Power to the Period

imprint discusses the lack of visibility and representation of periods in Western culture, its causes and the impacts in the daily life of women.

by Abbie Jessop

Yep, in this article we are talking periods: CODE RED, bloody days, time of the month, riding the red wave, Mother Nature paying a visit, etcetera etcetera. According to a survey by Clue, the period tracking app, there are at least 5,000 different euphemisms to avoid saying ‘period’. No wonder the taboo persists.

In the words of the ineffable Lily Allen:

‘It makes me angry, I'm serious But then again, I'm just about to get my period Periods, we all get periods Every month, yo, that's what the theory is’

Sheezus, Lily Allen.

According to the predetermined code around discussing the menstrual cycle, she isn’t really angry: just hormonal. I mean, she’s totally lost it for even daring to sing in public about periods! What a display of balls - *ahem* - tits.

The lack of visibility and representation of periods in Western culture is symptomatic of the wider problems with the way women’s bodies are treated. The modern and daring screen writing of Michaela Coel in her BBC drama I May Destroy You has been lauded for its handling of so many issues, including periods, in such a real way. Seeing a woman onscreen putting a pad inside her pants feels radical, let alone the conversation that follows about menstrual blood clotting. The fact that it took Tampax until 2020 to show a used tampon on screen, and the outrage such an advert provoked, highlights the deep rooted disdain of menstrual blood. Despite periods being a monthly reality for such a large proportion of the population, the taboo pervades the media we consume and the conversations we have. Only now does it seem like that’s starting to change.

The shame around periods is challenged by the charity Bloody Good Period who encourage menstruators to embrace the ‘Walk of *No* Shame’ by committing to stop hiding sanitary pads and tampons while heading to the bathroom. The recent video for This Girl Can (the campaign encouraging women to get involved in physical activity) also depicts someone on their period using yoga to counter their cramps. The fact that these organisations are creating new content to normalise experiences of menstruating signals how pervasive the taboo surrounding periods has been, and continues to be.

'Periods provide a case study into multiple different forms of inequality.'

Periods are a feminist issue. They get to the heart of what gender equality means. The lack of education, research and funding on women’s reproductive health, the tax on menstruation, the taboo around menstrual blood, period poverty (which has worsened over lockdown), even the hushed and discreet tone we use when asking for a pad. Periods provide a case study into multiple different forms of inequality.

This is why it is imperative to ensure that trans-men and non-binary people are included in the conversation around menstruation. In March 2018, Kenny Ethan Jones became the first trans man to front a period campaign in a promotional video for Pink Parcel. In October 2019, sanitary pad brand Always recognised the demand for greater inclusivity in their marketing by removing the female ‘venus’ sign from its packaging. These actions signal the progress being made in diversifying the narrative around periods and recognising the complex feelings of shame and stigma surrounding periods that affect different identity groups. The patriarchy affects us all in different ways: feminism must be truly intersectional to recognise the differences in these narratives.

Black women’s experiences of their periods must also be elevated to recognise the impact of the intersection of different systems of oppression. Despite the fact that black women are considered three times more likely than white women to have fibroids (benign tumours found within or on the uterus), and are more likely to experience severe symptoms, they also wait longer to get help, due to medical bias and the taboo around menstruation. These taboos surrounding reproductive health and mental health have been profoundly shaped by racism and classism, and the view of period blood as ‘dirty’ (read more about this in this Thinx article by Toni Brannagan). Learning about different menstruators’ narratives of their periods provides true insights into identity and relationships we hold with our bodies.

'I believed that feminism was about always being a ‘strong independent woman’. My period made me ‘weak’ and therefore was something to suppress.'

I didn’t see how my feminism connected to my period for many years. I believed that to prove myself as capable and strong as any man, I mustn’t indicate that my period affects me at all. Admitting that my cycle makes me tired, grumpy, unfocused or even doubles me over in pain felt like a weakness. I viewed a light flow as a stamp of achievement: a mark of some kind of ability to control my body; my ability to ignore my period pains a sign of strength and evidence of my ability to ‘cope’. It’s almost as if I’d learnt from *somewhere* that being a girl is all about controlling the physical. And I believed that feminism was about always being a ‘strong independent woman’. My period made me ‘weak’ and therefore was something to suppress.

Recently, I’ve developed so much more respect for my period and my body generally. My body isn’t something to control but something to respect and celebrate. It’s been a process of learning to get here, so, let’s backtrack a little bit. Here’s my period story: unique to me, yet likely similar to many.

I got my period young. I was 10 years old and we didn’t have bins in the cubicles of the girls’ bathroom in my primary school. So I instantaneously felt it was too soon and therefore somehow ‘wrong’. I used to wrap my used pads in toilet tissues and then paper towels as if it was some kind of ‘pass the parcel’ package, before hurriedly stuffing the offending item into the main bin outside the cubicles, praying that no-one would wonder why I didn’t go to the sink to wash my hands straight away. I remember a solidarity developing between the increasing number of us in primary school skipping Monday swimming lessons every week because of our various leg, or arm, or shoulder injuries…

As more of my friends also started their periods, I felt fortunate that my period didn’t bother me too much. I felt lucky to not struggle that badly with pain that I needed medical intervention, or to experience bad faintness, or sickness. For me, my period was just a serious irritation when I wanted to go swimming. Thanks to 13-year-old me’s decision to close her eyes in a sex-ed lesson when the camera went *up there*, my own anatomy *down there* was a mystery, and tampons made this uncomfortably clear. Aged 16, I remember a particularly frustrating year group trip to the beach that featured me struggling in a public loo to try and finally get a tampon in so that I could swim in the sea! After a few vigorous shoves in what was probably the wrong place and certainly at the wrong angle, I had to give up.

There is a lot of uncertainty for young people going through puberty. This uncertainty is worsened by the abysmal sex education many of us receive at school, particularly around the female body. I was confused about ‘discharge’ for months, and by the time I knew it was normal, I was also worrying about it turning not normal. Every time my breasts were a bit painful (i.e. every month) I decided that I had breast cancer. The ‘bloody days’ signalling ‘code red’ came and went as I experienced many fears that could have been avoided if I had only dared to ask what my body was doing and felt it was ok to do so. Maybe I didn’t listen properly in sex-ed, and was too busy chatting in biology sometimes, but somehow, I still learnt to experience shame and fear around the body changing. I didn’t actually stop to think about why the body works the way it does, and don’t remember being particularly encouraged to do so. Instead I viewed my body through the mind and body dichotomy: the mental can control the physical. At times my body would ache, or bleed, or produce discharge. My challenge was to try and ensure I was strong enough to not let it stop me.

'...it was the first time that I realised that I did have some appreciation for my period.'

So that’s how my relationship with my period continued: a fact of nature to be managed. Until my year abroad (aged 20-21), my cycle was predictably regular with chocolate cravings and ravenous hunger the day before I ‘started’. But for the first six months I spent in America, my period disappeared. Most likely this was a result of stress and unhealthy habits to try and ‘counter’ that stress, but it unnerved me a little. However, it was the first time that I realised that I did have some appreciation for my period. Fortunately, it eventually returned to resume business as usual.

Then lockdown happened.

Now I know many people have had lockdown revelations. Many millennials and Gen-Z-ers have found lockdown has helped them fix their burnout, achieve a better work-life balance or appreciate the benefits of rest more. For me, I had a ‘menstrual revelation’.

I’ve been somewhat aware of my mood fluctuations during the month previously, particularly my desire to have a couple of days/hours to myself just before my period starts. As an extrovert, the sudden realisation I want to be alone is noticeable. But during lockdown, with the variety and spontaneity of my daily life gone and my stress levels as a student increasing, these fluctuations took on whole new levels. I couldn’t help but recognise how my mood changes over the course of a month. Worsened by stress and anxiety, my PMT took me on quite a ride. The two dissertation breakdowns I had in April and May were both in the week before my period started. The first bout persuaded me to discard the first draft and start again; the second bout had me cycling round the hills in tears, unable to look at my computer screen without feeling completely hopeless and incompetent. Yes, this is within the realms of ‘normal’ for student stress and work-related anxiety- which highlights a whole other issue, specifically the extent to which our culture normalises such levels of stress. But my cycle certainly had a role to play.

(Not a paid advert)

I bought the book Period Power hoping for some answers. I decided the book’s subtitle: ‘Harness your hormones and get your cycle working for you’ was worth the expense, because I felt like my hormones were taking me on a wildly unpleasant ride.

This book proved to be tremendously helpful. I laughed and cried whilst reading it, developing so much more of an understanding of my body. I got angry about what is lacking in sex education, and the fact that girls are taught all about how to conceal their periods yet very little about the cycle as a whole.

This book has helped me to understand and embrace my whole menstrual cycle. It describes the different phases of the cycle as seasons: winter is when you’re menstruating, spring is the follicular phase where oestrogen levels are rising, summer is after ovulation and autumn is the luteal phase where progesterone peaks and falls. With all that ebb and flow of hormones, no wonder our body gives us different signals at these times. You get more energy in spring and summer, less energy in autumn. Spring and summer is the time the body is searching for a mate, so we’re looking good, our skin is glowing and our hormones help us relax and feel sociable. In autumn, we’re more likely to want to retreat and have time to ourselves.

'...our cycle isn’t just our period: it is so much more complex than that.'

Obviously, everyone’s experience of their cycle is different and it is for you to work out your own patterns in energy and mood. But I recommend cycle tracking to start learning about your own cycle, not just for the purposes of tracking fertility. Even if you aren’t currently menstruating, mood tracking can reflect what our hormones are up to at different times of the month. Because our cycle isn’t just our period: it is so much more complex than that.

About bloody time.

Science for women’s health has been underfunded and under-researched for as long as we’ve lived in this patriarchal society. PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), a condition estimated to affect 1 in 20 women of reproductive age, has a huge impact on mental health for those who experience it. The treatment offered is limited and diagnosis is difficult to get. We have a right to be angry about the way our bodies are marginalised in medicine and reduced to being fertility machines. We are told we are ‘hysterical’ and ‘making a fuss’, that we just need to suck up what is happening to our bodies and deal with the lot we’ve been given. But lack of medical knowledge on conditions like PMDD and endometriosis are worth getting angry about, whether I’m on my period or not. Knowledge is power, and the lack of research into women’s health is, yet again, denying women power.

For me, gaining the knowledge to recognise why I might be more tired, or unfocused, or overcome with insecurity on one day, and then filled with excess energy, highly motivated and a beacon of positivity the next, has really helped me feel more in tune with myself and at ease with my own health, both physical and mental. Being able to understand the reasons why I might be feeling particularly self-critical helps me to put my feelings into perspective, take a deep breath and, if I can, put a task on hold until a couple of days later when I have greater clarity. For someone prone to overthinking anyway, the information that tracking my cycle and emotions provides has given me power towards building a greater acceptance of myself, my emotions and my body. How else could I describe that feeling? Greater freedom.

So as for feminism and its goal of achieving true equality? Periods are a bloody battlefield for those fights. Period.

Ever since being branded a ‘woke warrior’ by the Daily Mail for challenging fatphobia in university fitness culture, Abbie is committed to ensuring she lives up to such a title in all respects! A recent graduate in Liberal Arts, she has found writing, reading and learning to be incredibly beneficial to her mental health while experiencing so much uncertainty. She keeps her own blog at bristoltoboston.wordpress.com, and is committed to fighting for mental and physical health parity, demanding equality in healthcare and challenging diet culture.