About two days ago, I had to get a pack of sanitary towels. At the pharmacy, there was this confident, self-assured man whose broad shoulders and tall gait seemed to shrink immediately I told him what I had gone to buy. He was suddenly fidgeting and could not even look at my face when I asked him the much I needed to pay. All my life, my mother made me believe that having a period was a normal thing so why was the pharmacist suddenly behaving as if I had gone to buy something illegal? The way he wrapped the pack! First, a newspaper then cello tape, then a black paper bag, then the usual branded paper bag where they put ‘normal’ medicine. Note that he is doing all these things uneasily and without looking at me. It was so comical. If I wasn’t so angry or badly cramping, I would have burst out into laughter.
But I will not try to pretend that I am not aware of the taboo that society still associates with a woman’s normal menstrual cycle. In fact, this is not the first time I have encountered this attitude when I have gone to get my monthly supplies. Perhaps it would not be so worrying if the world had not advanced so much and become permissive in so many things. Just why do we remain firmly glued to the years of yore that encourage shame and embarrassment when menstruation is an important life-giving process that is the hallmark of womanhood and ideally, ought to be celebrated?
In 2015, photographer Rupi Kaur made headlines after she posted a photo of a fully clothed woman with a period stain on Instagram and the site management pulled it down saying that it was inappropriate. The photo was a series she was creating on her website to demystify the subject of menses. Although Instagram eventually reinstated the photo and apologized after it was shared by so many people, this action highlighted the fact that periods are still unaccepted in society was not lost to even a non-critical observer.
Still, in 2015, Britain’s number one tennis player, Heather Watson opened up to BBC Sport about the fears that descend on her concerning her period because it utterly affects her performance and how she even lost in a competition because she was on her period. And once again, this confession opened up a whole box of issues about women that are not discussed and considered taboo but which significantly affect women.
There are so many other incidences and I am sure if all women were given a chance, they will have at least a story of something that has happened to them that made them feel dirty and unworthy just because they are on their periods.
So why is this; why is society still so stiff-necked about women’s menstruation issues in the 21st Century, when everything that would be unheard of in the previous centuries just goes? How can we teach girls self-propriety and self-confidence when this same girl cannot confidently get a pack of sanitary towels from a shopkeeper who is comfortable when he looks at this girl and admires her physical beauty but he would rather the ground swallows him than have to look at the same girl on the face while selling a pack of pads to her? Does that in a way suggest that only parts of us can be accepted?
Well, I have been running around and came across some reasons why menses are still seen as taboo and perhaps from here, everyone can make their own little contribution to make women feel comfortable.
1. There is too much silence around the subject
Well, I think even the girls themselves stand accused here. Women are known to be so wordy and spend hours chatting with each other; however, the subject of periods hardly ever comes up. But if you are my friend and you do not know that I have bad cramps, then you are not my friend because periods have affected my functionality many times. I have had to cancel on my friends at the 11th hour so once in a while we have these conversations. But even then, there are those who turn pale and develop a certain stammer. It is very easy to tell that they are embarrassed and that, this is not a subject they want to talk about.
In an article in the Guardian, Rose George argues that this secrecy starts with our grandmothers, mothers and aunties following suit so that by the time we come onboard, we grow up knowing that there is something that is mysteriously dangerous about this aspect of women’s lives that should have a muted silence around it.
2. The culture of period shaming
I must have been in class seven by then and just about 11 years old. We had had lessons about menses and had, as a matter of fact received an extremely clean lady from Always who came to speak to us about periods so yes, I was not as blank. One day, one of my classmates, I will call her Judy, had her period, it must have been her first. Even our teacher, who was coincidentally female, looked confused when she stood up from her desk, a period stain on her dress and walked up to her to ask for permission to go home.
But anyway, I was to later find out that a period is something no one is supposed to see and all evidence about our menstruation should be effectively hidden in order to avoid embarrassment. Ever noticed the way women pack their period supplies in their bags? There is nothing wrong with properly packing your stuff in your handbag but in the event that a pad or tampon falls off your bag accidentally, does it mean that somebody died? I have listened to friends describe their horror stories about a time when a pad fell off their bags at the office or church and you will be forgiven if you thought it was a pack of cocaine or other banned substances.
3. The wrong attitude towards female bodies
This attitude comes from so many quotas including religious practices and ancient practices that may have failed to adjust to the changing state of the society today. O yes, and myths too. I read somewhere that in many Eastern cultures, especially in Indian culture, a woman was put in a room of one’s own for the duration of her menses because she was considered unclean and impure to even set foot in the temple. But come to think of it, Virginia Woolf, the late British novelist, essayist, critic and publisher, would have perhaps been enthusiastic about this because she was for the idea that for a woman to be a good writer, she needs A Room of One’s Own. Having a private room once every month for seven days would have perhaps been a welcome idea for her. But no, the cramps and body aches would make the writing difficult.
What I am saying is that, if you grow up in an environment like that, where a period meant that you were separated from the rest of human beings and treated in very many unexplained ways, it is impossible not to grow up with a messed up attitude towards periods. Apparently, all of the words major religions have scary things to say about periods. Neelam Champaneri argues that open conversations around periods should be started in order to make the environment ‘safe’ for these conversations and do away with crazy, outlandish attitudes towards something as normal as a period.
4. Or is it simply the mystery of the whole process?
This is something that I might have to research afresh and do a full paper on; could it be that the anxiety and discomfort brought about by the subject of menstruation is as a result of not really understanding what the whole process means? How much actual knowledge (I am not talking about the pedestal knowledge that says if your girlfriend has her period then she is not pregnant and it’s time to celebrate kind of information) do men actually have about periods? Could it be the famous fear of the unknown? Ananya Mathur suggests that this could be one of the problems, the lack of proper knowledge about the subject; coupled with the lack of open communication around the subject as well as fear could be all contributing factors to the indifference in the society around periods. Here are 14 menstruation facts you should definitely know.
I would like to end with a plea: my heart goes out to the young girls just starting out on the path to womanhood. What if I had been a 12-year-old at the threshold of menarche and a pharmacist treated me like a leper just because I went to buy a pack of pads? Would I have recovered or have been able to experience menstruation as a positive process?
I think we need to teach our young boys right and our young girls that, it is in fact normal to have periods and while it is true that it is private, it is not a taboo.
I have a persistent thirst to know things and that has pushed me to read a lot of books and ask questions including stopping strangers on the road to ask them questions about the inspiration behind their hairstyles… Apart from the madness, I am generally a very bubbly, reasonable and energetic person.