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On Writing and Not Writing About Periods | Issue 28
I’m certain that the period shame I experienced in puberty played a role in my choosing not to write about periods until now.
My first notion of a period occurred when I was four and I saw blood in the toilet after my mother had been in the bathroom and forgot to flush. Freaked out, I called her over, but she just nonchalantly flushed the toilet and said it was nothing to worry about.
"That's blood in there!" I cried, thinking she was bleeding to death. As a single mother with two children, she probably didn't feel up to explaining periods to her four-year-old.
When I turned ten, she bought me Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. She said I could ask her questions about it, but I never did—not because she wasn’t approachable on the subject; she was, but the whole thing just made me too embarrassed.
I re-read Judy Blume’s book recently and was impressed with how she nailed toxic friendship, bullying, religion, and sexual harassment. The only thing that I didn’t relate to either then or now was the actual period storyline of Margaret and her friends wanting periods.
I appreciate Blume having her characters embrace their bodies and excitement about becoming women, but my experience of puberty was not like this. Neither did I want to “increase my bust” nor was I looking forward to getting my period at all. I was filled with shame, dread, and self-hate.
I got my period at the age of twelve before most of my friends, so I didn’t have anyone to talk about it. Instead of being curious, I was mostly desperate to make sure that no one knew I had it.
I would grin and bear the pain, rarely complaining or asking for pain medication despite sometimes being on the point of collapse. If I had the tiniest scratchy throat I would beg to stay home from school, but when I had menstrual pain that felt like daggers, I white-knuckled it and pushed through simply because I was embarrassed to talk about it.
Once my friends began to get their periods, I was no longer ashamed, but we didn’t talk details. We would write notes to each other like “Got my ‘P’ today” or we would wear red on the first day of our period as a not-so-secret secret code. But we never discussed what period products we were using or flow or pain or blood clots or length.
The only education on the matter was some basic info in health class which left most kids snickering in embarrassment. The lack of information and comfort discussing periods made the whole experience very isolating and contributed to my disgust and self-hate.
When I started researching period shame, I hoped that what I experienced was no longer the case, but unfortunately period shame and the withholding of period education continues to be a serious problem.
In her 2019, TED Talk, gynaecologist and author Dr. Jen Gunter, uses the topic of period diarrhea to humorously demonstrate how the culture of period shame stops people who menstruate from sharing their experiences.
When I tweet about period diarrhea, as one does, I mention that it affects 28 percent of women. And every single time, someone approaches me and says, "I thought I was the only one."
This culture of shame not only prevents menstruators from understanding their own bodies, but also from seeking care.
“It shouldn't be an act of feminism to know how your body works,” says Dr. Gunter. “It shouldn't be an act of feminism to ask for help when you're suffering.”
According to WASH United, an NGO that focuses on menstrual hygiene and human rights, “500 million women and girls don’t have the things they need to manage their periods safely, hygienically, and free from embarrassment.”
As if this cultural shame isn’t harmful enough, legislation is being put forward in Florida to ban the discussion of periods in schools for children under grade six—even though some children get their periods in grade four or five.
Period shame also stands in the way of innovation in the design of period products, which Montreal video artist Arizona O’Neill argues in Period Pieces, needs to be better.
The fact that it was a news story in 2020 that a menstrual product company started using a blood-like colour instead of a blue liquid on their maxi pad commercials shows how far we still need to go in terms of eliminating period taboos and shame.
Even though I’ve been writing for over two decades, I’ve never written about my period until this year for my forthcoming book Anecdotes.
If I had been asked 20 years ago why I didn't include periods in my writing, I would probably have shrugged. Likely I would have said that periods were too ordinary or boring to write about. Or that I was just uninterested.
I’m certain, however, that the period shame I experienced in puberty played a role in my choosing not to write about it until now.
Last summer when Malcolm Sutton, who edited and designed my forthcoming book, presented me with an illustration of a maxi pad taped to a wall for the book cover (an image based on my story “The Pad") I immediately loved it; in fact, I simultaneously laughed and burst into tears at the sight of it.
I hate to admit this, but it just never would have occurred to me to use such an image. Pads and period products are normally hidden away—in bathroom cabinets, purses, pockets, or shirt sleeves. They’re definitely not found on the cover of literary fiction—that I’m aware of.
The maxi pad is also a fitting image for a book where many of the stories deal with other kinds of shame such as harassment, sexual abuse, disfigurement, and alcoholism.
This book cover not only caused me to reflect on my own internalized period shame, but also it inspired me to write three more stories about periods for the collection including “Public Pool,” a story loosely based on my own first period experience in which I wasn’t too happy about it to say the least. In fact, I was furious that my first period was interrupting a good swim day. I remember one moment changing into my bathing suit and the next screaming and crying in distress to my best friend because “I got my fucking period!”
Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry. She co-edited the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis (2020) and is the publisher of the Watch Your Head website. She runs Send My Love to Anyone, a literary newsletter, and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria where she teaches screenwriting and fiction.
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