Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

I Heart My Period/I Hate Period Shame

Written by Chella Quint
Active Image                   Ok, let’s get this out of the way right now—I think about periods, a lot. My own, other people’s, fictional periods . . . I even like red accessories far more than I used to. This all started when I began writing a yearly zine (a periodical, if you will) called Adventures in Menstruating. I’m sometimes invited to give performance lectures and zine readings, or to participate in slightly more off-beat period-positive activities. You’d be surprised by how many fun, funny, and cool menstrual adventures you can actually have—if you put your mind to it—but modern mainstream media might make it seem otherwise.

Ok, let’s get this out of the way right now—I think about periods, a lot. My own, other people’s, fictional periods . . . I even like red accessories far more than I used to. This all started when I began writing a yearly zine (a periodical, if you will) called Adventures in Menstruating. I’m sometimes invited to give performance lectures and zine readings, or to participate in slightly more off-beat period-positive activities. You’d be surprised by how many fun, funny, and cool menstrual adventures you can actually have—if you put your mind to it—but modern mainstream media might make it seem otherwise.
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{mosimage width=475}Start with the way many of us first learned about periods—separated from the boys, given a freebie pack of samples from one maxi-pad company or other in the hopes that our tiny uteruses would develop brand loyalty instantly (as if our grasping, hand-shaped fallopian tubes could actually pluck Always or Kotex or whatever from the shelves at will). Then the commercials assuring us that periods could be hidden if we bought the right tampons or pads, or that they could be stopped altogether if we bought the right pills. And finally, the crude, college-humor-style jokes where “being on the rag” is the hilarious punch line. Me? I bought into that three-step process, at first. As I got older, though, I started to do what I like to think of as “reclaiming” my period. I wrote smutty stories, drew silly cartoons, and performed sketch comedy that lampooned those commercials and made sure that menstruators were not the butt of the jokes.
 
Know what I noticed? Ever since I started doing the silly stuff, I actually began to feel more comfortable in serious reproductive health situations. Where I once would have balked at broaching certain topics with my doctor, I was surprised and delighted to discover that a clinical chat didn’t have to be so different from a smutty story, with the swearing removed. After a while, I got quite confident, and at checkups I was relating my reproductive health differential through the medium of interpretive dance. Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but my cavalier attitude garnered some attention. First, friends began subtly seeking my advice about all kinds of things from amenorrhea (when your period goes on an unannounced hiatus like a sitcom during the writers’ strike) to mittelschmerz (pain during ovulation--no relation to I Love Lucy’s wacky neighbor Ethel). Turns out, a lot of them were ashamed to talk about their nether-region-related worries, particularly with doctors.

I remember feeling like that back in my Judy Blume-esque youth, but over the last several years, I’ve been as frank as someone named Frank when dealing with cycle-related clinic chat. Ovulation? Menopause? Cervical fluid? I was all over reproductive health talk like the blue liquid in those maxi-pad commercials. Didn’t bother me. My lack of shame did, shockingly, shock a few of my friends, though. My friend Cath, for instance, is notorious among our pals as the one who had the worst period talk ever: she came across the word ”menstruation” as a young but precocious reader, asked her dad what it was, and he ominously replied, “You’ll find out . . .”  Yes, really. Stuff like that just wasn’t discussed at her house. I asked her about it in a little more detail. “My home life wasn’t particularly prudish,” she told me. “But oddly for the daughter of two parents working in medicine, I was kept blissfully unaware long after my friends had been supplied with pastel-colored period pamphlets.”

When Cath’s little boy was born, conversations about the difficult birth she experienced were practically Victorian, with all mention of any body part between her neck and ankles strictly off-limits. That was several years ago, and, after I slowly wore her down with period comedy, she’s more open about reproductive health now. She’s even contributed to the zine. Since my change in thinking was only a few years before Cath’s, I’ve found it pretty cool to witness her shift from period shame to period confidence. I decided I wanted to try to work out why, while some people are ambivalent or positive about periods and reproductive health, others remain squeamish.

Are they following a cultural taboo? How many people walk around afraid to tell their friends, partners, and health care practitioners when, say, they’ve missed a period or two, or think that their contraceptive pill is causing serious side effects? What if this leads to a late diagnosis of medical conditions, or a general sense of being ill at ease in a doctor’s office? 
 
Through my zine writing, I have been in touch with an awesome organization called the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research (SMCR). In 2005, the SMCR hosted a conference in Boulder, Colorado entitled, “Menstruation: The Fifth Vital Sign.” The society supports the notion (and a sensible notion it is) that just like your blood pressure or your digestion, your period is a good way of seeing how generally healthy you are. If you don’t get your period, it could be a symptom of a bigger health issue, and if you’re too uncomfortable to discuss it with your doctor, you may not get an early diagnosis for something serious. Your periods are part of a bigger cycle of hormones and nutrition that can be disrupted by several different medical conditions—some major, some minor. Not to be scary, but if you’ve missed a couple of periods, you should head to your doctor and have a chat about it. Certain types of birth control pills stop your normal cycle, by either giving you a false bleed once a month or stopping your periods altogether, so that's another reason to be in tune with your body. If you've got some hang ups about your period left over from your own sticker collecting and Nickelodeon-watching years, approaching your doc could be an extra uphill battle.
 
So how do you make sure you’re getting what you need?

First, check out the menstrual messages you’re receiving from society in general—talk to friends and relatives about periods more. Online message boards (not the ones sponsored by feminine hygiene products) can be a good resource, but make sure you don’t assume that all contributors have their facts right.

Chart your cycle and track your reproductive health yourself.

Periods are natural and don’t need to be medicalized. Menstruation is not a disease. It doesn’t need a cure, but society should be set up to support menstruaters when things get freaky. Demand nothing less.
 
If you do decide to go to the doctor, be direct and know what you want (you may like to make a list in advance). Don’t take no for an answer if you feel in your gut that something’s wrong with your guts. If your doctor suggests a form of birth control to solve your period problems, ask whether this is the best option, or just the easiest (especially if you don’t need to control any births).

It's not all down to you, though. There's a big wide world out there as well. Engendering healthy attitudes toward menstruation for people of all ages and genders is a pretty good goal to have, I reckon. Here's how I think it should go down:
 
Healthcare
In the UK, there's a new approach to sexual health that the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) has been developing over the last couple of years that focuses on preventing disease and diagnosing stuff early. Towns across England, Scotland, and Wales now have drop-in sessions in spaces that look more like living rooms than waiting rooms. While waiting, clients can have a cup of tea or a soft drink, chill out on comfy sofas, and snag some free pins, stickers, lube, and condoms. The leaflets and posters aren't patronizing, and they're not pastel-colored or coy in any way. The youth workers answer questions before clients even get to the nurse’s office, and sometimes even go in with them. By the time young people using these services see the doctor, they're pretty chilled out.
 
Before health care providers finish qualifying, they should be given more information on the variety of menstruation experiences.
 
Education
Schools should start reproductive health education way earlier. Little kids of all genders should have an idea of what menstruation is. It’s not sexy—it’s biological. Why encourage moms and older sisters to hide their feminine hygiene through omission? Kids get their periods younger and younger—it’d suck to find out after the fact, and the crazy “this is a serious talk” build-up goes a long way away from normalizing periods.
 
Like doctors and nurses, teachers, guidance counsellors, and non-teaching staff may need a "periods are cool" refresher to ensure they're on the same page as the kids. Nobody needs a faux-sympathetic "women's troubles" pass to the bathroom. No matter how nice it may be to skip ten minutes of a boring class, they uphold a stereotype that will later bite students in the ass. Students and teachers should also be able to talk about periods without using euphemisms.

The pamphlets? So whack. Corporate sponsorship of education is wrong. End of story.

The Feminine Hygiene Industry
Pad and tampon companies need to get with the program. Selling products that are “discreet” or “scented” and producing ads that make periods sound like a drag are selling shame. Stop it. Pretending to be "on our side" doesn't hold up. You're still selling us landfill-tastic stuff we don't need, and bombarding us with advertising that distracts us from the eco-alternatives out there. All convenience products have a carbon-cost. Stop pretending tampons are ESSENTIAL and you may get more respect!
 
Pharmaceutical Companies
Advertisers of pills that will stop periods altogether, regardless of whether patients have an actual medical condition that will be alleviated by this kind of pill, or whether this is the least invasive, most cost-effective type of birth control available, need to spend their money on researching the long-term effects of these pills and possible links to cancer, stroke, and osteoporosis, rather than on television commercials that bore us to sleep in the middle of How I Met Your Mother. Casual advertising that implies that periods are an avoidable inconvenience downplays menstruation as a vital sign.

So there ya go—heart it or hate it, menstrual cycles make the world go round. Here's to it all going a bit more smoothly. 

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