Tennis player Heather Watson has sparked a debate on menstruation recently when she explained in a post match interview that her performance wasn’t up to her normal standard because she was on her period. Though she actually said “I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things.”
Girl things, Aunt Flo, monthlies, having the painters in, the crimson wave, falling to the communists and the one that I hate the most, on the blob! There are so many sayings for menstruation and I wonder why we don’t feel comfortable using the M word.
The media are all talking about periods this week, my friend Chella Quint runs a project called Period Positive and was on Radio 4’s Womans Hour talking about menstruation. She is a menstruation education researcher and her project encourages open dialogue without shame, she has some really interesting and entertaining views on tradition menstrual product advertising. You can listen again here…
I think it is brilliant that we are talking about something that women deal with every month but it’s actually surprised me in seeing these articles and hearing the radio show as it pointed out to me that it isn’t the norm. We don’t usually talk about periods in mainstream media, something that is totally normal sign of a healthy body. Why are we so embarrassed?
My daughter is almost 12 and so our ‘period talks’ started a couple of years ago. We are a very open home and always aim to talk honestly and without embarrassment about anything the kids need to know. And so we have talked about cycles and ovulation, uterus’ and vaginas, but also how it feels to have a period, the concerns she has (she worries that she will start and look down to be covered in blood) and the options she has in menstrual protection. (Tampons, sanitary towels, moon cups). I also speak to the boys about it and my husband talks to all the kids as much as he can.
I found it interesting to discover that professional sportswomen track their menstruation cycle as much as they do their water intake, their training and muscle/fat ratio in regards to their performance. They even email the coaches the first day of their cycles so everyone is in the loop! It makes sense, it isn’t about excuses, it is about accepting that this part of female physiology has an effect on our lives, and not necessarily negative effects, some studies show that people are more creative during ovulation.
I love Chella‘s work, take the time to go look through her brilliant projects, she brings the subjects of periods (as well as feminism, science, comedy) to the forefront with funny, innovative and clever projects. I have learnt so much from her (including this week the discussion that not all women menstruate and not all people who menstruate identify as women, something I have just never thought about before). I have talked about her before and it is awesome to hear her in the mainstream press! Woop!
When I think back to my menstrual education, I think it was rather limited. I don’t remember my mum ever having a conversation with me about it, and though I lived in a house with her and two much older sisters, we didn’t talk about it at all. We had a talk at our Catholic Primary school delivered with much embarrassment and I was too afraid to put my hand up and ask an questions. We just came away with the little blue tampon holder that I used to keep in my bag at secondary school because it gave the silent idea that I had ‘started’.
I was about 14 when I did start my periods, quite late compared to most of my friends and I remember coming home and going to the loo, when I looked at the tissue I saw blood. I called my mum at work and said “ermmm there’s blood when I have been to the toilet”, she asked if it was from my bum (?!!!) which is quite ironic considering that in years to come the answer would have been yes! I told her that it wasn’t and that I had started my periods. She muttered something about bringing pads home and I told her I already had supplies and was fine. We never mentioned it again.
I can see me going the other way with my daughter, I might throw her a ridiculously over the top ‘Welcome to Womanhood’ or ‘first moon’ party, with streamers and cake… Not really, but I will definitely continue to talk to her about her body, her feelings and the changes she is going through both physically and emotionally as I want her to know that she can talk about these things without any embarrassment or shame.
Shame is something that Chella talks about in her work, Stains, how advertisers use shame and embarrassment as a tool to sell sanitary products to women. Playing on a fear of women leaking through to their clothes, marketers have pushed their products on us by making the idea of a leak the most humiliating experience anyone could ever have. Then there is the blue liquid… and the roller blading.
Advertising does seem to be getting a little better, with more adverts aimed at younger women and better language and comedy being used. I loved this advert… The smiles, the positivity, “the red badge of courage” – just brilliant!
Menstrual education will only get better the more we all talk about it, answering questions honestly and without embarrassment. Don’t rely on schools doing the talk for you! Talking about periods should be an ongoing thing, it can’t be all taught in a one hour lesson in the school hall, we need to keep talking about the physical and emotional aspects of menstruation with our children, boys and girls.
There are some great books on the market that work well as both information for children and as a talking point for parents and kids together. We have Lets Talk About Sex which is a great overview of puberty in general, and I just bought What’s Happening to my Body for girls, as we have the boys version and it was a helpful book. There is so much great advice online too, but as a parent you should check it out before sharing with your kids.
I think as a society we need to be more open to talking about normal bodily functions, as you may know, my motto on this site is #stoppoobeingtaboo – I say this as the more easy it is for people to talk about poo, the better it is for issues around health, self esteem, mental health and isolation. The same can be said for menstruation – the more comfortable we are in talking about our own bodies without using baby names or hushed voices, the better our health will be and the easier we will find it to pass on to the next generation.
Chella believes that menstruation education should be:
- Free, unbranded, objective, and inclusive of reusables like menstrual cups and cloth pads
- Consistent, accurate, up-to-date and peer-reviewed
- Supported more comprehensively by the National Curriculum, particularly in Science and PSHE
- Aimed at different age groups, starting before puberty, and revisited regularly
- Inclusive of different genders, cultures, abilities and sexualities
I would add to that using the correct words for genitals. People are definitely more comfortable in using the word ‘penis’ more than the word ‘vagina’ but it is really important to me that in our house we use the proper terms. When I had my son at 19 I was so embarrassed when the midwife asked me during labour where the pain was, I replied “In my tutu”
Nowadays I am happy to say that I have no shame in talking about vaginas and because it is just something we do, all three of my kids do too. We were in the car recently with the kids and a friends child and the conversation got onto vaginas (don’t ask, the topics my kids talk about are often surprising!), the friends child (who is male with a male brother) said something about babies coming out with wee. My son told him that women have “two holes down there AND a bum hole!” The lads mother found it all hilarious and when I was telling her about it in her kitchen, the lad came running down with a puberty book open at the vagina diagram and asked me to point out the holes!
It is a funny story, but how bloody great that our kids feel confident and safe enough to ask these questions and have these discussions out loud! As a woman who used the word tutu till my twenties, it is a whole new world! And I am loving it!
So let’s all make a stand and talk more about Aunt Flo, having the painters in, shark week or any of the other sayings for the good old period!