Period shame is a weird one for me to be talking about. Those of you who have arrived here because you liked the original series will be well aware of the fact that I have zero period shame. Literally none. Nothing is off limits; nothing is too awkward to talk about or cringeworthy. Nevertheless, it’s something that’s been on my radar recently from a few different places, and I thought we should talk about it, what it is, where it comes from and how to get rid of it.
What is period shame?
I think the answer to that varies depending on the kind of shame you’re talking about. In my eyes, period shame can mean one of a few things:
- You’re uncomfortable talking about anything period related full stop. Not with friends, family, doctors, it’s just an embarrassing subject that you’d rather forget about.
- You’re embarrassed to admit there’s a problem with a health professional. You could be happy (ish) discussing periods in general, or talking about your personal experiences with your friends. But talking about periods with a stranger? Not your thing, even if they’re a doctor.
- It’s a social taboo. The way I’m going to be discussing this one today is more of a generational or cultural thing. It has nothing to do with your personal feelings or embarrassment, it’s just not a socially acceptable topic to talk about, so you don’t. Or maybe you do, but your grandparents don’t.
If you see it any differently, let me know how you see it. It would be interesting to see how other people view this.
My own experience with period shame
I never thought I’d be appreciative of the fact I’ve always had problems with my periods, but it really has given me a no filter approach to this subject. And that makes me somewhat grateful. I was about 12 the first time I saw a doctor about my period, I can’t remember how that made me feel at the time, but I’m sure I was humiliated. As any average 12 year old would be. But after seeing one doctor, and another…and another, the monotonous routine of it all diminishes any level of embarrassment very quickly.
Looking at the world from that perspective, I forgot to take a step back and realise that other people had issues talking about it. And by other people, I mean other people like me; young and without any cultural or religious restraints stopping them talking about it.
Why am I writing this now?
A couple of things have made me realise how present this still is, and I’m hoping you guys can help me figure out why.
Cultural & Generational Period Shame
On my flight to Istanbul last week I was listening to the audiobook Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex by YouTuber Hannah Witton. I still had the book paused and the Audible app open on my phone while I was queuing for customs. My phone was required to show my e-visa to the customs officer. It wasn’t until I got slightly further down the queue that I very quickly closed the app and realised just how uncomfortable I’d be with this armed Turkish officer seeing little western me listening to that book in this traditional Muslim country. Hello culture shock, nice to meet you.
At this point, I’d nearly finished the book, but earlier in my flight she’d said a few things that caught my attention. There’s a chapter where she talks to her mother, grandmother and great grandmother about what they were taught in school about sex, relationships, periods, contraception – the whole lot. When her grandmother started her period, she was visiting her aunt, and her aunt was so embarrassed about having to deal with it that she lied to everyone in the house about what was wrong with her. Her great grandmother? She didn’t even know what a period was when she got hers.
Modern Period Shame??
Going back to what I was saying about generational period shame earlier, this was hardly surprising to me. What did surprise me though, was Hannah’s own experience. Hannah Witton is about two years older than me, so I assume our education and awareness on the subject would be somewhat similar. She said that she started her period at 11 but she hadn’t spoken about them with her friend until the age of 13. I don’t know if this is me/ my school but we were very talkative about the subject as soon as it started.
She explained a scenario where she was at a friend’s house and her friend whipped out a pad and said she’d be back in a minute. This action promoted the rest of her friends to start talking about their own periods for the first time. I had a few thoughts about this; the main one being I wonder how long they would have gone without talking about it if her friend hadn’t been on her period that day. The other was that I’m glad they saw the pad as an invitation to talk rather than an opportunity to freeze and go red in the face.
Granted, this all happened nearly 15 years ago and I’d like to think that things have improved a little since then.
The Final Straw
Also on that trip, I started listening to The Gynae Geek by Dr Anita Mitra (review coming soon). The introduction is her explaining, in a very captivating way, the day that she treated a 41-year-old Asian woman who is pouring with blood. Her period is so heavy that the doc thinks she’s having a miscarriage. The woman says her period is usually so heavy that she sits on a folded up bath mat in her shower rather than using a sanitary product. It’s been that way for 20 years. She thought it was normal up until a few years ago, then she was too embarrassed to see a doctor, or even discuss it with friends.
That story was the one that made me want to write this post. A woman (who eventually needed 4 units of blood) is suffering for two decades because she’s too embarrassed to talk about a basic bodily function.
How do we end Period Shame?
Talk about it. Be Hannah Witton’s friend waving her pad in the air. And don’t be like me and assume because the people in your bubble are happy talking about, that most people are. If you’re happy discussing these issues, bring them up every once in a while. You might encourage your silent friend to say a few words. If you know someone who used to have problems with theirs who hasn’t spoken about it in a while, ask them how it’s going. Or if you know someone else who has problems and is too embarrassed to see a doctor, encourage them to go. Introduce them to Dr Anita Mitra’s patient, or even a blog like this one that normalises the conversation.
Until next time,