Throughout my son's childhood we had a policy of answering every one of his questions truthfully in an age-appropriate manner. His response to one of the big ones – “Mum, what are periods?” – asked at about the age of eight stays with me.
The conversation went something like this:
Him: “If this happens to all ladies, why is it a secret?”
Me: “It’s not really a secret. Maybe people think it’s not polite to talk about what’s going on in their pants.”
Him: “If this was happening to me I would talk about it ALL THE TIME!”
He was incredulous that this bodily function existed. Sympathetic towards women for having to go through it, but mainly he was baffled at what he saw as a conspiracy of silence. He couldn’t get his head round the fact that every month, half of the population, between the ages of about 12 and 50 bled, and yet somehow everyone seemed to be keeping their traps shut about it.
'Why are periods still taboo?'
By the time young women reach further education, they are at an age where, for most, the physical symptoms and the housekeeping of periods are just another uncomfortable routine that females endure, like hair removal and pay inequality. I’ve taught hundreds and hundreds of young women, and can only recall a couple of times when a student has confided that they have a heavy period and may need to leave class, or that they have cramps or are feeling poorly.
Why, when everyone knows this is happening to friends, partners, colleagues, students, is it still such a taboo subject?
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. I understand that blood is scary to lots of people and the sight of it can trigger physical reactions in some – bit dizzy, bit vomity, bit fainty. It’s not a stretch to associate period blood with gore – a whole generation of boys were introduced to this thought via Stephen King’s Carrie. But there is horror film blood, brutal murder blood, terrible accident blood – all bad things – then there is good blood, blood for a life-saving transfusion. That blood isn't scary, is it? That’s practical blood. That blood doesn't have negative emotions attached to it; only hopeful ones, grateful ones. If period blood was thought of as the good kind without any shade of disgust, then destigmatisation would surely follow.
'Too bamboozling for blokes'
For the half of the population who have never and will never experience menstruation, the menfolk, this regular physical event might be considered alien in the extreme. I assume that vaginas generate a vast confusion of feelings, being the place of both sex and babies. Robbie Williams couldn’t have expressed this more honestly when he described witnessing his wife give birth as “like my favourite pub burning down”.
Throw periods in the mix and I assume it can all become a bit too bamboozling for some blokes to manage. Something so other, that it’s easier to pretend periods don't exist. I don’t think the silence is necessarily a tactic purposefully designed by men to oppress women, well not now, and not by the good men, of which there are many.
It’s just a received cultural understanding that women’s undercarriage business must be kept under wraps. And lots of women subscribe to that line of thinking too. Why? For some it’s because they are slightly more discreet than gobby, slap-it-all-out-on-the-table sorts like me, but for others it’s due to more serious issues. Namely a deeply internalised feeling of shame.
The shame that is attached to menstruation is by far the most stark raving bonkers element of it all, in my mind. I imagine the shame as a bonneted Jane Austen character: “Oh, kind sir! Do avail me of my fainting couch as I ponder the horror of anyone discovering that Lady Scarlet is residing in my downstairs parlour. For I would be deemed nought but a filthy wretch, ill-disposed to partake in the gentleman’s-excuse-me until she wends her way hence.”
Of course this is the extreme version of where some of the shame arises, but even a little bit of shame is too much.
Time to talk
Imagine another physical episode that affects great swathes of people. Something without any sort of stigma attached. Something that can exist as a slight inconvenience, or be almost debilitating in its ferocity. Hay fever, for example. Hay fever affects between 10 and 30 per cent of adults and around 40 per cent of children in the UK. Imagine if half of the population will have, are having, or have had a five-day hay fever attack every single month and yet it was hardly mentioned. Doesn't seem plausible does it? So why is it different for periods?
I am by no means suggesting that women should march into every conversation with a loud haler to boom that their flow is flooding, boobs are banging and they have a desperate urge to thump anybody who irritates them. But it would be nice to know that we wouldn't be seen as enfeebled to mention it if we are having a tricky time and feeling unwell, if – and this is the important bit – if we choose to do so. Some people would mention their hay fever, some people would choose not to. They wouldn’t be judged for it either way.
I'm at the stage where lots of my pals are menopause bound. Happily, I feel that people are talking more about this, or maybe it’s just women in my social bubble. I don’t feel like I'm hurtling towards irrelevant oblivion because I’ll soon be riding the menopause express. It’s just another stage of regeneration that women go through. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a gentle journey – as with periods, the experience can be extreme. I've got pals who are seemingly gliding through it and others for whom it’s an ordeal. But know this: I will be talking about it.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons