I am completely ‘out’ these days about being a Menstrual Activist. Most people look a bit bemused when I tell them and say, “But why? Surely there is no prejudice or taboo about menstruation anymore.” Ha – if only this were true!
We live in a world where most women rarely refer to the fact that they bleed one week out of four; this remains a shameful hush-hush affair, to be kept hidden and shrouded in secrecy at all cost. We are expected to hide our dirty, unhygienic blood and get on with our day-to-day lives. Many women and men consider it to be a sign of weakness to slow down, rest up a little and let the challenges of the past month flow through up and away. Both schools and the workplace endorse the view that we must work at top speed all the time. Menstruation is rarely referred to in either popular or high culture – be this plays, novels, films, soap-opera story lines, pop music or art. It is not referred to at all in the British national curriculum other than as a passing detail of the functionality of human reproduction.
Is it any wonder then that layers of entrenched shame have become the social norm, with generation after generation of women attempting to deny the existence of their blood with the use of tampons, painkillers and hormonal contraception which suppresses the red stuff? We carry this denial like an enormous invisible albatross around our necks, unaware of its weight and the injury caused by the burden, so assimilated is this habitual practice of ‘put up, shut up, shove a tampon up and get on with business as usual’.
As a child I never ever knew when my mother was bleeding, even after I began to bleed myself. It was simply never discussed and she hid the evidence very well, flushing tampons down the toilet and hiding the cardboard tubes in her tampon box in a drawer in her bedroom. There wasn’t a bathroom bin, so female visitors and I were expected to hide the physical evidence of their menses. I had been excited about starting my periods but very quickly grew to hate them. My mother gave me some tampons to practice with before I started and left me to read the instructions and get on with it by myself. Despite there being no honouring of my menarche, I enjoyed my first period and hugged my womanly secret to myself whilst I twirled round and round at the Girl Guides country dancing session that I went to that evening. This first flush of pride was already tinged with shame though, as I begged my mother not to tell my father.
I didn’t bleed again for another two or three months. This time the blood flowed fast and furious, alarming me with the way it soaked through tampons instantly; accompanied by huge, violent cramps, which left me retching, faint and dizzy, paralysed on the bathroom floor. This pattern of dysmenorrhea continued every month for 18 years, throughout all my teens and twenties (other than those spells when I had no periods brought on by eating disorders). Throughout, my mother remained impervious to my period pains, chastising me for drawing attention to myself if ever I was ill in a public place. She simply thought she was doing the right thing in not pandering to me, preparing me for a life like hers where women didn’t make a fuss – about periods, illness, birth or anything else for that matter.
My experience was not unusual. My friends may have had bins in their bathrooms and were encouraged to use pads rather than the new-fangled tampon, but their bleeding was still not honoured and many of them experienced huge amounts of pain and shame. Our mothers all had full time jobs and were caught in the backwash of the second wave of feminism, believing that they had to work extra hard in the workplace to be treated equally in a man’s world. Pretending they didn’t menstruate was part of the deal. I quickly introduced my mates to tampons, believing myself to be more sophisticated and in touch with what it meant to be an adult modern woman in 1980s Great Britain. Ha – how deluded I was!
By the time I was in my late twenties I decided that things had to change. I stopped using tampons, initially swapping to organic disposable pads and eventually to washable cloth pads. I saw a homeopath and had a course of acupuncture. I began to honour my flow, resting up and integrating menstruation into my life. I grew to revere and love it, using it as a personal development tool and a cornerstone of my nature-based spirituality. I read some wonderful books written by menstrual educators and absorbed their teachings eagerly.
As a result, I finally freed myself of the crippling periods pains, which had kept me incarcerated on the bathroom floor for at least one day every month for the best part of 18 years.
During my 30s, I felt a call to help educate other women but recognised that this on its own was not enough to bring about a paradigm shift. A twin approach was called for, with menstrual activism complimenting menstrual education. The stakes felt very high with millions of women throughout the world suffering unnecessarily in silence every day, locked into society’s expectation of staying schtum. For things to genuinely move forward, the issues needed to be brought out into the open with schools, workplaces, charities and school curriculums engaging with the topic, as well as the general public, with the aim of updating policies and structures to make them more womb-friendly. The negative terminology, heavily invested in by the menstrual products industry and sadly now common or garden parlance, needed driving out, banishing, to be replaced by a new, menstrual-positive vocabulary.
And so I set to work. I started writing blogs and holding workshops and women’s circles. I even wrote and recorded ‘Let it flow’ – my own menstruation positive version of Frozen’s ‘Let it go’ in an attempt to get the message out to a wider and younger audience. But I am only one woman and there are never enough hours in the day.
Every time I read a story about a woman on the other side of the world, knitting with blood-stained wool out of her vagina or curating exhibitions of menstrual art, I get a shiver of delight down my spine. I am so happy that the ‘Occupy Menstruation’ Facebook page exists and that there is a huge resurgence of women sewing their own funky cloth pads and enjoying it! In the words of Anne Frank “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
I am deeply heartened there are other menstrual activists and advocates out there in the world who, like me, are determined that women’s blood will one day be regarded as liquid gold, an amazing tool for personal development and spiritual growth.