Menstrual 'Hygiene' Day
SHARING FIRST PERIOD STORIES
Thank you for your wonderful reaction to the series that I launched in the last newsletter interviewing women writers, writers who are juggling other caring responsibilities. Today I want to talk about menstruation. It is Menstruation Hygiene Day today. My first reaction to this is that while it is extremely important to address the stigma associated with menstruation, and period poverty, we need to also look at the language used around menstruation. I am personally not in favour of the word ‘hygiene’ associated with period products. It perpetuates the idea that menstruation is inherently dirty, and creates shame and stigma around bodies that menstruate.
The word 'feminine hygiene' used often to promote products by businesses such as vagisil once again creates shame around bodies.We know that this is still a huge problem globally. I speak from my own experience & research in Indian society. As part of my research think-tank and for my book, I have worked closely with women and research groups/NGOs in India who have been addressing menstrual shame and stigma, and period poverty. According to data released by the Indian government in 2016, there are 355 million menstruating women and girls in the country (almost 30 per cent of the total population), and only 36 per cent have access to sanitary towels.
As I have said many times over, we have to consider an intersectional global perspective on some of these issues because culture, environment, social contexts all play a role in how biases, prejudice, stigma is created and imposed on bodies.
In the 1920s Dr Béla Schick believed that menstruating women produced a toxin called menotoxin, which could wilt otherwise normally thriving flowers. The first chapter of my book (M)otherhood is called ‘The Age of Innocence’. I interweave my own experience and memory of my first period, my life before then and after, and the way it shaped my self and my identity from that point on with research across historical archives, ranging from the Bible to Hindu vedas, to many scientific studies, to understand where these taboos around menstruation have come from, and what its impacts are. Why do we become visible and invisible? Why do we have to hide tampons and sanitary napkins? Why are women who are menstruating still considered dirty? I also discuss trans men who menstruate and how they are marginalised in this discourse.
I invited women over on twitter to share their experiences and memory of their first periods. And these stories are so important because they show us the huge diversity in these experiences. They show us that women’s stories are often not given a platform because these bodily functions are either considered mundane or unsightly. And women do not talk about some of these transformative experiences because either they are ashamed or because they consider them too uninteresting or ordinary. But there is so much power in shared storytelling. And it shows us that not every woman menstruates, that some start as young as 9 years old to some at 20, some who had the loveliest experience, while some others carry the trauma of that first experience. It is not a homogenous experience as we are often told or made to believe. And it certainly raises this question of whether a person suddenly becomes a woman as she starts her period. Is menstruation the threshold of womanhood that we are often made to believe?
Many here have been shared anonymously with me, which says something about how we - women- still find it uncomfortable to talk about these experiences, some of them still traumatic, some still shameful to us, some embarrassing.
My first period, at age 12, came only a couple of weeks after my dad had died from bowel cancer. I'd only just gone back to school, after the funeral. It was June, and baking hot. One time, in my dad's last few weeks, I'd gone bouncing into my parents' bedroom after school to tell him, by then always in bed, that day's news. He didn't pull the sheet over himself quickly enough, and I saw his pyjama bottoms had blood on them. He reassured me, and I chatted on. He went into hospital a few days before he died - for an operation to remove tumours - and wouldn't let the ambulance men carry him downstairs because he thought it would frighten me. He came down slowly, hiding his pain, telling me, as I looked up the stairs at him, that I wasn't to worry. But when my first period came so soon afterwards, with blood on my pants and with so much pain, as Daddy had had, then I was terrified. I didn't think I had cancer. Both things - his death, my first period; the blood, the pain - were just so shocking, I could only respond with fear.
I was really well prepared by my family, and we had a tradition of a trip to London to celebrate a family member’s first period. I reached 16 and still hadn’t had my period or the trip to London, so we went anyway to celebrate my birthday. My period never came so I went to the doctor in my early 20s. I felt totally unheard and nothing was done. When I was 28 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour (prolactinoma) that causes amenorrhea amongst other symptoms. After some aggressive medication, I started my period for the first time, it was clotty, painful, and has been ever since. I don’t think my body knows what to do with itself.
I was 9, with strange stomach cramps. Was out playing on a bike with friends and popped home to go to the toilet. Thankfully mum had talked to us so it wasn’t a complete surprise. School was a nightmare though as there were no sanitary bins in the toilet for girls in primary school and teachers didn’t know what to do with a 9 year old with bad period pain.
— DR RACHAEL MURRAY (@rachaelzmurray)
I got my periods around 15, and it was painful. What was more painful was that suddenly for the next four days of menstruation, and then recurringly every month, I became an "impurity" in my own home. I can't enter the kitchen, touch the dining table, or pray during my periods. When I moved to college, I didn't feel like sitting in the mess the first time because of the entrenched "values". I think differently now and dislike that I still choose to follow this at home, instead of rebelling. But I make this choice because I love my grandmother who sacrificed so much for me (and the family)-- it would be incorrect of me to not do the little she expects of me. She never asked me for anything but this. I don't know what will I do when I permanently move out. But for now, I choose my grandmother. Please keep this anonymous. (From someone based in India)
This particularly resonated with me as we still have these beliefs in India where women become untouchable during menstruation. They are not allowed to cook, to touch and serve food, to enter a temple. Muslim women in some parts of the world are not allowed to fast for Ramadan. Things are changing, but very glacially.
I was 12.
My mum had brought me up to feel shame about every inch of my body.
I was made to swear I'd tell my mum immediately as it happened.
It was Andrew and Fergie's wedding day. Came down from the toilet to tell her. Except she was too busy watching the wedding to respond. Made to wear her old pads that she never bled on and which she kept for years after her menopause. Had to rinse them after use. Wrap them in newspaper and hide in the bin. Wasn't allowed to wash my underwear in the washing machine. And was sworn to not let anyone, even my father, know when I had a period. I am 44 years old and she still expects me to tell her when I'm on my period so she doesn't pray if I go to her home when I'm 'on'.
I was 13 years old, a magical number, a time when womanhood beckoned, and my body responded. I anticipated it as a moment of power, of becoming, a threshold of mystery. I understood the mechanics. I did not understand what it meant to others. I looked forward to joining the ranks of women - my older sisters, my mother, my friends, and to the innate Goddess-power it would unleash in me. the bathroom was cold. I saw the stain in my pants, red-brown, a coded message. I stepped out into the kitchen, and told my mother. "Oh great," she said in a heavy voice, dripping with sarcasm and regret. "now you can get pregnant."
I was twelve when my period first arrived. It was that awkward summer between the end of primary school and the start of secondary. Our neighbour had died suddenly, and we’d moved into a new house. Childhood felt like it was starting to be over & that unsettled and excited me.
I was upstairs in my bedroom when I noticed a deep red stain in my knickers. I was horrified, I wasn’t ready for this, I thought. I called out for my mum. I showed her the blood, my face red and puffy with tears. I‘m not ready for this, I told her. I asked her to promise not to tell my dad.
“You’re a woman now”, said my father later that evening in the kitchen.
I definitely wasn’t.
— MOLLY (@sinenihaolain)
I was 15 so one of the last in my class, obviously knew all about it by then but had only ever discussed once with my mum, to both of our great embarrassment. I think it just started at home but just spotting and I waited a while before telling my mum because of the great embarrassment. She took me to the supermarket and got me some sanitary towels and it was just excruciatingly embarrassing: she was clearly embarrassed and so was I. We didn't have a bin in our bathroom or anything, and I can't remember if she told me what to do with them or not, but I just put them in a bag under my bed until I could find a chance to stick them in the main bin. But that first time one of our cats must have found it, as when I got home from school the bag was in the middle of my floor, all ripped and with bits of bloody towel sticking out. It was kind of a shocking sight and I remember being pretty upset - I didn't particularly want to get my period, was uncomfortable discussing with my mum, felt a deep sense of shame about it all & now here it was literally dragged out into the open. Luckily I saw it before anyone else. Clearly my mum's own upbringing had given her the sense that it was all something to be hidden away and not talked about. I really hope this changes for the next generation - I will certainly be talking about it with my kids and trying to show them it's a natural thing not to be horrified about.
At school. 14 yo. My Mum had left a packet of pads and a belt on my bed and told me not to put soiled underwear into the family wash basket because it would embarrass my stepfather. I immediately *knew* it was dirty and to be hidden. No DM necessary. We need to talk about this.
— Louise Rodgers (@LJR_eidyia)
Awful! I was 10, had just finished primary school (July baby, hadn’t turned 11 yet). It was summer holidays and my mum was working, dad was home with my two brothers and me. I woke up and saw blood in my underwear and thought I had somehow managed to get a cut or a blister or something down there, and tried to put lots of tissues there to stop it going through. Far too embarrassed to ask my dad and brothers (Pakistani family), so kept going to the toilet and crying because it didn’t stop. Was only 10 and mobiles weren’t a big thing so couldn’t call my mum to ask her. Panicked and cried all day until she got home and even then was scared to ask her in case it was something I had done?! Eventually plucked up the courage to ask her and she gave me some pads and explained what it was, and said she didn’t expect it to happen at age of 10 so hadn’t prepared me.
— S. Osman (@sherish_o)
Some rather sweet stories too:
Both me and my sister got ours (a few years apart) while on holiday with our dad who we only saw 2 weeks a year. I cried my eyes out but was also quite pleased I got it at last as I was one of the last in my class aged 13. My dad said to me “don’t cry sweetheart, it happens to all of us” - I looked at him curiously and he corrected himself “well not ALL of us, but all women”. He bought a mountain of sanitary towels of the kind I only ever saw again after I gave birth and was given mega absorbent sanitary bricks by the hospital.
—Penny Rabiger (@Penny_Ten)
I was 11 and knew what it was as I had learnt about it through friends and sex education class. I came home from school, used the bathroom and was shocked to see my underwear stained with blood. Immediately I panicked - half of me wanted to grab a sanitary towel and apply it as I had secretly practiced before and the other half felt pressure to pretend I didn’t know what it was so my parents wouldn’t know I knew about these things. I called my mum up, she asked if I knew how to apply a towel (I lied and said no), she showed me how to and told me to expect cramping and mood swings. She showed me how to rinse the blood out and told me to put my pants in the washing machine now and if I ever leaked in the future - but thankfully never made me feel unclean or awkward.
After that I laid down on the sofa and she gave me a hot water bottle and she must have told my dad because he came back from work with a HUGE chocolate bar for me Face with tears of joy she even told my siblings to give me some space. My parents weren’t old school and my dad had bought pads for my mum and then for me and my younger sisters but I remember the fear that day, that they’d realise I knew more than they thought I did!!
You can read more stories that women have shared over on my twitter thread here.
I will keep sharing more of these stories in the next few issues of the newsletter. Because it is so important to document these experiences, for women to say ‘yes this happened to me, and yes, this is how I felt.’
When we hear more stories, we know what we still need to change, and we know that we are not alone.
BUT, let us talk about ‘Menstrual Health’ and not ‘Menstrual Hygiene’.
You might remember the ‘pink glove gate’.
If you would like to share your first period story, please comment on this post.
Also if you have used an app for your periods, or use one now, would you please get in touch?
And, finally. One last note.
Pre-orders really make a difference for new authors like me. (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman' is available on Hive, Waterstones, Amazon and all other stores. It’s also available on e-book and audiobook. Signed copies are available from many independent stores such as Fox Lane Books, Lighthouse Books, Portobello bookshop and others. Do get in touch with your local indie bookshop and they should be able to order this for you with a signed (and illustrated!) bookplate.
I am at Hay Festival this evening so do join us if you can HERE.