Periods seem to be regarded as such a dirty thing. Everyone knows they happen, around half the people in the world have experienced them… yet no one talks about them. Menstruation is the worst-kept secret about women ever. But it doesn’t need to be a secret at all.
I still remember getting my first period. I was 11, in art class at school and I began to notice something… different… down there. I didn’t think much of it at the time. The thought that I might be bleeding from my vagina didn’t even occur to me, although of course I knew what periods were. I guess I just didn’t feel old enough, I assumed I’d have a few more years before I began to grow up. So when I next went to the toilet I got a bit of a nasty surprise.
How could I tell my mum? That’s what I was thinking the whole way home. What should I say? Now, I know that I should have just been outright and said, ‘Mum, I’ve started my periods.’ There’s nothing wrong with saying that. But I couldn’t say the words. I was so embarrassed, so ashamed. Ashamed? Of growing up, of something I have no control over, of something which is actually a gift meaning that I can have children in the future. Ashamed of being a woman. Yes, I was ashamed. And scared.
Young girls are taught about periods in a way which instills in them a sense of that natural cycle – menstruation – being something unclean, and secretive. We were taken away one day from our classroom and our teacher, taken into a different room in the school, away from everyone else, like what we would be told was gravely serious and unmentionable in the classroom. We were told about periods, about what we should expect, how they worked, and then we were sent back to class with the boys and it was never mentioned again in school.
None of my friends at school ever told each other when they started their periods. The only way I could tell was the sound of a pad being ripped open from the next cubicle. But even then, no one ever told each other. No one complained about cramps or tiredness or ever gave any indication about their struggles during that week. Any joke about periods in response to someone being in a particularly bad mood was met with a sassy look if they weren’t on their period, or breaking eye contact and a slight blush if they were.
Periods aren’t dirty. Yeah, admittedly, they may be a bit gross sometimes, but as a topic they aren’t dirty. They’re not immoral, they’re not defiling, they’re not uncivilised. They’re part of life. So why are we not allowed to talk about them? Having to be silent to fit in with society not only generally silences women for no reason, but means that women with menstrual abnormalities often suffer unnecessarily because they don’t know what is normal.
Recently, I’ve been so much more open about my menstrual cycle. My best friend and I complain to each other about cramps and everything else that comes with being a woman, just as we would complain about things if we felt ill for any other reason, and it’s so liberating not having to suffer in silence any more. When I’m older and (hopefully) have a daughter of my own, I’ll do my best to teach her to be open about her periods so she won’t have to feel the embarrassment that I felt for a long time, and I hope that the future brings a time where women don’t feel the need to hide something which is completely natural and should actually bring us together.