The “P Word”

period_Spektor_Weekender
Franchesca Spektor/Staff

Contrary to what you may see on television, my vagina doesn’t bleed translucent blue solvent. When I speak passionately or assert myself, it does not mean I am reaching that time of month. And, for the record, you know you can say the word, right? Period.

The fact is, we have all been indoctrinated with a deep-seated stigma of menstruation. Somewhere amidst the patriarchal society we live in, cultural beliefs, and misogynistic media, the word “period” stopped being a benign, physiological function and became an emblem of degradation and shame.

“I learned in Asian mythology the origin story of rice —   there (was) a rice goddess spilling blood on the field, which produced the crop,” Louise Tan, a producer of this year’s UC Berkeley Vagina Monologues, said. “As the time went by, these myths of rice developed around a more patriarchal culture, so the myth itself changed. It wasn’t a rice goddess spilling blood on field, but rather a woman being killed by men, which then provided the blood that yielded rice. So blood has grown to be associated with death and disaster.”

Personally, I’ll never forget my first cousin’s engagement day, just a few days prior to her 25th birthday. For most of my life, I listened to her intricate plans for the big ceremony — she’d make her grand entrance in a designer ghagra, meet the fiancé her parents chose for her, and, finally, in front of all of the people she loved, be presented with her custom-made 5 carat diamond ring.

When the day arrived, the mouthwatering aroma of her favorite dishes – butter chicken, daal makhani, jalebi – crept all the way up to her bedroom on the third floor. Guests flooded in. Her slender hands, weighed down by rows of iridescent glass bangles and thick coats of henna, clenched her sides. She looked perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Then she felt something wet in between her thighs. She stared into the mirror for a few seconds, eyes widened. Suddenly she collapsed onto the floor, bursting into tears.

On her engagement night, my cousin wasn’t allowed to eat with her family. She wasn’t allowed to see her fiancé for the first time or go to the temple. She wasn’t even allowed to greet the relatives who traveled across the world to be with her. Because she got her period.

At the news of my cousin’s quarantine, not one guest objected. Apparently, meeting an “impure” woman would be far worse than not seeing the beautiful bride-to-be. God forbid someone touched a healthy, bleeding woman.

But, then again, my cousin didn’t protest either — isolation was normal during a woman’s period. She went as far as to say it was ‘necessary.’

Menstruation Around The World, and Close to Home

This cultural, societal and self-infliction of shame of a natural bodily function has somehow persisted across cultures and countries. According to Femme International, in Kenya, women in the semi-nomadic Maasai region are not allowed to enter goat pens or milk cows while they are on their period for fear they will contaminate the animal. In certain areas of Nepal, a women is not allowed to interact with anyone during her period; in fact, she is banished to a special clay hut in the wilderness until her period is over. In Islamic tradition, menstruating women are not allowed to pray, touch the Qur’an, or observe fasting tradition. Menstruation is the number one reason why girls miss school worldwide.

“All the emphasis on continuous hormonal contraceptive use (like birth control pills, which allow women to delay their period) perpetuates the myth that women are debilitated and hate their periods. …I am not against hormonal birth control! Just against the way it is marketed, by treating menstruation is a diseased state. Soon, that new product which allows women to have blood-free period sex is coming out.  Why not just have period sex?”

-Ingrid Johnston-Robledo

And why only look abroad? Even in the US, menstruation is seen as a disturbing abnormality. We are living in a time where successful political figures like Donald Trump can say, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” when a female news host had the gall to challenge his political and social statements.

Menstruation, by definition, is the periodic shedding of a woman’s uterine lining. In essence, the uterine needs a fresh supply of nutrients to nurture a fetus. Without our periods, we would never be able to produce healthy children.

Even on social media, anxiety over the period has found its footing. Instagram took down a photograph of Indian American artist and poet Rupi Kaur in which her menstrual blood was visible, because, according to Instagram, the image went against community guidelines and had been flagged as inappropriate content by several viewers.

“I come across [the misconception that] the majority of women are debilitated by or hate their periods,”  said Professor Ingrid Johnston-Robledo of Castleton State University, and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, in an email interview. “All the emphasis on continuous hormonal contraceptive use (like birth control pills, which allow women to delay their period) perpetuates the myth that women are debilitated and hate their periods. …I am not against hormonal birth control! Just against the way it is marketed, by treating menstruation is a diseased state. Soon, that new product which allows women to have blood-free period sex is coming out.  Why not just have period sex?”

According to Professor Johnston-Robledo’s co-authored research paper, “The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma,” stigmas can be categorized into three distinct types: abominations of the body (deformities), blemishes of individual character, and “tribal” identities (social markers associated with marginalized groups). The period, according to the paper, fits into all three of these classifications. Menstrual blood is “considered an abomination.”

“In a heteronormative, patriarchal society, men’s bodies are seen as the standard. Therefore, when they are compared to bodies that menstruate, periods are seen as the ‘other,’’” says Nidhi Patel, a facilitator of the FemSex Decal on campus. “We are taught that periods are gross and dirty because it is a way to keep damaging ideas around sex and bodies in place. These ideas are sold to us in the media from a young age such that sometimes we don’t even recognize that we are thinking this way.”

“When I am transitioning from here and going into the workforce thinking about these collective norms that are really male-centric, I realize that the bias and sexism is not explicit,” said Michele Gleit, President of Body Peace, a student organization on campus dedicated to promoting positive body image, mental health, awareness of eating disorders, and self-acceptance. “It’s always there implicitly. That women are different.”

A Closer Look Into the Stigma & Movement Against It

Now, nobody is denying that we have come a long way. There was a time when menstruation was considered a reason women shouldn’t be astronauts. Now, a woman can go as far as taking an estrogen contraceptive pill to not menstruate at all in space, if they so choose. There was a time when Midol advertisements read, “Be the you he likes. Good to be around, any day of the month.” Now, Always commercials embrace female empowerment through their #LikeAGirl campaign.

But when we are bombarded with supposedly “feminine” images of daisies or bright pink colors with each commercial, we are subtly insinuating the fragility, delicacy, and secrecy that comes with menstruation. With the emergence of THINX, the first period-proof underwear, we are finding more and more ways to hide our blood, emphasizing the idea that that aspect of our bodies should be repressed.

“It’s always there implicitly. That women are different.”

-Michele Gleit

“Making a woman feel ashamed about her body is also a form of institutional violence,” said Tan. “Refusing to acknowledge that women have periods is a form of educational violence. Women being afraid to talk about their bodies or bodily functions, or being dismissed by doctors due to lack of medical research about these natural things, is violence.”

According to “The Menstrual Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma,” one of the main perpetrators of menstrual disgrace is silence. It starts when, in fifth grade maturation class, boys are separated from the girls to talk about their bodily changes. It implies from a very formative, young age that menstruation is something we should be embarrassed to talk about openly. Had there not been any reason to hide our period, the article says, we wouldn’t need to call it by its several euphemisms like, “our time of the month.” We would just call it what it is — the period.

Several groundbreaking movements to embrace the period have flourished in light of these repressions of menstrual freedom. In 2011, photographer Ingrid Berthoin-Moin photographed 12 women wearing their period as lipstick. Soon after, Jen Lewis used her period blood to construct visual art, often using abstract visual ideas and the cellular complexity of menstrual blood to emphasize the beauty and power in menstruation. In 2015, Harvard graduate student and former drummer for singer M.I.A., Kiran Gandhi, ran the London Marathon without a tampon, letting her blood flow freely, representing the larger “Free Bleeding” movement that has been brewing on the feminist blogosphere since as early as 2004.

But have these large scale movements sparked conversations on the microcosmic levels of universities like UC Berkeley? Have they changed anything?

The Period Conversation at UC Berkeley

“I come from a relatively conservative South Asian family where sex and body parts are not talked about,” says Patel. “My mother often made it seem like periods were dirty and that they were something that I needed to keep secret about. It wasn’t until college and taking control of my own sexuality did I finally confront all the shame I had around periods.”

FemSex, taught by student facilitators, enables students to learn about their sexuality, sexual responses, anatomy,  consent, and more by showcasing different perspectives through fellow students, speakers, and conferences (like the Queer and/or trans people of color conference). Being a part of FemSex allowed Patel to accept herself and her body more.

“In FemSex, we have this one day we call Menarche Party where we celebrate periods.” she said. “I loved the feeling it gave me of accepting my body and all of its functions. I remember this was one of the first times I heard a bunch of people talking about period sex in such a sex positive way, and it was incredibly liberating.”

Patel also believes that period sex is a specific taboo that people should openly discuss.

“Period sex may seem uncomfortable at first, but that’s not because there is anything inherently disgusting about period sex,” she said. “If you think about it, sex in general is uncomfortable at first. Learning how to undo a lot of the damaging ideas we have internalized about our genitals is the first step in overcoming the initial disgust many people have towards period sex.I am a huge advocate for people who want to explore period sex. I also believe that people should have sex in any way they want to. If period sex is not for you, that is fine. Just don’t look down on people who enjoy it.”

FEM Tech, the first technology club for women of all majors, aims to support women  from all backgrounds through training workshops, mentorship programs, networking events, and organized seminars. Diana Arteaga, a member of FEM Tech, has never been more confident to talk about her body.

“FEM Tech …created a space and community for women and other underrepresented groups to talk about our unique challenges that we face,” she said. “It’s been really validating and I feel solidarity with my fellow members. So now I feel totally comfortable talking about women’s issues, even with men. It’s given me a lot confidence to own who am I am.”

Similarly, Shivani Narang, a cast member of the UC Berkeley annual Vagina Monologues, was able to fully embrace an unexplored aspect of herself by participating in the event. However, she had never heard of any conversation on campus delving into period stigma prior to her experience with the Vagina Monologues.

“If you think about it, sex in general is uncomfortable at first. Learning how to undo a lot of the damaging ideas we have internalized about our genitals is the first step in overcoming the initial disgust many people have towards period sex.I am a huge advocate for people who want to explore period sex.

-Nidhi Patel

“I haven’t really heard it anywhere else in my life — not on campus or at home. Nowhere else, other than the Vagina Monologues, has there been that space and comfort to talk about it. Menstruation is supposed to be silenced. Being open to breaking that silence is important. Focusing and centralizing that conversation on the person with the vagina, and honoring that person — woman-identifying or non-identifying, it doesn’t matter. But we need to celebrate that, be more encouraging of that. Whether this means popping a bottle of  champagne or just talking about it, as long as you’re giving love and not shame. ”

According to Gleit, acknowledgement of menstruation on a daily level is minimal, indicative of lack of awareness and acceptance of the period.

“It is almost like people trivialize the issue,” she said. “They will say things like, ‘Oh, you are just making it up in your head,’ or ‘Deal with it,’ when it comes to symptoms of the period. Really it’s just a lack of empathy from a lot of people. I think women themselves are also afraid to talk about it openly for fear of not seeming like (they) fit in. Plus, whenever the conversation turns to menstruation, guys just don’t…the conversation just stops.”

Tan acknowledges that, while the Vagina Monologues did help her be fearless and comfortable about her “body and whatever secretions come out of it,” a widespread conversation has not yet been sparked because of the way the administration is set up.

“I think there’s a lot of resistance from the administration. For example, even attempts to address sexual assault are just to show that something is being done rather than actually accomplishing progress,” she said. “A lot of departments have yet to get in on the conversation [about periods], but then it just goes back to the administration not taking the issue of menstruation very seriously.”

So, what can we do to make menstruation a greater topic of discussion on campus?

“I think normalizing menstruation is important,”Johnston-Robledo said. “Open conversations that do not pathologize and stigmatize menstruation can go a long way. There is so much interesting coverage of periods in the popular press these days. It would be great to post those stories on social media, comment on them, bring examples up in class. You could also encourage your campus resource staff to incorporate menstruation into their resources and workshops. It is funny that, even for workshops about women’s health and sexuality, menstruation is often omitted.  Also pads and tampon containers should be stocked! They are always empty.”

The Emotional Toll of Stigma

I remember the first time I saw my blood at 13. I didn’t know what it meant — were my breasts going to grow hugely? Was I officially a proper woman? Did God not want me in His temples anymore? Was I dirty?

At 13, I already felt disgusted with myself for something I couldn’t control. The emotional burden of that is something I cannot fully express in words. It makes me feel subdued, hypervigilant, and minimized.

“I think this unnecessary stigma against periods teaches girls from a young age that they need to be ashamed of their bodies,” Patel said. “The amount of energy and stress this causes young girls creates yet another barrier that girls face in excelling in the ways they want to excel. I think young womxn and especially young womxn of color, queer womxn, and low income womxn are criticized heavily for decisions they make about their own bodies. This in turn results in social isolation, emotional distress, and low self-esteem.”

For Narang, menstruation became associated with racism and sexism at an extremely young age, instilling in her mind that menstruation was a gross thing. “In fifth grade we were watching videos and one white girl looked at me and said, ‘Your period is probably dirtier than all of ours.’ When I asked why, she said ‘because of your dark skin.’ At that point it had nothing to do with what was learned in class. It a matter of associating the color of my skin with dirtiness of my period. That I still remember that incident says a lot.”

In order to alleviate this burden, we need to find a way to accept and welcome discussions about the period, without making it the core of who we are as women.

“In fifth grade we were watching videos and one white girl looked at me and said, ‘Your period is probably dirtier than all of ours.’ When I asked why, she said, ‘because of your dark skin.’”

-Shivani Narang

“It is an important aspect of women’s health and sexuality. Menstrual shame reflects body and genital shame,” Johnston-Robledo says. “Reducing the stigma attached to menstruation can help women with body literacy, healthy sexual decision making, other reproductive health behaviors, etc.  It is not an isolated system we should hide or eliminate. …That doesn’t mean we all need to be free bleeders, paint our lips with menstrual blood, or create menstrual art. We just need to recognize menstruation as an important aspect of women/menstruators’ bodies. It is worthy of conversation and academic scholarship.”

So many different influences silence women, shame them. Ignoring that shame is not tackling that problem. We need to face the root of it. Talk about it. Make it normal. Make it acceptable. Say the word. Say ‘period.’ It’s our only hope for change.

 

Contact Sindhu Ravuri at [email protected]