speaking to men, laying in comfortable bedding, or consuming certain foods. The practice stems from the belief that menstrual blood is impure or unclear and must be kept away from the rest of the village.

This is a common theme across menstrual taboos — the uncleanness of the blood and, consequently, the bearer of the blood — and numerous cultures keep it alive, limiting the movements and mobility of women in the process. In Nepal, the practice has led to injuries and even fatalities among women and girls — a 15-year-old was found dead in a hut in 2016—but continues to persist.

This isn’t limited to Hindi people. The Bible is full of advice about where a menstruating woman should and should not lie:

Whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything also on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening.

You Can’t Eat Dairy

Women in menstrual huts are often barred from consuming dairy products for fear that their tainted selves may injure or kill the livestock. Even in the secular world, this is a common piece of period advice — just about any article about what to avoid during the Red Wedding will tell you to avoid dairy, citing arachidonic acid as the reason.

Arachidonic acid, found in dairy fat, is frequently linked with worse menstrual cramps. However, looking through the body of existing research, there’s no strong scientific study that ties the two conclusively.

One study from 1980 found that while this acid may increase pain, it can also be treated with aspirin. This was backed by a 1984 study, cited in 2007 in the journal Clinical Gynecology, which found that 72 percent of patients who received NSAIDs for period pain saw significant improvement, despite high arachidonic acid levels.

It may be true that high-fat dairy products make cramps a bit ouchier, but over-the-counter painkillers can help mitigate it.

You Can’t Bathe in Cold Water/Be Cold

In How to Keep Well: A Health Book for the Home, by public health leader William Augustus Evans, women are advised not to take cold baths during their period for…reasons.

Additionally, if a menstruating woman is caught in the rain or otherwise exposed to the cold (which is somehow worse when mensing, though the good doctor never spells out exactly why), Evans advises a “hot mustard foot bath.”

The weighty 1917 manual isn’t all about restrictions — it advises women to take whisky or laudanum for cramps and to use a warm saline douche at the end (but only if you’re married). Exercise, Evans says, is fine.

This 1975 ad for Pursettes, which were very small tampons advertised specifically to young women, doesn’t seem to mind a bit of cold weather. Via Flickr

The idea that getting cold while mensing was somehow a bad idea lasted for decades. One Kotex pamphlet (the company used to release a lot of pamphlets, and, in fact, it was common for competing hygiene brands to snipe each other in the pages) from 1940 advises against swimming and skiing because it may cause a “system shock.”

However, by the 1950s, the ability to swim or ski was actually a selling point for Tampax, Pursettes, and other brands, and the fear of a chill seemed to have thawed.

You Can’t Make Decisions

In 2012, CNN published a roundly mocked story about a study that linked hormones and voting, essentially indicating that a person could be swayed from their typical voting proclivities because Aunt Flo came to town. The article was quickly removed, but not before Twitter had fully eviscerated it and the damage was done.

The reaction was swift, in large part because women have been dealing with this particular rule for, well, ever. Menstruation—or, most often, “hormones,” or “emotions” more generally, which cannot be unbound from the menstrual cycle—has long been cited as one of the top reasons women can’t be trusted in leadership or decision-making.

You’re probably familiar with the stereotype: Women, who could potentially be on their period at any given time, are emotional, frenetic, and unreliable. It makes them great nurturers (natural mothers!) but not so good at analytic things

This was a huge part of the messaging around attempts to stop women’s suffrage and has been an undercurrent in the workplace for decades. Though menarche was never invoked by name, the opposition to women at the ballot box was centered largely around the fact that voting simply wasn’t something they should be doing. It would make them masculine, and, necessarily, it would feminize men. These stereotypes persist today.

More recently, the “she might get her period” defense has been offered by everyone from lazy sports analysts stating their opposition to female referees in men’s sports to those protesting female leadership in Silicon Valley.

“Hormones” were even cited as recently as last year as a potential reason a woman shouldn’t be president of the United States—though, of course, Secretary Clinton hasn’t had a period in years, and the link between erratic behavior and postmenopausal life has yet to be established.

Interestingly, a major component of menstrual-product advertising starting around the 1950s was that better products could actually make women more productive in the workplace. One ad from Tampax promised a reduction in “female absenteeism,” citing a study finding that women were 50 percent more likely to take time off work. The ad admits that they don’t know for sure if that’s always due to a period (it could have been, you know, a lot of other things), but it seems certain that the invention of the tampon could free women from being laid up on “those days.”

You Can’t Have Sex (Or Touch People at All)

We turn back to the Old Testament for this one. Take it away, Leviticus:

If a man lies with a woman during her monthly period and has sexual relations with her, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them must be cut off from their people.

And lest you think modern-day Christians have eschewed this advice entirely, note this post from a site that puts the scripture in context.

If you are a woman reading this you can see how important it is to remain holy at all times, and not to hug and touch people when you know that you are having a period. You should also not panic if your period lasts more than 7 days, just remain faithful and pray and you will be okay.

Orthodox Judaism also prescribes a separation between husband and wife during the menstrual period; the couple are permitted to sleep in the same bed only after the seventh “clean” day and a ritual bath.

Of course, in the secular world, periods are generally kept relatively hush-hush, meaning many partners may have slept beside a mensing human without even knowing it.

And, of course, period sex is a whole other ballgame. The act has gained new momentum, thanks to women’s magazines embracing a more sex-positive vibe. Still, if you strictly adhere to the Word, you may have a hard time justifying this particular activity.

You Can’t Get Pregnant

A vaguely reasonable excuse used for decades by men looking to get out of using a condom, this is one of the few potentially positive things that menstruating people who have opposite-sex penetrative intercourse supposedly can’t do.

It’s also worth nothing that one of the reasons period sex has long been stigmatized (aside from the fact that somehow blood is a fluid too far for some) is because of this exact misconception — that it has not been viewed as procreative. Even the Kotex puberty and menstruation booklet from 1936 uses Christian language to describe “God’s wise plan” and hints that sex is for the sole purpose of making children.

Unfortunately, the idea that menstruation necessarily means no babies is, of course, false.

Writing for How Stuff Works, Cristen Conger succinctly explains that “the menstrual cycle’s variability is a primary reason why having a period doesn’t temporarily render women infertile.”

Pregnancy is not, of course, just about the relative thickness of the uterine lining, which is what the body sheds during the crimson tide. Instead, it’s about an egg being fertilized — which can happen just about any time a sperm and an ovum meet up. And because a sperm can live in the vaginal canal or uterus for up to five days, period sex is by no means a guarantee that ovulation and ejaculation won’t result in fertilization.

Walt Disney’s World War II–era video may not have made this clear.

Basically, use birth control, even during That Time of the Month.

You Can’t Go into Space

Scientists in the 1960s were worried that a lack of gravity would cause a sort of reverse-flow situation in the uteruses of astronauts. In a 2010 interview, Rhea Seddon, one of the first female NASA astronauts, explained that she and the other women on the mission took a more pragmatic approach:

We said, “How about we just consider it a non-problem until it becomes a problem? If anybody gets sick in space, you can bring us home. Then we’ll deal with it as a problem, but let’s consider it a non-problem.”

It was, it turned out, not a problem.

You Can’t Get away from Period Lore

Menstruation is as old as humanity — and so are menstruation myths, rumors, and taboos. The culture of silence and shame around periods (and the unscientific theories they spur) have not only affected period-havers and the care and consideration they receive in the world; they’ve also plagued the medical community for ages, according to the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Volume 27, published in 1934.

The Bulletin, which calls out “superstitions” about menstruating, including “the spontaneous breaking of glasses, the stopping of clocks, etc.,” notes that centuries of hushed menstrual chatter has created a breeding ground for rumors, euphemisms, and other silliness, even among medical professionals and thinkers.

At the end of the piece, Dr. Emil Novak, the author, muses that while so many of those superstitions seem ridiculous (again, in 1934), “can we reasonably doubt that our present finely-spun theories of menstruation will excite among medical historians of the future the same compassion which we now bestow upon the crude beliefs of our scientific forebearers?”

An entire human lifetime later, we can officially answer: Yes, that doubt was reasonable — but only because we haven’t come that far.