It’s Just Menstruation: Why We Need to Normalise Conversation Around Periods
'It’s time we unearthed those ‘normal, ‘unproblematic’ almost boring period stories to present a wider picture.'
I was thirteen when I got my period. I distinctly remember I woke up in the morning, went to the toilet and then sat in my garden. I don’t remember feeling physically different from the night before. But I felt weighed down. Like I had lost something or bid goodbye to a friend I would never see again. My mom called me inside and gave me fresh underwear with a sanitary pad stuck to it. I didn’t go to school that day.
This was around 2001—Stayfree was the main player in the period market. Back then it offered only one size, and the extent of luxury was a silky smooth top layer. There were no wings, the length wasn’t considerable and the thickness of the pad felt like you had a baby’s diaper in between your legs. This was an expensive pad that was reserved for outdoor activities like going to school or visiting places. Then there was Carefee, the ‘ghar ka’ pad which had a cotton top layer, was not as absorbent, made a sound akin to paper when you walked and left you more prone to staining and chafing.
Blood flow, Odour and Information
I don’t know how mom figured out I had started menstruating. She said that she saw blood stains in the toilet bowl. I have no memory of blood, either on my clothes or in the toilet. After setting me up with the pad, she gave me four instructions: one, always mark the start date on a calendar; two, check the pad at regular intervals and change if too bloody; three, let her know if I had aches and cramps; four, don’t tell anyone I got my period.
Thankfully, I wasn’t told to keep away from pickles but I also wasn’t given the sex education talk. Luckily, I had received some rudimentary lessons at school so I knew that now I could have babies if I wasn’t careful. But studying in an all-girl’s convent school, with high walls, hawk eyed nuns and ‘moral science’ classes (yes that was a subject) had conditioned me against the idea of pre-marital sex, let alone babies out of wedlock.
What mum didn’t explain was what counted as ‘too bloody’ and how often to change. So for a while I asked her to inspect my pad, lest I discarded one that could go for a few more hours. She also didn’t tell me that when period blood was exposed to air, it emitted an odour. If I look online now, the gamut of information around periods boggles my mind. For example, I didn’t know that ‘freebleeding’ is a thing.
I wonder if ignorance was indeed bliss. Because I didn’t have a lot of information available as a young teenager, my stance towards my period was neutral—something that happened every month but didn’t make me special.
As a young teenager I dreaded my periods, particularly the ‘second day’, not because they were physiologically problematic but I couldn’t get any respite from staining my white school uniform. Every woman has at some point in her life asked a friend or a colleague to check her dress for stains. My classmates and I would lift our skirts before sitting down and we wore two sets of underwear and cycling shorts—as many barriers as possible between the period blood and our virginal white skirts. But staining was inevitable. And there was no way you could be caught with a red blot on your skirt. So we would ask the school admin to lend us a spare skirt to change into. Sometimes we would turn our skirts around so the stained bit was in front; then rub white chalk on it to lighten the red and then pin the pleats in a way that hid the stain. This was too much work so I started calling in sick during day two.
My class teacher saw a pattern and remarked, ‘are your periods really that problematic?’ Can you imagine anyone now questioning your period-related absences when the conversation has turned to the legitimacy of period leave? Mum said that I should change once during lunch break to avoid staining and skipping school.
That was impossible to conceive—water was in short supply in the school toilet, there were no dustbins, sometimes the doors didn’t have latches. And how do you even transport a long rectangular pad from your bag, to your pocket to the toilet without getting caught?
Into the second or third year of my menstruation, I discovered Whisper. The brand was launched in India in 1989 and as of 2018 it holds the largest market share of 51.42% among Indian feminine hygiene products. Whisper gave me wings which kept the pad in place and reduced staining of the sides, which previously no matter how strongly I scrubbed my underwear, would refuse to go. The pads were thinner, they had a gel core which kept them dry for longer and they had a wider range to choose from depending on one’s flow. They also had a wrapper which it made it easy to dispose them, thereby eliminating the need for newspapers. Mum suggested that I should do a double pad: first Whisper and top of that Stayfree. At lunch time, I would discard Stayfree and remain stain free till the time I got home.
But Whisper was expensive. And while I wasn’t exactly growing up in penury, I reserved it for the bloodiest days of the cycle. I suppose this was inadvertent conditioning—my mother had grown up using cloth and even as a working woman, she was careful about how much money and how many pads she spent per cycle. According to a study, only 36% of India’s 365 million menstruating women use sanitary pads. Rest use rags, ash, leaves, mud and other unhygienic materials to ebb the flow.
Whisper was the one brand that I remember dominating TV advertising with its innovative ads and campaigns to break the taboo around periods. A campaign from 2015 urged girls to talk to their fathers about their periods. I was fortunate in that the day I got my menarche, my father sat me down and said that nothing had changed between us. That was reassuring and helped normalise menstruation for me. He became my sanitary padman and was the one that washed my stained bed sheets. However, I feel that a lot hasn’t changed when it comes to men in relation to menstruation. While the likes of Arunachalam Muruganantham got inspired by his wife’s period woes and ended up creating economical period supplies and jobs for thousands of other women, it seems reductive to encounter things like boyfriends versus periods, that too in 2016.
When we were given menstruation lessons in school, we were told about hormones, the length of the cycle, shedding of the uterine wall etc. But none of the teachers spoke to us about Premenstrual Syndrome, which has now been turned into ‘PMSing’, a sexist adjective used to describe emotional women, whether on their period or not; or dysmenorrhoea, which in 5% to 10% menstruating women is severe enough to disrupt their lives. I feel that I was lucky that barring a few staining accidents my periods have been kind to me. In the last ten years or so, there has been a surplus of information around periods, most of which, I feel, turns menstruation into a myth and a monster. Yes, periods are problematic for some of us. But there are also others who co-exist with their periods without any problems. Maybe, it’s time we unearthed those ‘normal, ‘unproblematic’ almost boring period stories to present a wider picture.
( Shyama Laxman is a London-based writer and poet. She writes mainly about gender, sexuality and LGBTQ issues. Her work has been published in The Quint, Huffington Post, ShethePeople.TV, Muse India and Gaysi. Her new poem 'The Nudes Editor' is published by Guts Publishing in their Sending Nudes anthology.)
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