Earlier this year, Isobel Marshall was named the Young Australian of the Year for her work to tackle the taboo around menstruation and period poverty. Despite much progress for gender equality, our culture forces women to feel shame around their periods.
Women are always being told to be small and not take up too much room. We are told to stay quiet about our problems and our periods are no different. Even writing this I feel that I am making a fuss and that I’m breaking the rules of femininity.
Women are made to feel ashamed for their periods and to feel as though we are not allowed to look after ourselves. This is even when many women suffer real pain in the form of cramps, headaches and joint pain. In any other context, these symptoms would be treated seriously.
When I was in primary school, I was in the middle of sport class when I had what I thought was a bad stomach ache. The pain was so bad that I mistakenly told the teacher I had a headache. I was taken away from the other kids where a group of female teachers surrounded me. While I was hyperventilating in reaction to the intense stabbing sensation, they asked me if I was on my period. I answered yes, unaware as to why this question was relevant.
I soon learnt that I wasn’t suffering from a stomach ache but period cramps. Unlike a general stomach ache, period cramps can be much more painful and I could expect to have them every month for the next forty years of my life. The pain felt to me like someone had stabbed me in the stomach and then was twisting my guts.
It wasn’t until a year later when I told my mum I couldn’t concentrate all day in school because of period cramps that I learnt about the wonders of ibuprofen. The over-the-counter pill meant I could go through my day pain-free––although on really bad days it only dulled the pain. However, still the shame came when my friends, who didn’t suffer cramps like I did, made me feel guilty for taking pain relief.
The shame didn’t end in primary school. I vividly remember many times in high school, when I was in a class worrying that my period might have leaked through to my skirt or onto my seat. It was an awkward situation only made worse by the fact that I felt a strong need to keep it a secret. I felt I couldn’t ask my friends to check. I couldn’t go to the toilet to check myself because if I needed to change my pad then I would’ve had to bring my bag, to disguise my pad, and then people would be suspicious.
Luckily most times I hadn’t bled through at all, but it wasn’t the risk that I had which was the problem. The taboo around periods turned this small issue, which should be as small as getting a wine stain on my shirt, into a much bigger one. Anytime I thought my classmates might know I was on my period, I felt disgusting. My blood felt like poison, but only if it came from my uterus.
The tired and misogynistic comment whispered around me if I ever mentioned the pain I suffered, ‘she must be on her period’, made me feel like my period was a great annoyance to others. The truth, though, was that I couldn’t make it through the first three days of my period without taking ibuprofen every six hours. Without the pain relief, I would have such terrible cramps and back pain that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was learning.
To have my pain turned into an issue for other people, including people who never have periods, was and remains dehumanising. When we have to hide our pads, or conceal our pain we are being told that what we feel doesn’t matter, that our bodies don’t matter.
Even the most mundane thing that could bring attention to the fact that I’m on my period is something I’ll go out of my way to avoid. The simplest action of opening my pad in a public bathroom makes me ridiculously uncomfortable at the thought of another woman––who most likely has periods as well––hearing the plastic packaging being ripped open.
The forced cultural silence around periods means that people who menstruate can’t learn how to manage our periods better. It means that we often suffer alone in our pain. It also means that as society we don’t discuss how it’s not just cisgender women who menstruate. We also can’t help girls and women who miss out on education due to their inability to afford period products, which are a necessity.
Luckily, there are changes happening around the world. Countries like Scotland, New Zealand and France are making pads and tampons free or complimentary for school students. These changes at a government level are amazing to see, but the greater change we need to see is a cultural shift. This starts by women talking about their periods and everyone else listening.