This week, when I’ve mentioned the word ‘menstruation’, people have subconsciously winced. A tiny flicker of discomfort appears in their eyes. This isn’t feminism gone mad, I’m not going to smear my menstrual blood onto my mouth and take a photo whilst encouraging my friends to do the same (check out Ingrid Berthon-Moine if you’re into that). Yet, why shouldn’t I? Why are periods so revolting? Deemed literally as a bloody nuisance, periods are treated as an inconvenience to the women who suffer the cramps, and the men who feel they can’t have sex with them. Even sanitary manufacturers cannot bear to use red liquid to advertise the absorption qualities of their products, using water with blue food dye in it instead. Nothing could be more absurd, or less realistic.
Our dislike of menstruation could be attributed to some primal association with injuries and danger, but really it’s because we don’t know enough about it. Most of us have attended a half-an-hour session in PSHE at the age of ten to equip us with everything we will need to know about menstruation for the rest of our lives. If you’re male, you probably didn’t even have this. Periods are unfamiliar and mysterious. However, women have to deal with them for approximately 38 years of their lives, and if men are in a close relationship with a woman, they’ll have to start understanding them too.
Biologically, periods are a sign of health and fertility. They’re an indicator of pregnancy and they help women to calculate when they are ovulating; when planning (or avoiding) a family, they are essential. They are normal. Despite this when a woman is at work, in a restaurant or in any kind of mixed company, and is also on her period, she takes her bag to the toilets with her to vaguely conceal her menstruation. It would be much easier just to take out the tampon. Both the bag and the tampon signify that she is on her period, so why most women choose the former is a social mystery. Are women ashamed of their fertility?
Fertility is actually pretty sexy. According to numerous experiments, women appear more attractive when they’re ovulating. The evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, found that ovulating lap dancers made approximately $20 more per hour than their non-ovulating co-workers and $30 more than those who were menstruating. Companies worldwide are capitalising on the role that natural pheromones play during ovulation by offering synthetic substitutes for women to wear as perfumes throughout their cycle (check out www.pheromones-one.com if you’re into that). Furthermore, researchers offer proof that ovulation increases libido. Menstruation is essential for ovulation, so why do we shun the former and only celebrate the latter when it benefits us?
Bizarrely, many women are willing to sacrifice ovulation purely because they dislike their periods. Our whole existence is one of cyclical duality: night and day, wake and sleep, highs and lows. Why do we feel we have a right to reject one when its dual component cannot exist without it? Disregarding a woman’s period as ‘unnatural’ or ‘unnecessary’ is as ludicrous as saying the same for sleep. Periods tell a woman when something in her body is changing or if something is wrong. Many women claim their periods ‘don’t like them’ for this reason. A period is an important messenger to a woman; if she’s stressed, anxious or ill, her period will be heavier, physically forcing her to take time out. It acts as a natural defence. Female athletes will know that an irregular period is a sure sign of low bone density, a trigger for osteoporosis. More positively, periods tell women when they are healthy. Please, somebody tell me, why menstruation is so alien to us?
Alarmingly, in an American FDA survey on menstruation, out of the 1470 women asked, a third said that given the chance, they would choose never to have a period again. Are we, as humans, really that emotionally distanced from our bodies? Considering we only get one, you would think the impulse would be to understand and look after it, rather than ignore it.
Sanitary products are used by half the population roughly one week a month for approximately 38 years. If a woman uses four tampons a day for five days per month, that’s 240 tampons a year. That’s a lot of environmental waste (tampons are bleached and made of non-biodegradable materials) and a lot of money, so why not use a Mooncup? It makes perfect sense ecologically and financially, but there’s something stopping us. Many women just cannot face their own menstrual blood. Periods are not weird or disgusting, and people need to stop imagining that this is the case.
This year, major American broadcasting networks refused to air a Kotex (sanitary product manufacturer) advert on the basis that it used the word ‘vagina’. Has the biological word for female genitalia now become offensive? In 1878 it was declared in the British Medical Journal that ‘it is an undoubted fact that meat spoils when touched by menstruating women’. Though scientific understanding of periods has advanced, actual education on them still isn’t satisfactory. The Native American Apache people perform a Sunrise Dance when a girl first menstruates and celebrate her biological initiation into womanhood for four days. I’m not going to attempt to bring this practice to Britain, but it definitely educates people to view periods in a liberating light. Menstruation is not a freaky, unclean source of unnecessary suffering; it’s a vital messenger and essential part of women’s health and her understanding of her body.
Janey Stephenson is one of the two current YUSU Women’s Officers. The international psychotherapist, author and coach, Alexandra Pope, will be coming to York to do a talk on ‘Menstruation: Unveiling the mystery of periods and debunking our society’s final taboo’ on 23 May. This will be a great opportunity to get questions answered and if this interests you, e-mail [email protected] for further information or visit the Facebook event.