I’m on my period, and I don’t really care whether or not you know it.
Does that freak you out, that first sentence? It’s possible that it does–freak you out, I mean. Quite possible. It’s taken me a long time to say something so brazen (Is it brazen? I have no idea anymore) in such a very public way. It freaks me out a little to say it, and I’m a grown-ass woman who has given birth to a child and who has about zero illusions left when it comes to bodily functions.
I’m not sure when I became a woman who doesn’t mind if the world knows that she’s on her period. I think, though, that it happened when I started surrounding myself with women, and especially with women who allowed themselves to openly discuss menstruation, childbirth, and sex.
But periods, though—periods are something that, as a society, we like to have illusions about. I don’t know exactly why this is, and explaining it seems like the kind of thing that could take up more words than I could ever possibly write, because that explanation would have to take into account attitudes, practices, and beliefs that were formed long before any of we humans walking the earth were even thought of. But the important part, for me, is that all of those things work together in an effort to sanitize, to minimize–to hide and to ignore parts of the narrative while exploiting others.
At no point in my life was the cultural ambivalence about periods clearer to me than during my teenage years. I wouldn’t have described them that way then, obviously, but that was the feeling. First, there was the agonizing wait for puberty–reading books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and chanting along “I must, I must, I must increase my bust” and carrying pads well before I needed them, mostly just because I wanted to feel more grown up. Then, after I actually started my period, there were the years of trying to avoid anyone knowing when I was actually on it.
The sleight of hand method won me over, because I didn’t want to take my bag with me to the bathroom every time, and I always thought that taking my purse only a few days out of the month seemed pretty obvious. I have to say…For a girl who isn’t good at magic tricks, I’ve managed more than my fair share over the years, palming Tampons and panty-liners, sliding them into pockets or tucking them just underneath the long sleeve of my shirt. Lots of pretending, too, especially on road trips: “oh, I really need to go to the bathroom again” or “hey, I could use a snack, why don’t we stop.” On our way home from a school trip one afternoon, I finally insisted that the van stop. I needed to change my Tampon, and I finally had to just be honest about that. My high school boyfriend was so surprised that he hadn’t been able to tell I was on my period. “I usually can,” he said. I wondered how, and he elaborated with some story about how women are usually angrier when they’re on their periods, but I was so pleasant. I have rarely wanted to be more unpleasant than at that moment, but I just laughed instead.
In college, I kept palming my Tampons and hiding my PMS as much as possible, even when it was severe….And sometimes it was severe. I was 19 before I finally admitted that I thought I had a problem, and the gynecologist I finally saw agreed with me. Periods should not be heavy and 8 days long, she told me. Also, they shouldn’t make you cry uncontrollably or feel searing rage. She was mystified that I’d been able to hide that kind of PMS for years and had just dealt with it without seeing a doctor. But until she said it out loud, I didn’t really know that what I was experiencing was different from what other people experienced. My experiences seemed to mirror those in popular culture, certainly those constant jokes about women and their periods. It’s only now that I can see how harmful those images were. How harmful they are.
And so, I’ve stopped pretending. No more. It’s not as though I’m about to go rooftop to rooftop, loudly proclaiming that “I’M ON MY PERIOD.” But I’m also not going to hide it just to make others more comfortable.