Not Ashamed of My Period
It's hard for me to think about, but I've taken martial arts before. Clumsy me in a white outfit, punching gloves and sweaty hair in a ponytail. After one particular 2-hour class full of flipping people (well, more like being flipped), practicing katas, and sweating like a pig, we, the students, all sat against the wall and listened to our sensei tell a lesson as usual. I sat with my knees against my chest, head leaning against the wall. After the lesson, I walked home. Then, I went to the bathroom. I turned the shower head on and peeled off my pants.
And then, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!”
My mother ran to the bathroom, “What’s the matter?” she asked in Arabic.
I held up my white pants in front of her. The bottom was covered in light red splotches. I had gotten my period during the class and hadn’t even noticed. Why didn’t anyone say anything? Is it because they didn’t notice or because they didn’t want to embarrass me? “The whole class probably saw,” I complained, mortified.
My mother put her hand on her heart. “It’s fine, Sarah. It’s something natural,” and left me to take a shower.
Back then I didn’t care how natural it was, it was still goddamn embarrassing. Especially since I had my legs up while sitting directly in front of my sensei at the end of class.
And now, about 3 years later, it happened again. On the first day of classes one university semester, my period decided to visit during my 11:20 am speech class and it had bled through my jeans. But, this time my reaction was different: I took off my jacket, tied it around my waist, and went home during lunch to shower and change. I'm rather proud of that character development! Now, I just get annoyed because I have to change rather than be phased if people saw a red spot on my pants. Yes, I have a period. And it happens every month so it’s bound to sneak up on me at times.
A lot of women are embarrassed of their period and won’t talk about it with others. And it’s completely fine if you’d like to stay hush hush about it- it can be a private matter and you can handle your personal matters however you’d like. But I believe there is a difference between keeping it quiet because it’s personal and keeping it quiet because you’re embarrassed.
My upbringing taught me to never discuss my period with men. I didn’t really talk about my period around my dad. I’d wait until my mom and I were alone in the room if I had something female body-related to tell her. I know a lot of families work the same way. It didn’t really concern me until later on in life when I thought about it more. For daughters with parents who aren't willing to talk about periods of body functions that come with puberty, I would think that a period would come with some sort of an existential crisis.
I remember when a girl in my elementary school thought she had some type of cancer because her stomach hurt and she bled every month. Our teacher had to have a talk with her about how she has her period and it's completely natural.
Why is it that some little girls in the US have to wait until that talk with a teacher or a school nurse to find out that nothing is wrong with them? Why is it not being discussed in every home? Is it because of a lack of knowledge or a lack of comfort to talk about something so “taboo?”
But what’s the big deal? Well for one, sanitary products, while essential to any woman, are not a cheap addition to a household, but they are not considered as a necessity by the government so they are taxed as non-essential items! They are also expensive and some are even toxic to the women's bodies. In the USA, some families can’t afford sanitary pads. Low-income families who use food stamps sometimes can’t buy or afford sanitary products.
What shocked me even more is some people’s reactions to this fact. I remember telling a man that some women are not able to buy sanitary items because of their price and their classification as a non-essential "food stamp" item, which is a big problem.
“Well,” he said, “condoms aren’t covered by food stamps either.”
I just stared at him. Are you seriously telling me that me uncontrollably bleeding every month can be compared to humans’ voluntary sex habits?
On average, women spend about $70 a year on sanitary products, which is a luxury that some cannot afford. Some will even sell their food stamps to afford tampons. Others will use substitutes like toilet paper, rags, or cotton balls. Unfortunately, these practices can cause bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, or many other problems.
In some other countries, it’s much worse. In parts of India some girls can’t go to school because they don’t have sanitary pads for their periods. And menstruation affects grown women’s lives as well. About “73 percent of interviewed Bangladeshi garment workers reported they miss work for an average of six days per month (resulting in unpaid work days) due to vaginal infections caused by unsanitary menstrual materials”. And for women only making about two dollars a day, this absence from work is something they can’t allow themselves. And just like that little girl my school teacher talked to, there are thousands of girls who are petrified when they get their first period because they were never given information on it growing up. And if they ruined their only bedsheets or their clothes, they might be ashamed for having their period. It’s not just the fact that women can’t afford sanitary pads, but sometimes they don’t have access to a place that sells them anywhere near them or their schools/work might not have adequate sanitary facilities (i.e. private bathrooms) to change their pads or tampons.
The stigma that comes with periods is a big reason why these issues are still happening today. If we keep teaching girls to not talk about their period or even worse, feel impure because of their periods, then girls will keep missing classes and women will keep missing work. This doesn't just hurt individuals, it hurts society as a whole: this inequality means fewer women being educated and becoming the amazing leaders we so desperately need today.
So, even though it isn’t as easy to help girls across oceans understand that they are completely normal, maybe we can start breaking the stigma in our own homes and hometowns. When you are having really painful cramps at work next time, and someone asks if you’re okay, just tell the truth rather than saying “I have a stomach ache” or “I’m fine.” And when you need a pad or tampon from a friend, there’s no need to whisper if you don’t want to. And definitely no need to feel embarrassed for taking a pad or tampon out of your purse to take to the bathroom. What’s there to hide? If you had a papercut, would you feel embarrassed by your band-aid?
A problem can’t be solved if we’re not willing to talk about it. So, let’s start talking about bleeding with no shame.
Let’s normalize the normal and natural.