The blood we hide

A Modern Feminist?

Photo of Merve Ozedmir

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Every month, I feel like the first day of my period is trying to kill me.

The cramps start a few hours after the blood and get so bad that I can’t stand or talk without throwing up from the pain. Lying in bed with a hot water bottle pressed against my uterus, waiting for the painkillers to kick in, there is only one thing that helps me feel better: Flo Secret Chats.

Flo Secret Chats is a platform where users can anonymously share personal stories and ask questions about their sexuality, relationships, menstrual and mental health.

Not only does this platform provide opportunities for women to ask questions and learn about their bodies without shame or guilt, but it also creates a welcoming community where women support and empower each other without judgment.

When I first discovered this service, during one of my worst period days, I felt the heavy burden of womanhood suddenly lifted from my shoulders. There were so many women suffering from cramps at the same time as me. Reading their comments and chatting with them, I felt less alone and found the pain to be slightly more bearable.

Menstruation is still considered taboo in many countries, and women are expected to keep their experiences “private.” Though statements such as “I’m on my period” are now accepted as normal in Western cultures, non-Western societies still consider “period” to be a dirty word, relying instead on euphemisms. In fact, a study conducted by the International Women’s Health Coalition found more than 5000 slang terms for menstruation which are currently in circulation across ten languages.

As a young woman in Turkey, I, too, was often asked by older women to use the word “sick” instead of “period” when I needed to indicate I was menstruating; the latter was considered impolite. When I need to buy pads in Turkey, I still have to walk down to the end of the supermarket because menstrual products are always hidden in the back aisles. Some supermarkets even wrap pads in newspapers at checkout, so that others don’t see what you’re carrying.

Having grown up with the notion that periods are these extremely private experiences that women need to hide, messaging other girls in the Flo Secret Chats was liberating. I saw that periods were neither dirty nor taboo, and that women could help each other if given the space and respect to start a conversation.

But why can’t Flo Secret Chats’ environment of open communication and support be applied in the real world?

From a young age, we all learn that menstruation is not a topic of casual conversation. We learn about it through occasional sex ed classes, if at all, among a group of kids giggling at the word “vagina.” We fail to teach young people the science of menstruation. In fact, according to a study, 79% of students believe that their schools taught them more about frog biology than the biology of the human female body.

But education is crucial. Just like I now use Flo Secret Chats to learn about what’s causing my bodily cramps and many other symptoms, young people should be able to turn to the education system for answers and their peers for open support.

I was extremely lucky to be raised by a wonderful mother who, starting from a very young age, talked to me about periods, and prepared me for the day I would get my first one. She assured me that it was natural, and nothing to be afraid of. When I finally saw the faint stain of blood on my underwear, I was alone, but not afraid.

Not everyone is as lucky, and period education should not be about luck. Young people should not feel fear or anxiety when they get their first period, nor should they live with embarrassment, hiding pads under their sleeves while going to the bathroom or coming up with excuses to cancel plans on bad period days.

Menstrual education should be a central part of every curriculum, not just for people who menstruate but for everyone to normalize menstruation and learn about the science behind this natural process.

There is already so much stigma associated with menstrual health that an education system that constantly pushes this topic behind closed doors is dangerous. The biases surrounding menstruation have a variety of implications worldwide, ranging from feelings such as anxiety and confusion around menstruation to menstruating people being harassed, discriminated against or abused.

Although everyone can be affected by the negative biases surrounding menstruation, those who are excluded from the limited menstrual education available suffer the most. Many people still have the notion that all menstruators identify as women, and use exclusive language to talk about periods.

Not only does the current menstrual education exclude experiences of trans, nonbinary and intersex individuals, it also fails to educate students about menstrual health conditions such as endometriosis or vaginismus. Research shows that 1 in every 10 women is diagnosed with endometriosis, a potentially life-threatening condition — and many more go undiagnosed. Without proper menstrual education, young menstruators fail to seek medical help for symptoms that are outside of what’s normal and healthy, and those who do suffer from social rejection and ignorance all their lives.

But despite these concerning flaws in the education system, I have hope. The wonderful people I met through Flo Secret Chats showed me that it’s possible to deconstruct the stigma around menstruation and to openly talk about our experiences. One day, anonymity will be a label of the past, and the discussions on telephone screens will be held in real life. Until then, I’m happy to curl up in my bed and wait for my cramps to pass, finding strength from people I have never met. People who understand.

Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.