I got my first period when I was twelve. Then, for some reason, I didn’t get another one for months. It was a hiccup, a one-off, a warm up act. Then, sitting in a classroom about four months later, I felt my stomach ache in a weird twisting motion and I became very uncomfortable in my chair. I was eventually sent home from school with a headache because I didn’t have the courage to tell a teacher what was really happening. I sat in the bathroom for ages trying to work out how to deal with this strange new conundrum.
But I’m not supposed to tell you this.
Women’s bodies are secret. From the minute puberty strikes we tell girls to hide any sign that things might be changing. Growing hair? Shave it. Gaining Weight? Lose it. Getting your period? Silently deal with it. As a society we simply don’t want to hear about it. And when it isn’t heard about or understood properly, parliaments dominated by men decide to slap a tax on it. Such is the controversy of the unhindered ‘Tampon Tax’ imposing the 5% rate upon all female sanitary products, classifying them as ‘luxury items’. As a society we may not want to hear about women’s bodies, but we are willing to make money from them.
Systematic as the problem is, all areas of our mainstream culture are affected. In October, adverts by lingerie brand Thinx were banned from New York subway stations for the slogan ‘underwear for women with periods’. This is despite the fact that adverts for breast augmentation (which used similar metaphorical imagery to Thinx) were deemed appropriate for the 5.5 million commuters. In December 2015, Outfront Media bowed to online pressure and allowed Thinx the right to display their ads in Brooklyn. But their story is one of many.
Whether it’s period-related advertising or breast feeding a newborn in public, outdated taboos are still at large. We assume women are, above all else, to be looked at; not practical or productive, just pretty and hollow. It comes from the air-brushed beauty standards that surround us. Teen Vogue documents the steps towards becoming ‘The Perfect Victoria’s Secret Angel’, prepping younger generations for the pressures of looking like someone else’s version of perfect. We are confronted with images of mythical ‘angels’ not women, who walk on runways high above the ground, who shimmer and sparkle and never eat bread. They’re not like you or me, they don’t ache with a hot water bottle every month from uterus cramp or fret about the potential rash from shaving in the shower with goose-bumps. They are Gillian Flynn’s ‘Cool Girl’ incarnate, and we are all supposed to want to be them. Feminists campaign with ‘nanny-ins’ and ‘free bleeding’ on parliament square but you would be forgiven for feeling defeatist at times.
Yet, despite the mainstream narrative that exists, women love to talk about their periods. I have never met a woman who didn’t have a funny, embarrassing, painful, relatable story to tell. I have a friend who got her period while swimming in the ocean, another who compared her pants to the Japanese flag. I’ve bonded with people through exchanging stories of unbearable cramps. As one articulate Buzzfeed contributor put it, it’s ‘like drinking a two-litre bottle of Mountain Dew and then running a 10K, and then being kicked in the lower abdomen.’ Sharing these stories is a reminder that all women share a common ground. When something is so exempt from the mainstream consciousness it’s refreshing to hear others voicing similar problems, we’re not flawless, glamorous angels, we’re human. However unenjoyable they may be, periods are a talking point.
Yet while these issues create a culture of embarrassment and hostility for women and girls in Western countries, these issues are amplified by the archaic attitudes which impact upon the lives of those in more developing parts of the world. In Kenya, girls miss an average of 4.9 days of school each month because of their periods, 83% of girls in Burkina Faso and 77% in Niger have no area in which to change their sanitary products in school. These are a few statistics but the problem is global. Lack of support and honest, straight-forward conversation about periods leads to a world where period related problems are heightened and magnified. The only way to change this is by talking about it. Loudly.
When we stop wanting women’s bodies to be flawless, shiny shells, the acceptance of their reality will be commonplace. When women are in positions of power in equal numbers to men, problems which affect their bodies will be considered seriously. Because regardless of how progressive society may be, I would still have felt mortified in that classroom at 12 years old. Girls will always feel uneasy about their periods at first; they will feel squeamish and internalise their own embarrassment, it would be helpful if the world didn’t do it for them.
This article originally appeared in Qmunicate magazine