Period Shame: Why Are Women Still Embarrassed By Their Period?

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Personally, I think we spend more time having our periods than talking about it, and it’s something we all learn from childhood. This particular womanly function is one of those things you don’t talk about openly, and you have to keep the fact that you’re entertaining the witch a well-guarded secret. No one must know.

First of all, I kept it quiet so that the boys in my Junior Secondary School class back then wouldn’t know that something was happening to me. Not that we were so friendly that they would care if something was happening to me, or even any girl in the class for that matter. It was more a case of them laughing and making me the butt of their jokes for the rest of the day…or even week.

And I had reasons to entertain that fear. You see, in my first year in the school, and even the second year, the makers of a popular sanitary pad frequented my school to educate the girls on their menstrual cycle, bodies, and to show the proper way to wear a sanitary pad and even compared the strengths of their product with competing brands. At the end of the talk, they gave us free pads. During these talks, the boys would be well…be just boys, mouthing off about things they knew nothing about, harassing girls for pads, just so they could wave them around and do all sorts of embarrassing things.

Year one, I had no need for it and often just took it home to my mom. During the long break, right in the September of the month I was to start JSS 2, Aunty Flo came knocking, and part of the pep talk was to keep it quiet.

I kept it quiet but suffered a stained skirt in school one day, and it was as though the ground should open up and swallow me. I was mortified and I was also in pain, angry, sleepy and feeling all sorts. Some of the insensitive boys had their stupid jokes, but one of the girls gave me a cardigan to cover the stain. Back then, a girl tying a cardigan around her waist was a sure sign she was menstruating and trying to protect against a leakage.

Some teachers tried to stop us from using the cardigan, but a perfect excuse was that our school was close to a canal and that it could get a bit chilly. Some of us were punished but a girl has got to do what she’s got to do; cardigans were essential, we kept them handy…until we all knew how to protect ourselves for longer periods of time.

As I grew older, it became obvious that the period was of the hush hush conversation type or one you talked about loudly to keep the male folks way, but the shame was still present.

Even when I want to buy a sanitary pad, I find myself unconsciously speaking in lower tones, moving close to the sales person, so no one else hears that I want to buy a pad. I know, it’s sad especially as we are in 2017 and that this all-natural phenomenon shouldn’t be something I’m ashamed to let even the people living in my house know about. But I am and I don’t know why. It just comes naturally at that time of the month.

I’m not alone. When it’s that time of the month, Lola, a friend I was talking over this issue with, becomes an undercover agent, as well as a hungry bear, not a nice combination I tell you. She is more than likely to get into arguments with other people while menstruating than any other time of the time. Isn’t that just pure joy?

But that’s not the worst of it. She has a special bag for that time, which can carry all her sanitary supplies. Regardless of where she’s going to or her dress code, Lola faithfully lugs her heavy bag, just so she could her hide her small stash of sanitary wares. And it will still happen tomorrow, if Aunty Flo shows up. Why does she feel a need to hide her period and even her supplies? Lola is ashamed!

According to my research, in primitive times, menstruation wasn’t understood and in some contexts it was associated with the supernatural, so women had a good reason to keep it hidden.

While in modern society, our preoccupation with hygiene has coerced women to keep discrete. Still, it’s interesting that so much embarrassment, awkwardness, and shame surrounds a natural bodily function experienced by half the population at some point in their lives.

Dr Valerie Curtis, Director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and author of Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: the science behind revulsion has found that part of the reason people are uncomfortable with the idea of periods is we all have an evolutionary disgust of blood and other bodily fluids. The revulsion response is not totally specific, she points out, so we sometimes see things as a threat even if they aren’t.  

“If it’s inside you it’s fine, if it’s on your finger it’s okay, but if it’s outside of your body, for example if you find a plaster on the floor, that’s disgusting, because you’re identifying that it might not be your blood,” she says. “That’s the same for menstrual blood, when it’s inside it’s OK, but when it’s outside, say on a tampon or pad, you become wary.”

Apart from people’s reaction to blood, there are cultural-specific sequestration rituals around menstruating women.

In Italy, women aren’t meant to make pasta sauce if they’re at that time of the month. In Nepal, women have to sleep in a cattle shed overnight and they aren’t allowed to cook when they’re on their period, so for four days a month the man will take over the cooking.

Until, very recently in the UK, people believed that dough wouldn’t rise if a woman tried to make bread while menstruating.

In Nigeria, I know of one religious organisation which views the period as unclean, thus menstruating women are kept away from religious ceremonies and do a “cleansing” bath when Aunt Flo leaves.

All these factors and more contribute to the shame factor, but it will help in no small ways if women stop feeling ashamed of being on their period, and even start talking about Aunty Flo.

We can borrow a page from the Chinese Olympic swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, who acknowledged the effect of her period on her body back in Rio 2016, when she claimed her performance in the 4x100m medley relay was partly hampered because of how tired her period was making her feel. 

“I don’t think I performed very well today. I feel I let my teammates down,” she told state broadcaster CCTV. “It’s because my period came yesterday so I felt particularly tired, but this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough.”

Fu, who was seen apparently crouching down in pain after the race, had earned respect and praise in China for breaking the taboos which exist in the country surrounding menstruation and tampons.

True, it’s a private matter, but we can do away with the shame attached to it.

Godspeed with letting go of period shame.

 

 

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