Beth Perkin on stopping this sanitary towel secrecy
We saw it in her bag. Well we thought we saw it. It was either what we thought it was, or a sweet wrapper. And it definitely wasn’t a sweet wrapper. But if she’d got it why hadn’t she told us? We were supposed to be friends!
I remember this moment with complete clarity. I was 11 years old and standing on the school playground, unable to comprehend why our friend hadn’t told us that she’d started her period, that she’d been initiated into that strange, grown-up world of sisterhood and sanitary pads.
But I was a naïve middle-schooler- and for some bizarre reason terrified of being infertile – so it never occurred to me that getting your period wasn’t in fact something to celebrate, but something to hide.
There’s a long history of women and girls being shamed for their periods. It goes all the way back to the Old Testament when menstruating women were deemed ritually impure and forced into isolation when bleeding.
In the Middle Ages getting your period was seen as a near-on demonic event. Menstrual blood was feared by men as a corrosive force representative of female power. Amongst its assumed supernatural qualities was its ability to turn new wine sour, make fruit fall from trees, kill bee hives, give dogs rabies and make your land barren.
Fast-forward to the 1920s and the number one priority was hiding your period completely. Women covertly bought their pads by depositing money in a box without the humiliation of speaking to a shop assistant, while adverts stressed the importance of a woman’s period being hygienic, odorless and well-concealed in order to avoid any potential embarrassment.
Even Hollywood got in on the act. In the classic horror film Carrie the title character is cruelly taunted and pelted with tampons by her classmates after starting her period in the school showers. When her mother finds out she proclaims it the ‘Curse of Blood’. And who can forget that scene in Superbad?
Today we’re still unable to talk openly and honestly about menstruation. The discourse is largely negative and centred around secrecy, with 88% of girls feeling that it is an inappropriate to talk about their periods with members of the opposite sex. There are still the same concerns about leaking and odor, and adverts still fail to acknowledge the reality of menstruation.
Whether it’s the offensively inoffensive/euphemistic light blue liquid used in place of menstrual blood, or the happy, sporty women who don’t seem to ever break-out or go to the bathroom, the portrayal of periods is scarily sterilized and far-removed from the truth.
The truth is that periods are messy and bloody and yes sometimes painful. But it’s the challenge that that pain brings that gives women a fuller perspective of life. It shouldn’t be known as ‘The Curse’ but as a kind of blessing. Menstruation can be an annoyance, but it can also be wonderful – a sign that a woman’s body is working properly. Not to mention a sign that she isn’t the other big P – pregnant.
Menstruation shouldn’t have to be a secret. It shouldn’t have to be something you can only talk about with girl friends or your mum. It should be seen for what it really is – a totally natural, biological process that takes place within the bodies of over half the world’s population.
Let’s talk openly about our periods with both women and men. Let’s make it OK for daughters to talk openly with their fathers about the changes in their bodies. Let’s make it something to be proud of, not embarrassed by, a topic that doesn’t prompt sniggers and shame but mature and understanding conversation. After all, the only way to stop the secrecy is to start sharing.