Seeing my daughters growing up brings me so much joy. And it scares the crap out of me.
My eldest daughter’s menarche wasn’t really surprising to any of us as she had been traversing the hilly terrain of puberty for quite some time. I was lying on our bed quietly reading and I heard Anna’s voice from the bathroom: “Mum, can I talk to you?” This has happened many times before; often, Anna wants help with her hair, or she’s decided to make slime from my toiletries (plus added glitter) and it’s all gone a bit wrong. This time there was something slightly different in her voice, a more certain tone than usual. I had imagined that Anna’s menarche was going to be quite a dramatic event (as I recalled my experience) but it all played out in a sort of calm and sure way. My daughter seemed so sure of herself and her feelings, and responded in a very matter of fact way; not without emotion, but it didn’t shake her up in the same way it did me as I encountered my own, many years before.
My mum had explained quite a lot to me about puberty, my body, and menstruation; certainly more than her mother told her (”You have a disease and you’re going to bleed every month until you die.”). So I was pretty prepared for what my hormones had in store for me. Still, I remember how uncertain I felt when I found my underwear smeared with new blood. I remember there was a tinge of shame, an idea that I should probably hide this from others, especially from the opposite sex.
Menstruating is something that is specific only to females, a mental and physical state that most women deal with regularly for most of their lives, and yet it isn’t often spoken about, beyond the passing ‘Oh God I’ve got my period’ or ‘I can’t, it’s my time of the month’. There is still a taboo associated with menstruation.
Anna has grown up with me being incredibly open about my body and my period and she’s also grown up seeing me be incredibly open about it to her dad (my ex-husband) and my husband (her stepdad). Both my kids flat out refuse to let me use the bathroom alone. What they have to tell me, they have to tell me now, so they have become aware of the frustrated rituals that go along with bleeding heavily from your vagina whilst holding a conversation with your kids about what they definitely do not want to have for dinner. The two male role models in her life who are completely open to discussing puberty, periods, and anything else she would like to discuss. If I am not around she feels happy to ask either of them for help or advice and I know they would be equally comfortable helping her, but this trust and openness has taken a long time to foster and has required a lot of effort from us all.
I am admittedly brazen about discussing these things but my husband and my ex have definitely struggled dealing with certain topics and being open in general to all knowledge of female bodily functions. I know for sure that the more open I’ve been about my body and its functions, the more comfortable my husband and daughter have become knowing and discussing the ins and outs . I can be militant. I’ve definitely forced my ex husband to listen even when he’s tried to avoid it. After all, we are raising a daughter together. When faced with another’s avoidance or squeamishness, we can feel a responsibility to stop doing whatever it is that is causing those negative feelings for them. I don’t want our daughter to associate a completely natural bodily function with hiding things, or the negative feelings of others which she then must cater to. That is not her burden to bear. It is not her job to make her factual experience of the world palatable to others.
It’s often perceived to be only men who don’t want to talk about periods or natural body states. In fact, many women feel more uncomfortable with this. The prevalence of using euphemisms when talking about our menstrual cycles is one indicator of such things (across the globe and in 10 languages, over 5000 euphemisms for menstruation were found by researchers in a recent study), as is the same trend when talking about genitals ― especially to our children. Don’t get me wrong, in our home we absolutely use cutesy names for body parts but we also use the correct biological terms as well. Both my daughters know the word “vagina” and have since they could talk. There is nothing odd about hearing a two year old say “vagina” in reference to a vagina. What I find truly odd is when a grown woman won’t say “vagina” in reference to a vagina.
In a world where we now understand how often the female experience is sidelined, how often the words spoken by women can be ignored and their experiences treated as ‘just how things are’, we cannot afford to let this be the case any longer. This attitude can be especially noticeable during times of menstruation, pregnancy, birth and postpartum. Happily, I think we are now at a point where there is definitely more open discussion about issues associated with pregnancy, birth and postpartum, and that ― more and more ― men are encouraged to be part of these processes from the start. Also, most people (including health care providers) nowadays understand what postnatal depression is and how serious it can be. When it comes to menstruation, most women can testify to how a normal period is still incredibly inconvenient and hormone changes can make them feel really awful for days, sometimes a lot longer.
For the many women who suffer from menorrhagia (heavy bleeding), life can be impossible; they can feel controlled by their menstrual cycles, unable to leave the house for fear of bleeding on their clothes, and have to deal with very painful cramping and often anaemia. The CDC estimates that 10 million American women suffer from menorrhagia. Such numbers make for an incredibly common (but often undiagnosed and rarely discussed) disorder. I myself had suffered from menorrhagia for most of my life, and doctors so often told me it was just normal “period stuff”) that I never spoke about it to friends, as I simply presumed they were having similar experiences. It’s only when I found a solution (I was hypothyroid and had a progesterone imbalance) and my periods actually became manageable that I realized how much I had been dealing with for so long.
Hormones are incredibly powerful chemicals and can play havoc with a body and mind before, during and after menstruation. In fact, a senior gynecologist has estimated that up to a million British women could be suffering from menstrual psychosis, a condition which can lead to women experiencing hallucinations, depression and psychosis. Despite how destructive this condition can be in a woman’s life, menstrual psychosis often goes undiagnosed, as it is not ‘taken seriously enough by medical professionals amid lingering taboos about mental health and periods.’ Everyone should be aware of how profoundly affecting menstruation can be, and we need to have open and honest conversations about it as well as foster a supportive culture for women affected. It is very telling of attitudes towards menstruation that a woman experiencing the often debilitating effects of fluctuating hormones can still be subjected to ridicule. Jokes on the subject are ingrained within our culture and very few things annoy me more than being asked if I’m ‘on the blob’ when I express an emotion that isn’t immediately OK for another person. We have much work to do in removing the damaging stigma which we have allowed to linger within our societies.
Menstruation is dealt with in a very detached way. We hide sanitary products from the view of others in pretty cases and pouches so as not to subject anyone to the embarrassment or even the thought of the fact we are menstruating. The blood we bleed during menstruation is seen entirely differently from any other blood we bleed. The clean-up from a nosebleed wouldn’t be quite so frantic or so desperately hidden. We might do our best to scrub at it, but leave it until we get home to deal with properly. Can you imagine spending the day with even a little period blood showing on your jeans between your legs? It’s as if we would never want another person to know that our vaginas are anything other than pristine, pretty objects for fucking and our uteruses as anything other than clinical, empty rooms just waiting to be inhabited. There is something seen as inherently disgraceful in the act of menstruating. Blood is the source of life, but our vulvas are so often depicted as doll-like, perfected entities, made palatable for mass consumption. I’m not against the depictions of flowers and close-to-nature imagery that often accompanies images of a vulva, but I’m tired of how separated it has become from the reality of things. My experience is that there is discharge, and smells, and changes of texture, and blood and hair, and that all of that is entirely normal, and would look really quite beautiful among some flowers, too.
The world seems unable to see vaginas in any light other than a sexual one. Vaginas are happily thought of as glistening, wet with desire, but normal, daily vaginal discharge is considered ugly and something we shouldn’t talk about. The fact that periods are still so taboo is, in my view, a product of so much of the world being seen from the male perspective or being catered to a male perspective. It’s important to see women’s bodies as more than objects of sexual desire so that they can be allowed to function as they were intended without shame or disgrace attached.
I have developed an intimate relationship with my body and my menstrual cycle and I think this is the case for many women. Over time women learn a lot about how their bodies will react to hormone levels at certain times of the month, how external factors interplay with our hormones, what to do more of and what to do less of. Nowadays we track our cycles with neat little apps (my favourite is Clue) with which we can note our physical and mental state on each day, when we have sex, when we are fertile. When I recently bought a new phone and lost all my data during the transfer from old to new, the thing I was most upset about losing was the info I had collected on my period, two years’ worth of ups and downs that I felt very connected to.
The menarche is a defining moment in life as a female, and for that moment to be accompanied by feelings of shame and secrecy and an understanding that you deal with this alone makes for an awful foundation for young women. My daughter has started this journey feeling entitled to be shame-free, to express her experiences but also be heard and understood, and she’s been provided with the language that enables her to do this. Knowing the language needed to accurately relay her experiences will make my daughter feel more confident in relaying those experiences. The language needed to talk about intimate female bodily functions are words like ‘vulva’, ‘uterus’, ‘cervix’,’ clitoris’,’ labia’, and ‘menstruation’. Knowing, owning and using this language normalises the experiences it describes, and hopefully in so doing she won’t have to resort to euphemisms and palatable, cloying ways to prettify her experiences for the sake of others’ sensibilities. Words like ‘vagina’ are empowering; that goes for both men and women. Accurate information is empowering.
As women, talking about our experiences is easier said than done. Words often fall on deaf ears. Males are often raised to see ‘women’s problems’ as something they should ignore because women (apparently) prefer to be left alone to deal with things like menstruation and their vagina. I am not advocating a scenario in which we tell everyone everything about our bodies all the time but I think it’s time we challenge these damaging taboos that surround the female experience of menstruation. In his wonderful quote on reading John Waters advises us not to fuck anyone who doesn’t have books in their home, we need to make reading cool again. Well, I’d like to add another caveat. If you find yourself talking about entirely normal things, using entirely correct terminology but facing avoidance, squeamishness, or worse, disgust, my advice is power through. Ignore the widening eyes, the jokes, the curled or pursed lips, the guttural noises of revulsion. You are teaching many valuable things! Relish your role as an educator, for you are expanding horizons! If a person just can’t feel OK with you talking about things like your vagina, vulva, uterus, menstrual blood or vaginal discharge, then definitely don’t fuck them. You deserve someone who is not made uncomfortable by your body in its natural state, and they deserve the chance to become someone who is not closed off to the experiences of more than half the world.
I don’t merely say the word “vagina,” I wield it and I am powerful when I do.