That time of the month. On your rags. Shark week. Women's troubles. Period. I didn't hear the proper word until I was well into my teens. Before that, the simple, natural act of menstruation was cloaked in hearsay and speculation.
When I was about 12, my mother took me into her bedroom and opened the cupboard. Hidden way in the back, behind folded towels and her voluminous cotton underwear, was the modest pile of sanitary napkins in their pale-green floral packaging. That was it. Everything I knew until then was from my older sister, supercilious cousins, and 1970s pamphlets such as 'You're a Young Lady Now', with their sickly-sweet powder smell. And it wasn't enough.
Has that much changed?
In some circles there are menstruation ceremonies for young girls -- celebrations of womanhood in the bush and on beaches with wisdom from elders, candles lit, garlands of roses and gifts. In other places, there are women's groups based on ancient matriarchal gatherings, like the fabled 'Red Tent' made famous by Anita Diamant's 1997 book. But our wider culture has not embraced the ubiquity of women's bleeding by any means.
Even writing this blog has me wondering whether I'm crossing a line. An ill-defined, hazy line -- but a line nevertheless. What is appropriate? Is it appropriate to talk about my personal experience of the one cyclical event I share with every other woman on this planet? Is it appropriate to delve into the gory details? Or do I confine myself to a dry, standard socio-cultural account? Where is the blood here?
In workplaces, schools and universities, there is still a sense of covertness to this fact of life, even a lingering sense of shame. How often do women say: "Look, I'm tired (or irritable, or feeling faint, or in pain) because I have my period"? Instead, from a very early age, we're socialised to be stoic, and soldier on. We are well-versed in hiding the telltale signs, clutching the tampon or pad in our fist or handbag while we scurry to the toilet. I still wear black on my heaviest day, terrified of the accidental smear. I wonder whether I should attempt my yoga headstand, heavy weightlifting, or swim in the ocean for as long as I usually do. Why?
One of WikiHow's tips for teenage girls on 'How to Hide Your Period from Everyone' is: "Tie a sweater around your waist. If someone asks you about it, you can just say that you were feeling too warm to wear the sweater. Alternatively, you can tell them that you are experimenting with '90s fashion." What? How about simply saying: "I've got my period, dammit, and I've been caught out. Can you help me?"
We're urged not to talk about having them, and then only to other girls or women. Not to men, fathers, brothers, friends, colleagues. Maybe husbands and lovers, when we're explaining why we can't have sex. And why can't we? Some women (including myself) are relaxed, replete and eroticised during menstruation.
The taboos around bleeding are age-old, and it will take a conscious effort to eradicate them. The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have explicit rules around women and their bodily functions. And the biological reason we menstruate is often overlooked -- nothing less than the continuation of the human race.
Last October, Donald Trump dismissed Fox News host Megyn Kelly's veracity when he announced after an interview: "There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." Again, he conflated having a period with aggression, hostility and anger -- and cast doubt on the her capacity to think clearly and do her job. Old prejudices, as we've seen.
In March 2015, Instagram twice deleted a photo of a fully-clothed sleeping woman, with a small blood stain on her pants and on the sheet. In our age of raunch culture, sexualised nudity, cosmetic enhancements, pornography and sexual exploitation, this fear of a natural physical function seems absurd.
We often hear the trope that if men menstruated, it would be lauded as a badge of honour, bravery, a warrior's act of monthly endurance. Is that so? I wonder. Or would they, too, succumb to the creeping embarrassment, the deep, Judaeo-Christian sense that there is an open wound down there, an emptiness that can't be filled? I sometimes used to ask my father to buy sanitary napkins for me when I was a teenager, and now my husband does so too. I'm proud of them both.
My daughter, nearly 11, has known about period flow and seen it since she was a toddler. I felt no need to hide it from her. Consequently, she has no trepidation about this rite of passage when it comes. She knows what it looks like, she understands its importance and purpose. She knows its rhythm is in alignment with the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the complex hormonal signals of other women close to her. Bring on the rituals, the softness and power and celebration of womanhood. The essential sacredness of this ebb and flow. I know my daughter -- and many girls like her, on the cusp of this transition -- would approve.Suggest a correction