A Bloody Shame
The Daily talks periods
Written by Dana Wray | Visual by Tamim Sujat | The McGill Daily
When I was 11 years old, I got my period for the very first time.
Before the momentous event – which basically consisted of me in the bathroom suddenly realizing there was blood on my underwear – periods had been mythologized both as something that made you a ‘grown woman’ (often smugly asserted by girls who were ‘early bloomers’ themselves) and as something that was gross or nasty – because who wants to bleed from down there. We didn’t learn about menstruation except for a special health class, or if we were lucky enough to have loving but awkwardly direct parents or mentors, we’d learn about it from pink books on our changing bodies. That’s the thing: even from a young age, we were taught that our bodies were private and shameful. And more than that, periods were not only seen as ‘yucky’ but were also connected to sex. When you got your period, everyone knew you were ready to have babies. What’s more, you started to get those ‘womanly’ hips your mom talked about, and you got breasts that young boys were already talking about, and you got hair on your legs that you longed for because you stared at your older sister’s daisy pink razor on the bathroom shelf. No matter how little we knew about menstruation, it was inextricably linked to a new life, a grown-up life, one where you were no longer a little kid.
Despite whatever fear or disgust I felt that day when I got my period, I was happy to get it, and I felt like I had been initiated into a secret group. My mom enveloped me in a big hug and told me how proud she was and happy she was to see her oldest little girl growing up. She bought me junk food and we went to La Senza Girl to buy pretty training bras (another rite of passage despite my complete lack of breasts).
Later that night, though, I found myself lying beside my mother’s comforting body in her bed for the first time in years, crying and sobbing and hiccupping hysterically as I clenched a pillow and moaned, “It hurts, it hurts,” over and over again. My mom tried her best: hot water bottles, soothing words, trying to get me to picture the beach and the sun and peace. But that comfort, before I passed out from the sheer exhaustion of fighting the pain, came with an ominous piece of advice: remember, Dana, this is something women deal with every month for the rest of their life. At that sleepy, hazy moment, I decided that I hated becoming a woman.
Ten years after that first night, my hate has mostly faded. I’m okay with my period now. When I asked my friend Katie to talk to me for this piece, I wanted to know if she felt the same when she got it. Sitting on her bed, she told me all about her gleeful anticipation of her period. “It was something that I wanted a lot, because I was 13 and a half, and I had never had my period. And then I got it, and I was like, oh no, no thank you, this is not actually something I really want to be dealing with.”
Josika echoed Katie’s sentiments, speaking in bare, honest terms, even though we had just met a few minutes before our interview. “I was like, this is the worst part about being a girl,” Josika reminisced to me. “Every time I got my period I really truly just hated it, I was like this is almost punishment.”
These experiences made me wonder: what is it about periods that can inspire such revulsion in young girls, in some grown woman, and certainly in a lot of men?
“I think part of the reason I hated it was because I was disgusted by it, because it was blood and tissue, where you usually don’t think there should be blood and tissue,” Josika explained.
A fear of blood is nothing to sniff at, as Rosie pointed out when we chatted. Blood, she explained, was associated with pain, and so we avoided talking about this because it made us uncomfortable. For Rosie instead, her period frightened her because of that mythologized link to ‘grown womanhood.’
The first time Rosie got her period, she told me, “I slept in my mom’s bed because I was just like feeling the weight of it, like oh this changes everything. […] I think you feel this pressure to grow up and be a sexual person when you get your period.”
Another friend of mine, Faye, expanded on that sentiment, pointing out that it isn’t just the idea of growing up but the idea that you were inducted into a very specific identity. “I was really resistant to becoming a ‘feminine woman,’” she told me. “I knew that I would start to lose my super sporty child body and that I would probably need to start wearing bras soon and stuff like that. And the idea of that to me was pretty terrible. So it probably took me – what, I was probably 13 when I got my period? – and to be honest, it was probably three years, until I was 16, that I was like, ‘okay, I’m alright with this now. I can be a girl.’ Or that type of girl, I guess.”
ON TALKING ABOUT IT
Even now, coming to terms with your period happening and your body changing doesn’t mean you feel like you can talk about it. To me, that has always seemed ridiculous: it happens, on average, once a month, to a large number of people, and yet we still cringe when we open a loud, crinkling pad in a bathroom stall.
When I was doing research for my feature, the first person who came to my mind was my little sister Galen. Even though we lived together in the same room for nearly a decade and a half, we never used to talk much about periods. We both had it ingrained in our heads that periods were something private and dirty. Now that we’re older, that’s changed a bit more. We’re less uncomfortable with it – a fact attested to by our Skype call during her lunch break.
At first, my sister Galen said she didn’t mind not talking about her period to others. But when I brought up the awkward situations it creates when your symptoms are severe (imagine being hunched over with cramps, ready to vomit, and instead calmly saying, ‘Yeah, maybe there’s a stomach flu going around!’ to an unsuspecting friend), she brought up a recent problem that it had caused her.
“When I was feeling very sick this past month, two of [my roommates] are guys […] I told them, ‘I’m not contagious,’ but they did not clue in as to what I was saying. They were like, what, does that mean it’s like a bacterial infection? But no, I just didn’t want to bring up the fact that I was on my period.”
Josika told me how, even though she thought it was weird, she tries to hide evidence that she has periods. “It frustrates me because I see how it affects my behaviour. Like whenever I have people over, and I have my period I take out trash in the bathroom before people come over.”
Katie echoed experiences of mine that are still vivid: trying to convince my mom to buy me pads, blushing with the thought of people knowing I was on my period, while my bemused mother tried to insist it was no big deal. “When I was younger I wouldn’t want to talk about it or wouldn’t feel comfortable going to that aisle of the grocery store,” Katie agreed.
“I wish I could just be like, ‘Oh man this period,’ and yell it out loud. You can yell out, ‘I’ve got the flu,’ and no one really cares, but if you yell out, ‘Oh these period cramps,’ then everyone gives you weird looks. Or so I imagine, I’ve never really done it,” Galen added, laughing.
“I guess because it’s perceived as dirty,” Sam* said, “like you’re talking about something really gross.” She added, “I wish it was more open. It seems kind of medieval for it not to be.”
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Rosie said, adding, “although understanding years of oppression and patriarchy it makes sense.” She paused, then continued: “I think it’s more a fear of going into the bodies of women and recognizing the bodies of women.”
For me, Rosie hits the nail on the head. Femininity, or what is constructed as a woman’s body, is what truly freaks people out. The sexual activity and reproductive functions of women have always been considered private, shameful, and dirty – just look at the (not so) historical construction of women as pure, or the expectations for women to remain virgins until marriage. You could even turn to the fact that women who sleep with a lot of people are labelled sluts, while guys who do it are players. Menstruation, because of its biological function, is connected to sexuality, and sexuality is considered shameful.
On the flip side, menstruation is associated with femininity in a very contradictory way. While women are expected to be pure and clean, menstruation is the exact opposite: it is dirty, it is messy, and it is certainly uncomfortable. Women are supposed to hide all this evidence that they are really just human beings, with bodily needs and fluids.
Most of my own memories about menstruation and shame centre on pain: the first time I got it, and how scared I was that this would be the rest of my adult life. The ensuing months after that were spent crying over a hot water bottle, a warm and comforting hand on my forehead. Doctor’s appointments, where my family doctor slowly but surely increased the strength of the painkillers she prescribed me. My boyfriend in vain to comfort me while not touching my sweating, irritable, hostile body. All of the ridiculous excuses given to teachers, friends, bosses, and anyone really, of why I had to miss a day or two of school each month, or why I had to suddenly cancel plans.
Not everyone has pain when they menstruate, and for people who do, the level of pain varies substantially. Being in a lot of pain every month can be an isolating and shameful experience. The only person I know who knows a bit about what I have gone through is Galen. Both of us have had unimaginable pain associated with our periods for almost as long as we’ve menstruated, but we’ve both dealt with it fairly distinctly.
I asked my sister to describe to me a typical day on her cycle. “On a bad day, it comes to a point where I can’t even focus on watching TV because I can’t focus on the show because I’m in so much pain,” Galen said. “So I try to rip things, and I will pinch myself to have pain in other areas to avoid the pain. If I stand up, the pain is so strong that I will pass out, or throw up, or both.”
Because everyone has different symptoms and a different tolerance for pain, cramps are often dismissed as nothing, or as something that girls should suck up. I’ve seen friends internalize this notion, people who think they’re weak if they bring up the fact that they’re in pain. So, like so many other things women are forced to suck up, they simply take a deep breath, smile through gritted teeth, and insist that they’re fine.
Josika admitted to being skeptical when she was younger. “I thought people lied about cramps and stuff just because when I was younger I did not get very bad cramps. So whenever people were like, ‘Ugh it hurts so much, like I really can’t do anything,’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s such a lie.’”
Then, in her senior year of high school, Josika began to get cramps, although they didn’t change her life too much. “[The cramps are almost] just a reminder. I don’t feel them very much, but just once in a while, I’ll have a twinge and I’ll have to bend over for a second and breath then move on.”
The response ‘It’s something everyone has to deal with’ is one response I’ve heard too many times, often accompanied by a disappointed look that immediately makes me feel like a drama queen. Galen got the same response from a gym teacher in high school when she tried to sit out. “She said, ‘we all have periods, this is a girl’s gym class, so you have to participate.’”
Almost the exact same thing happened to a friend of Sam’s, but she said that she herself had never “been brave enough to use [my period pains], like directly say this is an excuse for why I’m not doing this.”
Now that I’m older and on the pill, the pain every month has nearly disappeared, something I am thankful for every day. Sam echoed my thoughts, having gone through a similar situation, although she didn’t even have to go on the pill. “I just felt like my body loved me again,” she confessed.
But the response to periods from doctors and other authority figures is often limited, whether they’re painful, irregular, or otherwise. For Rosie, the pill – which is often prescribed by doctors to reduce painful cramps, premenstrual symptoms (PMS), or other uncomfortable parts of menstruation – actually did the opposite. “I would never notice myself PMSing or getting cramps until I went on birth control,” she said. “I now get cramps every time.”
Jessica* had a similar experience, although hers was even more extreme. “I went on Yaz […] that first month was the worst month of my life. It was like 26 days straight [of my period]. Before that point, I had never gotten cramps, and during that 26 days, it was cramps every day.”
One thing periods have done for me is make me utterly unconcerned with vomiting in public places. I’ve always been comfortable with talking about vomiting (much to the displeasure of anyone within earshot), but it’s unusual how after ten years of puking every month, you get so comfortable with the familiar retching feeling and the blissful few minutes of emptiness that come afterward, until the cramps start up again.
For me, even the embarrassment pushes through the pain, and I’m left now at age 21 sifting through memories to determine which one was the worst. Was it the time I threw up in the garbage can in the hallway of my high school in front of my new boyfriend, fearful that he would think I was gross? Or when I was lying on the grass across the road from a fancy restaurant, and promptly proceeded to vomit weakly in front of all the ladies who lunch in my swanky suburb? What about in front of my caring but still incredulous father when we went on a trip to Centre Island and I cut it short with my shaking and retching? Or one of the worst: when I threw up on the floor of the East Side Mario’s bathroom, and had to tell the unfortunate wait staff through tears that it wasn’t a puke-and-run from a drunk, it was actually just me, and then was escorted back to my table by the caring manager who proceeded to pay for my meal, now on the bathroom floor?
Galen has the best story out of the two of us, though. Every year, as a family tradition with my mother and grandmother around Christmastime, we dress up and go to see The Nutcracker. This year, Galen’s period got in the way of any enjoyment. “I got my cramps and I didn’t have my medication with me. So I left the show and went to the washroom, and I was just lying on the ground just feeling so weak and so sick, so I was lying by the toilet, just sprawled out,” Galen said. When I asked her to clarify, she admitted that yes, she was lying on the bathroom floor in the public part of the washroom. “Not too long after a couple of people had walked in and left right away, security came, because apparently there had been complaints that a drunk girl was lying on the floor.”
Luckily, the story has a somewhat happy ending: the security guard sent to escort my apparently drunk sister off the floor was very kind, and once she heard Galen’s story, propped her up and carried her to the emergency medical room, where Galen slept for the rest of the performance.
I was positive that no one had had that kind of experience, but I was proven wrong when Faye helpfully stepped in with one story that gave her quite the scare.
“I had really bad cramps, and instead of taking Advil I decided I [was] just going to take a hot shower, because I’m generally a little bit resistant to medication. The drastic temperature change from my own body to the shower made me black out and basically faint in the shower. I crawled, looking like the girl from The Ring, half naked, to my neighbour in rez,” Faye recounted. “It just hurt so much! A pain that I didn’t know I could feel.”
It’s all good and fine to laugh about it now over Skype, or while doing interviews together cross-legged on a futon, but at the time, it is an utterly terrifying experience. You feel like your body has betrayed you, especially since so many others seem able to bleed every month without losing their lunch or their consciousness. Then there is the extra twinge of fear: what if there’s something seriously wrong with me? What if I have polycystic ovary syndrome, or endometriosis? What if there’s a tumour? What if I can never have children? Galen told me that she trusts our family doctor, who told her nothing was wrong, and Faye had herself checked out. But for myself, there is always a lingering fear that something is going undetected, especially in my doctor’s rush to thrust different kind of painkillers on me instead of actually finding the problem.
ON DEALING WITH IT
At the end of the day, most of the people I spoke to said that they just dealt with it. It wasn’t a huge deal, it was a biological process, and for the most part, with proper sleep, proper self-care, and a bit of Advil, it was something that could be managed as discreetly as they wanted (or as they felt pressured to).
“I approach it from a clinical perspective for whatever reason,” Katie told me. “I sort of just deal with it as it is, it’s kind of like having a cold or something. I don’t experience any transcendental feelings.”
Even Galen, with all of her pain and symptoms, remains as fiercely independent as I’ve always known her to be. “I generally feel like I deal with it alone, because not many other people that I know feel the same way, so when I talk to them about it they get confused. For me it’s a big struggle, [but I still just] handle it by myself.”
For myself, I will use any opportunity to beg my kind and caring roommates to bring me water or food. Mostly, though, I just like to complain usually with a heating pad wrapped around me under sweatpants. Now that the pain has largely gone away, having my period no longer takes up so much time and energy.
Rosie pointed out that there are silver linings to all the time, money, and blood put out every month on periods. “It’s kind of a bonding experience for [people who have periods],” she said. “It’s a nice thing to be able to share with someone. It’s interesting because in the way it’s frustrating to not be able to talk about it [openly], at the same time because it is this secretive thing, it almost makes it more of an important shared experience [for those who have periods.]”
While having a ‘shared secret’ offers the comfort of bonding with other people who menstruate, I know it would make my life, and the lives of other people I know, a lot easier if we could talk about periods. Maybe then young girls finding that first spot of blood won’t recoil in horror anymore.
*Certain names have been changed at the request of the interviewee.