Periods hurt in so many ways. First there’s the bleeding, cramps, sore breasts, swollen belly, hormonal shifts, dizziness, headaches and the pain of parting with at least a few quid a month on sanitary products taxed as though they’re a luxury, not a basic human right.
Then there’s the stigma, which some might say is the sorest part of all. It begins with language: the “discreet” sanitary towels, “invisible” wings and “cotton-fresh” pantyliners. It continues with shame, symbolised by the cool blue stream of liquid we apparently seep from our sweet-smelling vaginas. And the view – held so long we’ve forgotten how dangerous it is – that the process of shedding the lining of our womb once a month makes us mad, bad, dirty.
Now to Donald Trump for the latest installment of period-shaming. Last week, the real-estate mogul and Republican frontrunner was taken to task by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly during the first TV debate of the presidential race. His response? To insinuate in a CNN interview that Kelly was menstruating at the time.
“You could see that there was blood coming out of her eyes,” he said. “Blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump has since insisted he was not implying Kelly had her period (he maintains he was referring to her nose) and that anyone who claims otherwise is “deviant” – which, some might say, is just heaping more shame on the shame. Oh, on top of calling a vagina a “wherever”.
Anyway, we could be here all day … the response, at least, has been uncharacteristically out and proud for a subject usually obscured by adverts featuring women laughing while star-jumping in white skinny jeans: a Twitter hashtag – #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult – used to tweet Trump with details of individuals’ monthly flows, and a perfectly pitched Buzzfeed list: “17 times Donald Trump was TOTALLY on his period.”
The point is that talking about periods, depicting them, and possibly even thinking about them, is still seen as deviant, at best, and, at worst, disgusting. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume’s classic about a 12-year-old going through puberty, remains among the few books in which a girl starts her period. And it was published in 1970. We live in a world where a woman running the London Marathon while “freebleeding” – AKA without a tampon, as musician Kiran Gandhi recently did – is seen as a radical act. Which, of course, it is, because we also live in a world where only 12% of girls have access to safe, good-quality sanitary products.
“What seems to be completely hidden is that poor access to menstrual health is a huge part of discrimination against girls and women,” says Lucy Russell, UK girls’ rights campaign manager for Plan UK, whose #JustATampon movement invites people all over the world to post selfies with tampons. “In Africa, one in 10 girls misses school when she has her period because of the lack of information and adequate facilities. The knock-on effect of this stigma is huge. It’s not some small, private issue.”
“Periods are not only shrouded in shame,” says Soofiya Andry, a 23-year-old graphic designer who crowdfunded Bloody Hell, a zine spilling women’s stories and period-based art accompanied by “bleeding vag badges and hand-painted period pants” for the investors. “They are used to shame women and write them off.” Bloody Hell, which has raised £1 191 – more than twice the original goal – is out in October and Andry detects a sea change, not so much in the response to women menstruating, but the way we talk about it. “I think there is more eagerness to share stories,” she says. “I should send Donald Trump a copy. He’s going to bloody love it and he might learn some stuff, too.”
Yet women still routinely get shut down when they talk about their periods. In March, when artist Rupi Kaur posted a picture of herself in bed, fully dressed, with a small patch of menstrual blood on her pyjamas and a coin-sized red stain on the sheet – basically a scene that greets many women on a monthly basis when they wake up, pull back the duvet and realise their period has started – it was censored by Instagram. (It was later reinstated after a challenge by Kaur.) And, in January, the British tennis player Heather Watson rocked the world when she publicly said that going out in the first round of the Australian Open was “one of those girl things”. As in: she had her period, and felt dreadful.
Periods really can make you feel awful and, in silencing the subject, we’ve stopped talking about that feeling, too. Running the London Marathon when you’re on your period is going to be harder than running it without, never mind whether you’re freebleeding or not – though women should not be discriminated against as a result of it.
But perhaps we should be able to acknowledge it, whether that means more toilet breaks for female tennis players or more attention paid to monthly cycles. For organisations such as Women in Sport this is why menstruation remains sport’s last taboo. “It is important that sport is sensitive to the impact of the menstrual cycle, but also sends the message that periods are not something that should be a barrier to playing sport,” says Ruth Holdaway, the chief executive. “What we need is an openness to the subject.”
For Tiff Stevenson – a standup whose current show Mad Man is at the Edinburgh Fringe and features a skit about her “vagina house” and all that goes on in it – the subject of periods is slowly seeping back into female comedy. “We used to get a lot of: ‘All they talk about is periods,’” she says. “I think there has been a backlash to that in the last few years, and rightfully so. Up until a year ago, I didn’t know a single woman who was doing standup about her period. Now we’re all going back to the material again.”
What prompted the change? “I think we collectively realised something: why are we being shamed into silence?” she replies. “Why are we being told we can’t talk about this thing that happens to us every month?” © Guardian News & Media 2015