A woman never forgets the first time she got her period. For me, it was when I was eleven years old. I was in the fifth grade, and I had been playing at a friend’s house just up the street from mine. Suddenly I had to use the bathroom, and when I pulled my pants down, eleven-year-old me was utterly shocked to see blood in my underwear. Just a few weeks before, all of the girls in the fifth grade were squeezed into one classroom and forced to watch a video about our looming menstrual cycle, so I understood WHAT it was. However, I was mortified. I was too embarrassed to tell my friend, so I made up an excuse for having to go home suddenly. I was too embarrassed to tell her mother why I had to politely decline a ride home out of fear I would get blood on the seat of her car. I was even too embarrassed to tell my OWN mother at first, which is why I waited about three hours after I got home to tell her just what had happened. When I finally did tell her, she cried. She was “so proud of the woman I was becoming” and wasted no time teaching me everything I needed to know about a pad and the week that was ahead of me. I could not for the life of me figure out why she was so happy, because I wanted to crawl in a hole and die in that moment.
The next day, she loaded me up with pads to take to school. I will never forget how scared I was to go to walk into Bellevue Elementary School that day. I didn’t tell a single friend, teacher or faculty member about my newfound “friend.” I hid the fact that I had to go to the bathroom every hour to change my pad, (being new to the process, I had no judgement for how long those puppies could last me) and the thought of someone knowing what was up was enough to make me sick (or was it the cramps?). For YEARS to come, I would feel shame and embarrassment from my mensies. But the real question is… why?
Now that I look back on it, I think about how terrible it is that I was made to feel like my body’s natural process was something I had to hide and be ashamed of. I wasn’t born with the preconceived notion that my period was an evil thing. The only time I find it truly even is when those damn cramps come around. So why at the age of eleven was I already made to feel like I should hide it?
The unfortunate but utterly true answer is that society made me feel like my period was something to hide from a very young age. And I’m not sure how much of it was any one person’s fault, but just the stigma around the whole process. For instance, when I first learned about my period, it was in that small classroom full of fifth-grade girls. After a video depicting every detail in animation form, we were given a sample pad, a pamphlet about the process, and some mini-deodorant (was this to tell us our period co-existed with being dirty or were they just trying to tell us we smelled? I’ll never know). When we left the room, everyone was being very secretive about what we had watched. The teachers didn’t inform the boys of our video, and we didn’t let them see what was in our little “goodie bags.” So right from the start, I was made to feel like boys shouldn’t know about our period. It was a “girl thing,” and boys were not to be bothered with girl things.
Why I felt the need to hide my period from my girlfriends I still don’t understand. I lied about the fact I had started my period when anyone would ask. Once in the sixth grade, I even had an accident in reading class. Instead of telling my closest friends what had happened, I came up with ANY dumb excuse I could think of, one of my best being that I “sat on a strawberry Pop Tart this morning.” (C’mon Lauren, give me a break.) Once they all started getting their periods, I felt some relief, but not much. All of us were very secretive about our periods, sneaking pads and tampons out of our backpacks and hiding them in the sleeve of our shirt or in our shoe until we got to the bathroom. When we would ask to go to the bathroom and a teacher said no, we would quietly sit down and pray to the sweet Lord above that we wouldn’t leak through our pants. Any time we were emotional or angry about something, any boy around would make comments that we were probably just on our period. When any boy overheard my friends and I talking about our periods, we would be met with the famous question: “EW! Why do you have to talk about that stuff around me? That’s disgusting.”
As women, we are taught to come up with nicknames in order to refer to our periods, because just flat out saying, “I’m on my period” is apparently too risqué. Absurd phrases like “Aunt Flow is visiting,” “I’m painting the town red,” “Flying the Japanese flag,” “Shark Week,” “Riding the cotton pony,” or my personal favorite, “blowjob season.” They are code words only known among girls, so the boys don’t have to know when we’re “riding the crimson wave.”
Not only are we told to hide our menstruation in everyday life, but also in the media. Artist Rupi Kaur recently did a photo series addressing the stigma around periods. She put the photos on Instagram, some of which being her lying in bed with a blood stain on her pants and the sheets. Ironically enough, Instagram removed the photos twice, because they “did not follow the site’s community standards.” Yet how often do we see pictures of naked women or illegal activity on Instagram?
According to writer Erika Sanchez, “The company’s decision to censor an image of period blood sent the message that women’s bodies are acceptable — if they’re sexually desirable.” Likewise, she pointed out that men have no problem watching violent movies or playing graphic video games, but the mere mention of menstrual blood is disgusting to them.
This taboo around a woman’s period is even brought into the workplace. Another photo series about menstruation was published in an issue of Cosmopolitan, eventually getting that issue banned from many offices. The issue was deemed “not suitable for work.” The term “feminine product” is applied to machines designated to dispense pads and tampons and is on the bin where you should dispose of them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I HATE the term “feminine product”. Why can’t we just call them tampons and pads? Are those terms too risqué too? Not to mention the fact that taxes are placed on tampons and pads because in the eyes of the government, they are seen as a luxury. I can’t help but wonder if they would still have a luxury tax if they weren’t seen solely as feminine products.
For crying out loud, we even see it in technology. When deciding to write this paper, I texted my friend on my iPhone to tell her what I’d be writing about. She is a Gender Studies major and wrote her senior composition about the stigma around menstruation, so I wanted to let her know. As you may or may not know, Apple has this convenient feature that uses predictive text algorithms to guess what word you are trying to type out, and will autocorrect if they feel like you’ve made a spelling mistake. Because I’m a terrible speller, I misspelled the word “menstruation” in my text. When I went to fix the mistake, no spelling suggestion came up. Puzzled, I typed the word again, waiting for Apple’s algorithm to predict my word. It didn’t. I started to get curious, so I began to type out the word “tampon”. Nothing. Baffled, I took to the internet to see if I was just being paranoid, and sure enough I found several articles with complaints about how words like “menstruation” and “tampon” are indeed left out of Apple’s autocorrect feature. Other words left out of this feature are words that are deemed inappropriate, such as curse words. To me, this sends the message that those words are not allowed, and that any mention of menstruation is inappropriate.
So the answer to my QAI is simple: The shame and stigma around menstruation is a direct form of misogyny. Our bodies are sacred, wonderful things – but only if they are pleasing to men. The hiding of tampons, the code words, the embarrassment of menstrual blood; it is all to keep men in the dark so they aren’t bothered by something that is actually a beautiful and important part of a woman’s body. And the more we hide, the more ignorant men become about the process. I have met full grown men that don’t know how a period works, what it does to a woman’s body, or even how a tampon works. That’s not always their fault though. It is our generation’s responsibility to teach girls AND boys that menstruation is nothing to hide. We should be showing the ENTIRE fifth grade the video about menstruation, not just the girls. We should use the legitimate medical terms, rather than hiding the fact that “Aunt Flow” is paying another visit. We should be celebrating the photo series about menstrual blood, rather than sending the message that we should be censoring it. And for the love of God, if I’m a middle schooler who has to go to the bathroom to change my tampon, I should feel no shame in telling the teacher who told me to sit down that I’m on my period. The moment we start to perceive menstruation as beautiful and natural is when we finally begin to respect women. Menstruation, while it can me a pain in the ass, is actually pretty cool. It’s amazing when you understand the things a woman’s body does every month, and when men begin to understand it as well, the stigma will begin to diminish.