We need to talk about... periods


Pic credit: Kristina Paukshtite via StockSnap

So, I was in the bathroom earlier today in Dublin Airport – in 51st & Green, to be more precise, which had invited me in to try their new US pre-clearance lounge before my flight to Indiana – and, as you do, I was peeing. More specifically, I was peeing while listening to other women peeing, and I heard the familiar sound of a plastic wrapper being torn open. Ah, periods.

If you have four cubicles in a public bathroom, and all four are occupied, there is a strong chance that at least one woman will be menstruating. So why is it that we talk about periods so very infrequently? And, when we do, why is it that we only focus – as a society – on the perceived disadvantages: you know, we talk about the "fact" that women are less rational while "on their periods"; we make jokes about making sure not to wear white trousers (really, who wears white trousers, except Liz Hurley, and, er, me that one time I was trying to see if they worked on me).

Of course, I'm not talking about those private conversations women have among themselves. It's a bit like Donald Trump's "locker-room talk", I guess, except in the woman-only version we spend our time empathising with one another rather than demeaning members of the opposite sex (but I digress).

I tell my friends when I have my period; I talk to them about my cramps and the fact that I ruined my favourite pair of knickers when I inserted my mooncup wrong*; I ask if they have tampons handy; we laugh about the fact that we spend so much time together that we're "syncing" (like iPhones!).

But we still hide our tampons up our sleeves, and live in fear of being "exposed" as a menstruating woman: tell me honestly, are there many things more embarrassing than leaking through your trousers or jeans or, worse, on to a sofa or fabric cushion?!

Why is it that we're so embarrassed by our bodies?

Well, I'd suggest it's for the same reason that we're expected to purchase "feminine hygiene" products – washes that are produced and marketed with the sole intention of "improving" a woman's natural odour. And that is, because women's genitals are still seen as dirty, shameful, something to be kept under wraps.

As a facile example of how our bodies are eradicated from popular culture, just think of all the times you've seen a penis and scrotum depicted in classical art. Now, when was the last time you saw any kind of realistic, artistic depiction of a vulva? I'm not talking about that neat, tidy little line down the front of a woman's pelvis, kind of like a Ken doll with a little slit, but about a woman's vaginal lips, perhaps her clitoral hood... You just never, ever see it.

Now think about all of the times you've seen depictions of sperm – and not just in pornography. Take There's Something About Mary, and the hilarious scene in which Cameron Diaz's Mary uses sperm to "gel" her hair. Would that have been funny if a character had used menstrual blood, say, as blusher? Why not? (Could it possibly be because menstrual blood is gross, and sperm is just graaaaaaand – and, even, something to be proud of?)

women periods menstruating

In fact, when a Canadian woman posted a photograph of herself – fully clothed, with blood staining her bottoms and bedsheets – Instagram took it down. Y'know, because... Well, it wasn't quite clear why. Something about breaching Instagram's terms of service, apparently. (When the woman in question protested, Instagram backtracked and reinstated the photograph.)

And y'know what? It's not the privacy aspect that bothers me. There are some women who just don't want to discuss intimate matters with anyone – and that's totally fine. You do you. My issue is the idea that talking about periods is somewhat disgusting, embarrassing and just shouldn't be done – and don't even get me started on women who apologise to men when and if they're overheard discussing their periods.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, you don't want to hear about this..." Eh, newsflash: I don't want to have to deal with this, once a month, for five to six days. I find it hard enough to cope with bleeding from my vagina for five days straight, not staining my clothes (clothes I actually like), forking out money for sanitary supplies and tucking tampons up my sleeves in public places to add to that the responsibility of protecting the gentle menfolk from any mention of periods.

We're all adults here; if I have my period, and it's really affecting my ability to sit still (those cramps aren't always dull, achey and solved by the addition of a hot water bottle, you know), I have no issue stating that truth – why should I be ashamed that my very human body is doing this very human thing it's designed to do?

I'm done tucking tampons up my sleeves (90% of the time, I use my mooncup, but I've been caught short a couple of times and ended up having to duck into the shop on my way to or from somewhere); I'm done pretending I'm not in pain from the churning in my womb that always feels like it'll never end (even though I know it will); I'm done whispering the word "period"; and I'm also done standing by idly while other people shame women for the fact that their bodies work right.

The last time a man said "she must be on her period" in front of me, I turned around, very calmly (but feeling very hot, and terrified, because I seem mad brave but don't really enjoy confrontation), "I don't think that's very funny. There are at least six women in this office and, chances are, one of those women has her period – and she doesn't need your inference that having her period makes her less capable of doing her job. But what's more, if it does – maybe she's in pain, because periods are really uncomfortable – what she needs is empathy, and the recognition that, if you were bleeding from your crotch, there is zero chance you'd be sitting at your desk, doing your job without saying a word."

Feel free to co-opt my words for your own use – I won't mind.

This is the first in my "We need to talk about..." series. It'll cover a variety of topics across a range of subjects, so please, feel free to suggest something you think we need to talk about.

*Unlike tampons, the mooncup is designed to sit quite low down in the vaginal canal, almost at the entrance – if you push it too far up, it won't "seal", meaning leakage is inevitable!