It’s a simple fact of life just as natural as breathing: every 28 days or so, a post-pubescent female will shed her uterine lining if she has not become pregnant or otherwise caused her cycle to go on hiatus. Attitudes toward menstruation have varied throughout the years. In early Native and South American cultures, women retreated to “moon huts” together where they sat on mossy grass to soak up their blood and recycle it back into the earth. They meditated and made major community decisions while there. In ancient Rome however, menstruating women were considered dangerous. According to the Naturalis Historia, an ancient encyclopedia, menstruating women would make wine sour, seeds sterile and fruit trees wilt. Could it be that we didn’t just borrow great ideas about society and politics from the Romans but also some disdain for the period?
I don’t remember how old I was when I began my period but I know I was in junior high. I relied a lot on my friends, books, television, and whatever was taught in health class to understand what was happening to my body. What I learned was how to cover and hide my changing body and above all, be secretive to avoid embarrassing myself and those around me. I think back to an old Kotex ad that appeared in the Seventeen and YM magazines I read religiously as a teen which gave 10 reasons why Kotex should be your brand of choice. Reason number five read, “Your lab partner is totally hot. OK, your period is no big deal. But if he found out, you’d change schools. It’s a lot simpler just to use Kotex Ultra Thin Maxis, and relax. He’ll never, ever know.” Take a minute to consider what we’re saying to young women there: hide and diminish yourself or else risk alienating every man around you, opening yourself up to ridicule.
Women of all ages are expected to portray and uphold a sexualized ideal for heterosexual men which includes hiding the most boring, ordinary and non-sexual facts of life, i.e. using the bathroom, farting, body hair removal, applying or removing make-up. It follows then, that you must conceal your period which traditionally signals your unavailability for sex. Walk into any drug store or supermarket and you can find a woman altering her normal routine to hide the fact that she’s on her period. You don’t have to be an Ob-Gyn to look at a grown woman and recognize the possibility that she gets a period, but some of y’all still tuck the box under other purchases and wait on a female cashier. This has been going on for quite some time. For example, Johnson & Johnson put out a 1928 ad for Modess pads that included a “silent purchase coupon” for women to hand to clerks, ensuring the utmost discretion.
The majority of the feminine hygiene industry relies upon our belief that women’s bodies – when not engaged in socially-sanctioned sex – are dirty and shameful. It’s important to the manufacturers of those products that we feel this way so they can sell us discrete tampon cases and silent-wrapper pads/tampons—because you don’t even want the girl in the next stall to hear you open that thing. I’m not against these products generally, I just worry that we’re advancing a negative cycle when we teach girls how to be uncomfortable with their bodies and reinforce that feeling through marketing and societal interactions. Girls who are discouraged from learning about their bodies and talking freely about what’s happening with them are less-likely to get regular health screenings, engage in safe sex, and recognize healthy relationships.
How were you taught to think about your period and how do those lessons continue to play out in your life as an adult?