How I Met My Period
The first time I ever had to deal with a menstrual ‘situation’ was way before I got mine — in class 6th. One of my closest friends locked herself in the washroom after a sports class and refused to come out. Those were the convent school days, where we had spent most of our pre-pubescent years hearing narrations from nuns about uterine activities of teenage girls depicted over a huge paper chart of the female reproductive system, with egg movements explained with those of a baton. This was accompanied by a special advisory to not sit next to boys because this newly-found li(ability) meant that you could also get pregnant. A bunch of ‘rowdy’ girls inadvertently took to talking openly about it- gossiping about the girls who started menstruating really early, cracking ketchup jokes about stained clothes and thereby becoming the butt of others’ disdain. Most of the others looked the other way and pretended it never happened. Either way, it wasn’t cool to start menstruating.
Despite all that information, the scare of menstruation loomed over our heads like a knell. That day, I was pretty sure that within those 20 mins of being locked inside, my friend had bled to her death in the washroom. I rushed to the nun’s private quarters and asked for help. Pretty much like an auto-pilot, a sister accompanied me back to the washroom area with a fat packet of sanitary pads and everything was taken care of.
A young me felt that my friend and I had conquered a unique milestone that day, that only a female companionship could achieve. A special bond, a secret of sorts, about the collective monthly failure of womankind! Despite all the drama that had panned out in the last 45 mins, to my surprise, we never spoke about what happened. Ever.
Little did I know that this would set the tone for the rest of my menstruating years.
In the lack of experience or a peer feedback, when it happened to me, I was sure that my life as I knew it, was completely over. The fear of growing soft and pudgy and the idea of bearing children in the near future and the general lack of comfort for most of my life, consumed me. I didn’t approve of the new shape of my panties, sitting cross-legged, or well, keeping a secret in general. That night, I stress ate myself into a stomach disorder.
Over the next few months, the concept of gender and the peculiar ways in which our bodies dictated the social norms, became more apparent than it had ever been. From keeping code words for periods to wrapping our sanitary packets in newspapers, to never, ever saying the word ‘period’ (alternatively saying ‘I’m down’), became the new normal. From blaming bad postures to body cramps in front of guy-friends to sitting on the edge of sofas, to being warned about entering holy places of worship and never, ever wearing white. It also meant nurturing a brand new camaraderie with our mothers and an unconscious step away from our fathers and brothers. The shaming worked so well that all menstruating women I knew learnt how to live within walls of swift, clandestine pad-hiding skills, soft whisper(s) and low self-esteems. The only good thing that ever came from it was embarrassing, yet easy excuses, to bunk sports classes. (This was easily executed by calling out a female teacher and whispering something into her ear.)
Women just like me
Menstruation has been pretty much the partially-invisible elephant in the room, one which only the girls have been able to see, but never discuss, and the boys are blatantly denied the knowledge of. I spoke to approximately 60 other city-dwelling women between the ages of 25–32 years, about their first periods and here’s what they had to say.
One of them puts it as it is, “I heard about it from a friend who was a couple of years older, but all I knew was that blood comes out ‘from there’. But I was really apprehensive and stressed at the time it really happened.” she says.
Another says, “Though my mum had explained the whole concept to me just a few weeks earlier, I wasn’t caught off guard, but I was still ashamed when it happened!” A third girlfriend follows the same thought, “I wasn’t scared or angry but I do remember crying the whole day. I don’t think it was because I was in pain, it was just the shock and the realisation that this will be a part of the rest of my life!”
Almost 75% of this group of women used phrases like ‘scared of’, ‘ashamed of’, ‘kept quiet about’, in their description of their first menstrual experience.
Men and the mystical female function
“A friend first told me about periods at the age of 13. She was trying to tell me without using the word ‘vagina’ and I just wouldn’t understand,” one of my guy-friends quips. Another says how he obviously found out through biology textbooks at the age of 16. “My mother conveniently decided to tell me when I knew almost everything.” It is not odd that from around 60 city-dwelling Indian men between, 25–32 years, that I posed this question to, almost 80% owed their discoveries about menstruation to their first girlfriends or their almost-reluctant, close female friends. “I wonder why women are even hush about it, I mean all men know of periods, what’s there to hide?”, one man says. “My mother told me everything there was to know and made sure that I was sensitive towards my friends and sisters,” said a lone voice of the well-informed. Are the other parents and teachers listening?
The high rate of confusion and shame amidst women and the sheer ignorance of men about menstruation in an urban landscape, leave very little to be imagined about their rural counterparts. Very ironically, many have stated, that women who spend time in each other’s company tend to synchronise their menstrual cycle. In many ways, I feel, that it is mother nature urging us to parallely open up to each other, vocally. Let’s not make other 6th graders, like my old friend, feel that they are voiceless. Let’s come out of those bloody washrooms and pour our hearts out!
(This article was originally published in DNA India)