by Emma Gilpin
It was a secret that we all had and we kept it, ashamed, embarrassed, scared about what it all meant. I suppose that’s because it meant adulthood, but it also meant something much more intimidating than that: womanhood.
I got my period when I was twelve. I didn’t, couldn’t, tell anyone about it apart from my mum. It was not to be mentioned, not to or by my dad, my brother, or my best friend. It was something I’d read about, in books like Are you there God, it’s me Margaret which bizarrely portrayed it as something to be excited about, a sexy and glamourous rite of passage, and it was something I’d been taught about in awkward Citizenship classes from 90s VHS tapes about tampons and sanitary towels which made boys laugh and allowed them to make fun of us later in the playground. Periods were gross and shameful, period blood was disgusting, and if a girl left the classroom to go the toilet whilst carrying her rucksack people whispered and laughed.
It seemed strange that we should have to be so covert and embarrassed about something that would affect half of us, but the thought of someone knowing you were going to the bathroom to change a sanitary towel or tampon was terrifying. In year 8, I once got a wrapped tampon out of my bag for a joke when we were discussing the logistics of a group swimming trip and my friend was so horrified she screamed. I was later told by other members of my friendship group how crude and distasteful I had been. Nothing could possibly be more offensive than the sight of something someone may, at some point, put inside their bleeding vagina. Period jokes were out of the question, unlike the jokes boys made about masturbating and oral sex and porn.
Admittedly, the experience is different now. I enjoy talking about periods; half of us can laugh along about how awful they can be, whilst the other half of us are probably (hopefully) interested to learn about this part of life that doesn’t affect them but does affect a large proportion of their friends, family and loved ones.
We are lucky that we can have these conversations and perhaps we even have a responsibility to have them. Taboos and stigmas surrounding menstruation mean that women in countries like Nepal are forced to spend their periods isolated from their community in huts, whilst girls in countries across Asia and Africa are forced to miss or even drop out of school when they start having periods, as they are unable to access the facilities they need to do something as simple as changing a sanitary towel. Most upsettingly, a study by Plan International found that 48% of girls in Iran believed that menstruation was a disease, simply due to a lack of education and discussion surrounding the topic. Imagining the fear that these girls must experience – believing they have somehow contracted a shameful disease about which they can tell nobody – is heart-breaking.
Closer to home, the recent decision to get rid of the EU’s controversial 5% ‘Tampon Tax’ on menstrual products has been celebrated and is certainly a victory for anyone who has periods. It’s also forced more people to talk about periods and admit that they affect enough of us that it would be ridiculous to sell them as a niche or ‘luxury’ item. This time, our voices have been heard; hopefully the period taboo will eventually go the same way as the tampon tax.