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It’s a Matter of Pride, Period.
Rustling in the front pocket of my bag, under the desk, hoping no-one notices me, I slip a tampon up my sleeve. Slowly and carefully unwrapping tampons in public toilet cubicles, so that no one would hear and subsequently figure out that I’m on my period. Hide, at all costs, any sign of the fact that I have a period at all. Ever.
That was me. Every month, since I was about 12 and well into my late twenties. So much shame and embarrassment towards a very normal, natural and actually quite wonderful process of my body. It’s only really in the last few years that I have started to question why I spent so long feeling like this. I’ll never forget how my heart quickened and my face glowed red when a colleague of mine openly asked if anyone had a tampon, while on a short break with our male colleagues. I immediately felt the attention on me as the only other female and I could have died that she hadn’t asked me privately. I quickly embraced the challenge and replied that I did, tried to seem super casual about it because, despite the deep rooted reaction of shame that had been triggered, I knew in that moment that I didn’t want to feel like that anymore. I didn’t want to be living in fear every month of being found out, that I do, in fact, have a period.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only woman to have felt like this. So, it got me thinking. Where does all this embarrassment come from? I have a few theories. Let’s start with the experience of our first period. No one really spoke about it. Other than that one, deeply awkward session with the school nurse where she briefly explained the inner workings of the womb, warned us that our hormones will go a little haywire, gave us a tampon and sanitary towel to take away with us and oh yeah, let’s not mention any of this around the boys. Sounded great, not. Whenever anyone did speak about it, it was always through judgement; ‘Watch out, it’s her time of the month’ or ‘Oh dear, someone must be on her period’. Cloaking it all in this veil of fear, the great unknown, something to be ridiculed for. When it finally arrived, my first period was so embarrassing. I was at a dentist appointment, I quietly told my big sister who thought it was hilarious, she subsequently told her boyfriend who worked at the supermarket where we had gone to buy some sanitary products and I was mortified. I know this story must be familiar for most girls who have grown up in Western culture, but there are cultures across the world that really celebrate this moment of menarche (first menstruation). From ritual, to large family gatherings, even whole village celebrations, some cultures have held on to the knowledge that this moment of transition is pivotal for young girls. Menarche can either be an empowering experience or can cast a long shadow that can stick around well into adulthood.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see far more cards at play, here in the UK. Traditional marketing messaging from well known disposable sanitary product companies, is focussed on the line that life can go on as ‘normal’, don’t let your period hold you back, you can get through your day as if you don’t have a period at all, no-one has to know! Masked as empowerment, this messaging not only regularly reinforces the belief that we should hide and feel shamed by this aspect of our female selves, it subtly encourages us to doubt our body’s intelligence and builds a culture of shame that plants the seed for all sorts of other problematic relationships with our bodies. How is having a period not life as normal?
Not only is the messaging a subtle manipulation of women’s bodily autonomy, but the vast majority of these products contain harmful substances. Did you know that chlorine and dioxin can be found in disposable menstrual towels and tampons?
Besides the health impact, the environmental cost is heartbreaking. According to the Women’s Environmental Network Environmenstrual Fact Sheet, most menstrual pads are made from 90% plastic and half of UK women flush tampons away with an estimated 1.5-2 billion menstrual items flushed down Britain’s toilets each year. Leading to an average of 4.8 pieces of menstrual waste being found per 100m of beach in the UK.
So, what if, instead of buying into this industry (that profit from harming the environment and risk causing harm to menstruating bodies under the guise of empowerment), we actively get to know our period? What if, getting to know and nurture our period is the gate-way to accepting our bodies just as they are? If we can embrace this very primal function of our bodies, can we begin the journey to embracing the power of the female body?
One of the ways I’ve been reconnecting with my period is through using a menstrual cup. Cups give you full protection and freedoms whilst being a more period, eco and body friendly alternative, some women report relief from period pain too!
Using a cup felt daunting at first, but it has had a profound effect on my relationship with my period. It is fascinating to know how much blood I can expect on each day of my period. It is a huge relief not to have to worry about changing my cup every few hours, I love knowing that my cup supports the ecosystem of my body. It is an experimental transition, so here are my top tips for how to use a menstrual cup:
• Find the right cup; there are different cup sizes, shapes and firmness to accommodate your unique vagina! It might take a bit of trial and error, but please don’t be put off. Even if you need to buy three cups before you find yours, the cost will quickly be offset by no longer buying disposable products every month.
• Learn which fold for insertion creates the best seal for you. It took me a few attempts.
• Have back up! In the early days, I also wore a bamboo sanitary towel for extra protection. You could also wear reusable period pants until you’re confident in your cup.
• Make sure you break the seal before removing the cup! Don’t learn this one the hard way, it’s messy.
• ENJOY getting to know your cycle. Using a cup has made me so much more in tune with my period; I pay more attention to how I feel during menstruation, I know how it changes from day to day, it’s really become a part of me that I respect.
Getting to know the rhythm of my period and noticing the subtle ways it affects me has gone a long way to healing my relationship with my body in general. I not only get to take pride in knowing that my menstrual cycle is no longer harming the planet, it is no longer harming me. By making friends with my period, I understand my needs better, I know how to work with my body instead of denying it, I’m listening to the guidance of my body and I’m honestly proud of it. Imagine how disruptive it could be for the patriarchy if all women became proud of their period and in turn, took pride in our bodies. Could getting to know our period be the gateway drug to falling in love with our female bodies, just as they are, in all their natural glory?