Illustration by Lea Heinrich.
Any man who has suffered kidney stones (as I have) MUST have some empathy for women who both have to give birth and suffer discomfort during their monthly cycle. I personally think that EVERY man should get kidney stones at some stage in their life, so that they have a better understanding of the suffering that women endure.
What Happens on the Bus to Canberra Stays With You
I never feel good about putting my cello in the undercarriage of a bus, but the driver always tells me that it’s a hazard to seat it beside me – if he has to brake quickly it’s inevitable that the hard case will sail forward, decapitate someone, and crash through the windscreen. Fortunately, getting the instrument home should be today’s greatest, and only, frustration. This morning’s trip is a short one: back to Canberra after a gig at Wollongong’s indie venue Yours and Owls. Although I didn’t drink anything last night, I feel a quease taking soft hold of my insides. The driver steps aside when he sees me approach with my black case in tow. He checks me off his list, gives his bald head a rub and turns the movement into a brief scratch of his neat, tea-stained handlebar moustache. He allows me to wedge the instrument between luggage cases and pat the cello good luck before stepping up into the coach. I sit toward the front of the bus, scoot my overnight bag beneath my feet. As I’m balling up a jumper to place between the window and my forehead, the bus pulls out, and I get my period. There’s nothing psychic or transformative about it: for a moment I am unsure, wondering if it’s travel sickness, and then realise that it’s my uterus stripping itself of its wallpaper. I feel a mucusy residue turning cold on the seat of my underpants. It’s uncomfortable to write this, but they are the facts. The painters are in.
There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where Harry, trapped in the watery basement of Hogwarts, grabs a diary cursed with the spirit of his nemesis Voldemort and, using the fang of a basilisk, stabs the pages of the book to exorcise the darkness trapped within. From the stab wound an inky blood bubbles, and as the spirit is destroyed, a thick stain trickles over the book like a fast-moving bruise. This is the best metaphor I have been able to conjure for my period. In this scenario, once every month-ish I am Voldemort, the diary is my uterus, and Harry Potter wielding a fang is my period.
In light of this regularity, it might seem reasonable that I would be as comprehensively equipped with sanitary protection as a secret agent; pads stitched into the underside of my skirt, a stash of paracetamol swept up into a bun on my head, a couple of horcruxes stashed away so I can resurrect myself later on. Actually, I have nothing with me. I forgot I was due for my period. I often rely on acne forming along my jawline in the days before, figuring that then is the time to armour up. I used to know when to expect my period because it always fell on the full moon, until I lived in San Francisco for three months of last year. Now it’s still settling down into what seems an almost opposite pattern. My current method is to check my calendar the day I get my period and recite whatever date it is quickly, aloud and many times in a row. Clearly this method is not foolproof, because I am being flash mobbed by my own reproductive system on a bus.
A glance toward the back of the vehicle tells me there is no toilet on board. I hoist my overnight bag up from under my feet and rummage through, hoping to find something: a tissue would be okay, some old painkillers even better, but I have only clothes. I turn to the woman behind me and ask her if she has any painkillers. She grimaces, apologises and shakes her head. Everyone else is at the back of the bus, ruffling and curling themselves into deformed sleep. I figure the driver must have a first aid kit. I transit-stagger to his seat, and explain ‘the situation’. Apparently it’s recently been made illegal for transport operators to supply painkillers to passengers, so he’s unable to help. I ask him if he could see whether any other patrons might have something I could take. He says he’ll see what he can do, and turns his attention back to the road. I return to my seat and wait.
While I wait and see if the bus driver will make an announcement, a dull ache sets in, and I decide to try and sleep it off. The nap is unsettled and oddly conscious. I’m eventually, and painfully, ejected from a REM cycle. I know we’re two hours into our trip because we’re passing the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Merulan. No announcement has been made. My underpants are wet; I’m worried about the blood staining my skirt. I produce a bed sock from my overnight bag. It is cheap and green and purple-striped and fluffy. Most importantly, it is thick, and I haven’t worn it. I stretch the elastic of my floor-length skirt and disappear up to my neck inside the sack of material so that I’m free to tuck the sock into the seat of my underpants. There is a brief breath of relief that comes with knowing I’m not going to leak through to my skirt, but the full-body ache of a bellowing period bursts the small victory. I call my partner and beg her to meet me at the bus depot with hardcore pain relief: the over-the-counter stuff. I tell her I’m wearing a sock as a pad and she’s on her way out the door to the pharmacy before we’ve hung up.
As the bus pulls into Goulburn, the driver advises that we will stop for ten minutes before departing for the final hour-long leg of the trip to Canberra. He also asks, “Does anyone happen to have painkillers for a young lady?” When the bus stops, I don’t wait for anyone to approach me. I keep my head low. I hobble into the train station and give the stationmaster, who is seated behind a glass panel on the other side of a ticketing desk, a smile that must resemble a grimace. He frowns and says he has nothing that could help me. I ask him if there’s a chemist nearby, or if the pub across the street might have something. He snorts, shrugs and says he doesn’t know, but I’d have to hurry up and run, because the bus driver won’t wait for me. Oh yeah, run – thanks train station man without a sock in his knickers. I half-want to pull my fluffy makeshift panty liner out and throw it through the ticketing hole, but I also feel inexplicably embarrassed that I’m menstruating. I entertain the idea that I’m making a bigger deal out of periods than I need to; I mean, labour has to be worse than this, right? I decide, like I do every period, that I am never having children. Then, breathing through a pain that often makes me vomit and crap at the same time, I turn around and drag my feet over the tiled station floor, preparing for the next hour on the bus. Just as I bring a foot up to step on, someone grabs the back of my arm.
It’s a middle-aged woman in jeans and a t-shirt, her hair swept into a ponytail. She seems worried. “Is it period pain?” she asks. I nod. “Are you okay? You know, I’m really lucky because I don’t get any pain, but I’ve heard some people really suffer.” She hands me two pills. It’ll be enough to take the edge off until we reach Canberra. She shakes her head. “I went looking for you as soon as we got off the bus.” I thank her. I want to hug her, but I touch her arm instead and smile.
After tossing the tablets down I settle back tenderly into my seat. I know it’s my own fault for being completely unprepared for my period, but I can’t shake the desire to understand where Period Awkwardness comes from, how it happens, what it does to menstruators and non-menstruators, and why I can’t accept it as a social norm. As we pull out of Goulburn I wonder whether buses would have emergency period kits, whether pads would be tax-free, and whether the kid in pumps and a neon singlet flicking through his iPod in front of me would be listening to virile period rap if we lived in a world where men bled from their penises once a month.
In early primary school I spent weekday afternoons on my stomach at home, face glazed blank with ABC television. At 5pm, a voiceover would advise viewers to seek the permission of their parents to watch the following programming. For many years I didn’t know what played out beyond that blue warning screen because a great fear manifested each time the television gulped black momentarily, before the next show was put to air. Eventually my virgin voyage past the Parental Guidance advice was in second grade. On the other side of the warning was a high school classroom. In it, a girl with a dark mop of curls played a drum kit. She looked like a girl I knew called Jade, who was good at running, so in my memory I’ve called the character Jade. Jade stopped playing the drums, grabbed her gut and looked at the crotch of her blue jeans. She stood, and tied her sweatshirt around her waist in a clear attempt to hide whatever the drum kit had done to her pants. In the following scene, she came home from school, dumped her bag and told her dad about her ‘period’. The last scene I remember is Jade embarrassedly shopping for sanitary items at a mini-mart. She held a pillowy-looking oblong package and wouldn’t make eye contact with the cashier. I made a connection between the show’s rating and Jade’s period, and turned the television off.
While it was my decision to disengage with content I could have curiously pursued, it was equally my parents’ decision to raise me in an environment absent of menstruation: perhaps fitting into their own lived experiences of how periods should and shouldn’t exist in the everyday. These re-enactments of menstrual discovery and its aftermaths—both psycho-socially and in the case of Stephen King’s great menstrual metaphor, Carrie, psychopathically—are strewn throughout pop-cult television and film. Periods are constantly treated as embarrassing, traumatic, offensive, distressing, or comedic. Even the film Mean Girls is guilty of the drama-trope. In a scene focused on freeing students from being bullied based upon their identities, one student confesses her heavy flow and wide-set vagina. Her revelation is, by some sad irony, designed as a moment of comically awkward honesty, as though this girl has gone too far in purging the school body of the idea that her use of super tampons is rumour-worthy. Hey there, peripheral and quotable Mean Girls character. High fives to you – I use super tampons too.
When menstruation doesn’t sit at the heart of a narrative as some kind of co-protagonist or punchline, it’s easy to omit. I’ve heard the argument that this is because menstruation is implicit in the pure existence of female-led narratives, or that the inclusion of menstruation is peripheral and relatively valueless to other female-led narratives—much like going to the bathroom—but if you want to talk survival and female leads, there’s plenty of room for menstruation. I can only dream of how much more gripping Twilight might have been, if Bella and Edward were forced to deal with the fact that Bella menstruates, and is dating a vampire who is torturously and particularly attracted to his own surly soulmate’s blood. Bella never scales an ancient pine tree to find her sparkly partner chowing down on a used maxipad, hunched over the red mess in some kind of relieved ecstasy. I live with a dog, who is not a vampire, who is not my husband, who does not live compelled by an equal desire to passionately love me and drink my blood, and who does not have hands. I don’t need to leave my back garden to discover his penchant for used tampons, no matter how keen my attempts to eradicate the evidence of my cycle from the house.
Another puzzlingly bloodless hero is The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. In the week before our first day of high school, a friend of mine broke her leg and both her arms in a go-karting accident. While she lay in hospital waiting to go into surgery alone, her greatest fear was getting her period while completely unable to help herself, and lying for hours in a pool of her own blood until a nurse found her. If a temporarily paraplegic twelve year old waiting for extensive emergency surgery without the presence of her parents finds herself more petrified of her first period than she is of surgery, then it would seem reasonable that Katniss Everdeen, before plunging into the Hunger Games dome, might at some point in her preparation for the event voice concern about beginning to menstruate while trying to survive a nationally televised game of slaughter. But it seems there are no periods in the New America of The Hunger Games books or films. And as Katniss enters the games without a pre-menstrual worry, and the books and films confront their audiences with children slaughtering children, with poison and starvation, government manipulation, garish wealth, open infected wounds and furtive false love, it seems the practicality of periods is either too much or too nothing to fit between the fight scenes and familial flashbacks that help us come to know our female protagonist. The period becomes less than disgusting or awkward: it becomes invisible.
Both of these heroes’ journeys are paved with blood, but it’s the right kind of blood, and the right kind of blood is any blood that isn’t coming from a vagina. Bella and Katniss are not experiencing menstruation as a plotline, and they don’t need to live with or consider their own menstrual cycles: they become male-like. On this non-menstrual pedestal they are an example of both an exceptionally unusual human we come to know intimately, and the female norm. Menstruation becomes polarised against a highly functional ‘normal’ existence.
As a result of the treatment of menstruation as either ‘normally’ invisible, or oppositely, a singular goliath ‘event’, periods become difficult to conceive of as, or develop into something else – any kind of true-norm; a social presence as nonchalantly acknowledged and commonly discussed (and enjoyed) as shopping, or eating, or drinking, or talking about films. The fact is, despite the ways society has constructed a view of menstruation in western popular culture, the historical empire of our species rests on sperm and menstruation as tools for survival.
Another fact dismissed by pop-culture period narratives is that periods also happen to people who are not white, people who are not middle class, people who don’t menstruate every month, and people who identify as other than female. What does it take to redefine normalcy to include the truly normal?
In late primary school, my mum worked in a childrenswear shop in the Blue Mountains. On Saturdays I’d accompany her and hang out on Leura Mall: a shop-lined avenue that, on weekends, draws Sydneysiders who coast around in gleaming black four wheel drives and talk loudly about their decor. My eleven-year-old work shifts involved three rituals: buying and delivering my mother’s warm chicken and harissa sandwich on Turkish pide, visiting the ye olde time lolly shop with its jar-lined walls and children-hating owners, and collecting the latest edition of whichever teen girl magazine I was yet to read. One weekend, when the mall was slow, I sat in the damp storeroom at the back of the childrenswear shop, cramped beside a small ceramic sink and a portable clothes rack with laybys hanging from it, and penned cruel and unsympathetic help letters I thought irresistible to the Dolly Doctor at the time:
Dear Dolly Doctor,
I had sex and we used a condom but it broke and also I think my boyfriend pinpricked a hole in it. Am I pregnant?
— Maybe Baby
To my dismay, none of them were ever published. One weekend, the Dolly I picked up from the local newsagent was accompanied by a fuchsia faux snakeskin purse with a bright purple zip. Inside sat a sample pack of mini-tampons. I’d never seen a tampon before buying that edition of Dolly. And, again, finding myself in the dark back-end of a childrenswear shop, I filled the dust-caked sink with water, and taking the advice of a school friend who had told me she’d freaked out after seeing how big tampons could get, I dangled cotton wad after cotton wad in and watched them expand. When I ran out, I returned to the only paper shop in town, and bought up three more copies of the same Dolly: one for dunking in sinks, one for when I got my period, and one for practising with.
No one had ever sat me down and explained the many functions of the vagina, and in that silence I assumed sex and tampons were equally as taboo as one another. I knew I had three holes: the conceptual physiology was there, but absent were the discussions about the personal, social and emotional experiences that would come with discovering my body. In the realm of periods I thought ‘emotional experiences’ were limited to irrational crying. I didn’t consider that emotional experiences could also include being so embarrassed about going into a supermarket to buy a packet of tampons that I would opt to purchase four editions of the same Dolly magazine to try to save face. I didn’t know what my own vagina looked like until the two guides to my early teenhood, Dolly and Girlfriend, told me embarrassing stories, and unveiled the workings of lopsided pubescent bodies, and made it a little more kosher to go exploring with a mirror. Even still, purveying my vagina seemed like it should be a secret, as though putting a tampon in was a form of masturbation. In truth, those early voyages with the tampon were uncomfortable, dry, and often failed.
The copy of Girlfriend I buy under the guise of research for this essay is sealed in a plastic sleeve. Between pink typography Selena Gomez shows readers her shaven armpit. I’m sitting in a car with my sister, parked outside her university dorm after a recon trip to the petrol station to collect the latest editions of my two teenage bibles, in light of interviewing both magazines’ current editors about their periods and their publications. Pulling apart the packaging, it’s impossible to ignore how distinctly Girlfriend smells like the scratch’n’sniff stickers my fifth grade teacher used to plaster our work with. The magazine is packeted with a tube of lip butter, a tub of body butter, a tester of foundation and a block of strawberry chewies. As I watch my twenty-year-old sibling turn each item in her hand with the glee of a Disney mermaid, I realise the magazine is fundamentally a showbag without the celebration of agriculture, or the cats pavilion. It’s strange to think the magazine markets a trove of beauty products to fourteen to seventeen-year-olds, and in between, pep-talks them about ‘ditching perfect’ and preparing for periods. “So, do you want any of this stuff?” asks Millie, smacking her lips together with their fresh coat of pink butter.
Millie started menstruating in eighth grade, while preparing to go onstage and sing the title song from The Boy Friend, a musical comedy set around the French Riviera during the Roaring Twenties. Accordingly, Millie graced the stage in a hip-slung red tartan dress with a pleated skirt, a pad made of toilet paper, and a beige cloche hat. I remember how proud my family were of her, standing in the school’s auditorium caked in stage-perfect makeup, her red lips sounding out how she and her fictional friends were all desperate to have “a thing called The Boy Friend”. Meanwhile, by some gift of irony, Millie’s body was gearing up for exactly the same foray.
His friend announced, “Those things are for when you’re constipated. You put it up your butt, and when you pull it, all the poo comes out.”
We negotiate that she can have the stuff from Girlfriend if I can keep the metallic gold clutch that came with the Dolly. She steps out of the car and wishes me luck. I clear my throat as she closes the car door, and dial the Girlfriend offices. A young-sounding assistant puts me through to the current editor of the magazine, Sarah Tarca.
“The way I see Girlfriend is in a bit of a big sister role, you know,” Tarca says. “We’re the ones who are there to make you feel as though what you’re going through is completely normal and that you’re not alone.”
I nod over the phone and say “Awesome” too many times; if Girlfriend is meant to be the big sister of hundreds of thousands of readers, Sarah Tarca is like the big sister of the big sister. As the eldest of three girls, I imagined teen magazines were the eclectic and brash older sister I never had, one who was unafraid of rag talk, who taught me to cut the legs off my jeans to make shorts, and told almost unbelievable stories of friends who survived climbing Mount Everest using teen spirit and a packet of Tang. Reading Girlfriend in the nineties, period stories were restricted to the ominous ‘sealed section’ of the magazine: parents were able to nab their child’s copy of either Dolly or Girlfriend, and whisk menstrual content away from their pubescent offspring with a swift tear.
Tarca was the editor who took menstrual information out of the magazine’s sealed section and placed period features in the main body of the publication. She grew up with a menstrual education forged by her mother, who was unafraid of sitting down with her children and being pragmatic about what was what. “My mum has always been really open about discussions to do with your body and to do with sex, so periods weren’t a big deal to me. I knew about them quite early, and my sister got her period earlier as well and we were really close and shared a room, so when it came to me getting my period I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this old thing.’”
Not all people get Tarca’s matter-of-fact mother when it comes to meeting menstruation for the first time. My friend Julie’s first encounter with periods was in primary school. She remembers bursting into tears when a schoolmate told her that a period was when a girl bled, and once it started it never stopped. Ever. Before this, it hadn’t occurred to Julie that she would ever bleed from anything other than a graze. And before my housemate Lachlan was a medical sciences student, in a suburban household in Brisbane he and his early primary school friend found a tampon in the playground. His friend announced, “Those things are for when you’re constipated. You put it up your butt, and when you pull it, all the poo comes out.” That evening, after recounting the story of the constipation machine, Lachlan’s mother asked him to describe the anal instrument. When Lachlan profiled a tampon, his mother took the opportunity to correct her son and explain periods. Another of my housemate’s younger brother once arrived at the dinner table jangling a new decorative addition to each of his wrists. When asked what the unused tampons were doing, hanging by their strings around his forearms, he announced, “They’re my bracelets!” And my friend Emily, as a seven-year-old in the early nineties in suburban New Jersey, was horrified by her ten-year-old neighbour’s backyard stories of experiencing an early period for the first time. The catchphrase Emily recalls most vividly from her neighbour’s honest and foreboding menstrual recounts is, “I have chunky blood coming out of my vagina.” These facts, imparted to her as the two played tag and practiced backflips in the forest behind the dirt cul-de-sac they both lived on, mark the first time Emily ever heard of a period. And in a townhouse in inner Canberra, a thirty-year-old bespoke jeans maker sits at his worktable and remembers falling over and grazing his knee in the primary school playground. A male teacher sat him down with a first aid kit, and after discovering there were no band-aids, pulled out a menstrual pad, unfolded it and put it on the bleeding knee saying, “Hold this there – they’re supposed to absorb blood.”
On the cusp of my foray into teenhood, my dad decided it was time for him to weigh in on puberty. His advice came in the form of a blue dog-eared softback third edition of everyone’s favourite gynaecological guide for life, Everywoman. Lauded as “almost a necessity for the Young Bride” by Spectator, the revised edition of Derek Llewellyn Jones’s endlessly reprinted tome features sex positions for the straight couple, a timeline of the physical changes a young reader can expect during adolescence, and a surprisingly ripping chapter picketing against the religious stigmatisation of masturbation. When Dad handed me the book I kept my eyes averted, thanked him and didn’t ask any questions. For years after, I dismissed Everywoman: its sketched illustrations of genitalia, and the black and white shot of a foetally-folded woman placed at an angle on the cover of the book seemed boring and dated compared to the flashy exclamations and sealed sections of my magazines. It wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I noticed my edition of Everywoman had my father’s name written inside the cover. It turns out the book was his self-administered education, which he purchased with an Everyman counterpart years after his mother had inadequately explained the functions of sex. Much the same way my father explored beyond the limitations of the information his mother had supplied, I continually compared Everywoman to my Girlfriend and Dolly days: there was no testimony in this book, no sense of my own participation. In Everywoman I felt as though I was being taught about my own body, rather than encouraged to learn about the bodies of others, and discover how my stories fit among a collection of varied experiences.
This model of telling rather than discussing isn’t unique to a book most recently revised in the eighties: in curriculums around Australia menstruation remains in the ‘learn by rote’ phase of modern classroom education. Often what is taught disembodies the practical, lived processes of menstruation from its physiological source.
At an all-girls private school in southeast Australia, Joanna is completing her final year. She cringingly recalls the first year of high school: the Great Period Lesson of health class. Students were required to complete an assignment designed to teach them about “the physical mechanics behind periods.” The class was told to research and design a poster about menstruation; Joanna could only work on it if she could land the most secluded computer in the school library. “When I actually got my period a few months later, I had no idea about anything practical, like how to adhere a pad to underwear. It wasn’t until much later that I even decided to figure out what a tampon was. I felt somewhat annoyed at the time, because I really could not care less about the science of it all; I just wanted to know how to deal. My school now distributes tiny toiletry bags containing a razor, pads and tampons to the year sevens, one of which I stole in an act of jealousy.”
Elizabeth, an IT consultant who was once a Goth, tells me that she spent her secondary education in a Catholic institute in Brisbane. Over a cup of green tea in her kitchen, she bemoans a similar gap in her schooled menstrual education, which took place over ten years before Joanna’s. “Those anatomical diagrams in school of fallopian tubes were useless. No one said to me, ‘The blood may have this consistency, this is what cramps feel like.’ The mechanics were explained, but the experience wasn’t.” The orange teapot sits between us on the kitchen table, and her black cat haunts the legs of her chair. She absent-mindedly massages the animal’s forehead. “When I did get my period, Mum only had tampons. She handed me one saying, ‘Just use tampons, they’re easier.’ But I had no idea what a tampon was, or how to use it. You can’t raise a kid Catholic, say, ‘Don’t touch yourself’ and then when they get their period say, ‘Oh, just put your finger in your vagina – it’s fine!’”
Like a PG rating, shaping menstruation for a classroom reveal gives it a place in the loss of innocence. Menstruation becomes part of the world that is not normal, because the ‘normal’ functions without it: the ‘normal’ is the world before classrooms are split into sexes and taken away to learn about physio-sentient ways.
In suburban Canberra, eleven-year-old Lisa lives with a family that out-nuclears Roseanne: she has an older brother, a mother, a father and a medium-sized dog. She attends a co-educational Christian school, and plays soccer. Tonight my partner Lydia—Lisa’s childhood babysitter—and I are hanging out with Lisa in her family’s lounge room. We’re all full of pasta. Lisa’s parents are clearing the table in the next room: everyone’s agreed I can talk to Lisa about periods, so long as Lydia comes along too. A year ago, Lisa experienced a primary school period talk, titled ‘The New You!’ She explains that the boys and the girls were separated, and she couldn’t be sure exactly what the boys talked about. But for the girls:
“In class the teacher talked about our bodies, periods (she says quietly), and one teacher brought out a bra and everyone screamed. We watched a video that explained what’s going to happen,” Lisa says. (She adds that she didn’t scream when the bra came out.) Lisa found out about periods well before those boys and girls were cordoned off and shown videos in her classroom – one day she asked her cousin why she took so long in the bathroom, and her cousin replied that she had her period, and that Lisa would eventually get one too.
I begin to realise that Lisa’s primary school lessons only explore the biology of menstruation when she turns the tables and starts asking us questions. “How do you know when it’s happened?” she asks. “How would you figure it out?”
“Well it’s different for a lot of people,” I say. “Some people feel a wet feeling in their underpants, and so you might you go to the loo and check it out. Sometimes, a few weeks before you’re about to start, you get a clear or white discharge coming out.”
“Mine was a little bit white,” Lydia adds. “And it’s not really like anything you’ve had before, so you know it might mean you’re going to start your period soon.”
Before Lydia’s finished her sentence Lisa launches her next question: “Do you feel like crap?”
The way the question bursts out of her and trails off at the end hints that she’s been worried about this long before we’ve sat down to talk. It’s a hard question to answer, because I don’t want Lisa to feel as though periods are something to dread. But I do want to make sure she can recognise the realities of unpleasant period pain, and dismiss the stigmatic phobias of dirty menstruating women, of ‘gross’ menstrual blood, and of periods making her inexplicably abnormal. We talk to her about how variant the durations of a period can be, how periods are different for different people, and how we can tell we’re getting our periods: tender nipples, bloating, feeling teary, and/or aching legs. But we remind her it’s not like that for everyone.
The conversation makes me wonder whether it should be the role of schools to teach young people about menstruation; if not, then whose responsibility is it to impart upon the un-menstrual and yet-menstrual those first lessons? Leaving the responsibility to parents doesn’t seem like a great move: approximately fifty-five percent of the girls who answered the most recent biannual Dolly survey on teen behaviour said they don’t feel comfortable discussing certain things about their body with their parents.
Lisa, Lydia and I return to the family dining table, where Lisa’s mum, Sally, joins us. She asks me if Lisa did well. Lisa smiles and says she’s decided she’d like to sit and listen to her mother and me talking.
When she was a ten year old growing up in Wales, in the United Kingdom, Sally’s two older cousins told her that one day she was going to bleed and bleed and bleed until she was fifty. When Sally’s period eventually arrived, two things happened: she burst out the door to tell her friends, and she also wore pads that felt like nappies – great wads of material attached to a garter.
Lisa and Sally haven’t had a formal conversation about periods before, and Sally partly puts this down to the fact that when she mentions bras, Lisa squirms and averts the conversation. Sally believes that her role in Lisa’s period-prep is to answer any questions Lisa might have, so she hasn’t initiated anything; she believes Lisa will come to her when she’s ready.
“I think you have to wait, these days,” Sally says, “because children are getting their periods so young. They’ll come to you.” Plus, she adds, there’s enough information around the place for Lisa to find out about periods for herself.
Parents at Lisa’s school have to give consent for their children to participate in sex education classes. Meanwhile, Lisa and her classmates are watching a viral YouTube clip of Giovanna Plowman sucking a used tampon in the hope of getting famous.
“Mum,” Lisa asks. “When you get your period, do you feel like crap?”
What We Don’t Know
“He’s been a pretty peaceful baby – he sleeps well,” says my co-worker, handing her new son over to my stiffly cradled arms. He wriggles a little, his face screwballs and flushes red, and he grunts as his bottom rumbles.
“He poos all the time,” she adds, curling her limp blonde hair behind her ear. “I don’t know where it all comes from.”
“Has that been the hardest part of having a kid?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I didn’t really think about what happened after you give birth: that stuff happens to your body, like, you haven’t had your period for nine months. So when you have a baby, I never thought about where all of that fluid and blood went.”
“It doesn’t all come out when you give birth?” I ask.
Her eyes go wide. “You basically have your period for a month straight, because it all comes out over the weeks after you give birth. It’s really intense.”
There was, until this year, a section of the sanitary items aisle in supermarkets that I didn’t properly understand. Stocked shelves include colourful start-up purses for tweens, different pads for comfortable sleep and heavy flows and weak bladders, and liners for people at the tail end of their periods or those who have a constant vaginal discharge. Despite my knowledge of these items, the maternity pads were an unknown. I had thought they were for women whose unborn children were pressing against their bladders so uncomfortably they sometimes leaked. Perhaps they were for catching broken waters.
As my co-worker fusses through her pram pockets for a spit-up towel, her jeans and shirt still clean, she can’t see that I am imagining her and her baby, alone at home, cycling between sleep and waking, washing, feeding, changing her son, and in between times, changing herself. I imagine it is a deeply intimate and unravelling process, one that if you aren’t ready for it, might plunge a new mother into a strange, wordless loneliness: no language from her tiny wrinkled new associate, and none from herself either as she peels her old pad from the seat of her underpants. Then, perhaps, she dresses herself, and dresses her baby, and emerges into a world so steeped in the need for that invisible cycle she is living, and yet so forgetting of it.
This post-pregnancy information, much like period-talk more generally, is stored privately until someone with questions enters the quiet. I wonder why some schools and parents don’t consider divulging these components of pregnancy: why they leave post-birth bleeding as some shock for the unprepared, rather than a component of an educated decision. But then I remember most schools aren’t so great at introducing menstruation as more than a fallopian adventure; they’d need to talk about one concept openly in order to talk openly about the other.
My dad, as a tutor in biology, recently had cause to explain menstruation to a six-year-old boy. The kid sat, mouth wide open, as my father imparted in very layman’s terms those lessons Everywoman had imparted to him. The student was horrified that his mother bled every month, and couldn’t believe no one had told him about this bleeding thing before.
This story prompted me on a new line of inquiry. For a week, I asked every self-identifying male I knew or encountered whether they felt they should or wanted to know more about periods. Almost every response was along the lines of, ‘No. I think what I know is pretty alright. They don’t happen to me.’ Among those satisfied with the understanding he has is my friend James. When I ask him about his knowledge of periods we are sitting in a bustling lunch spot. After a flustered attempt at averting the conversation, James says, “I don’t see how periods affect me until marriage, so why do I need to know about it until my wife comes to me, and says, ‘Look, this is what’s happening for me and this is how I feel about it?’”
Our co-luncheoner and friend Laura swoops in. “Well, let me tell you a story. Earlier in the year, James and I were in a car in the States, and we were driving to the largest aeroplane hangar in the world. And on the way I got my period. And there we were, sitting in the car, and I ask James to pull over so I can use a service station bathroom, but because we’re running late James’s decided we won’t be pulling over anywhere: I can just hold until we reach our destination because we can’t miss our tour of a giant hangar James has actually visited on a trip prior to this one. I had to explain to him I had my period, and as soon as I did, James stopped me with, ‘Oop! Okay! I don’t want to know anything about it!’ and subsequently pulled over.”
James chuckles nervously and focuses on his coffee, because he knows right now I think he should stop freezing up about period-talk. He also knows that periods don’t just happen to wives. What he chooses not to know, in this case, affects those around him in ways it’s difficult for him to imagine.
Tobias is an undergraduate student who lives on campus at the Australian National University. I’m visiting his college because my sister lives here, and I find the two of them studying together at a table in an open-plan study room when I sidle up with a block of chocolate. When I straight up ask Tobias about periods, he doesn’t flinch.
“Guys never hear about it – I never had an actual clue how it worked,” he says. “So when I started seeing my girlfriend I asked lots of questions: I was less shy than she was.”
Most recently Tobias and his girlfriend have been talking about whether pre-menstrual tension is a social construct. Through his conversations with his girlfriend, he says he’s grown an understanding of what menstruation does – he can appreciate its physical and emotional effects, and doesn’t see these as strange or abnormal, just different. “So, do you think PMT is a social construct?” he asks.
‘Her First Period’ is a comedy skit performed by Canadian troupe The Frantics, who are four middle-aged gentlemen with a bright yellow website. The skit is the group’s claim to fame, watched tens of thousands of times on YouTube. In it, the men pretend to be bus passengers on their post-work commute. The representation of menstruation is partly endearing and wholly telling. When one of the commuters receives a phone call from his daughter, it becomes clear that she’s experiencing her first period, and he’s her go-to parent by some kind of apparent default. The ‘comic’ element of the skit comes into play when the fellow commuters realise the conversation they are overhearing, and perch themselves nervously and squeamishly around the bus, embarrassed and disgusted as the father is required to detail more and more descriptively what a period is, and how to use a tampon. Initially, the father is censored in his language and tone – aware of his audience and attempting to protect his own dignity as a bus passenger having a supposedly deeply private conversation. But as his daughter asks him for more advice and explanation, his self-consciousness dissolves. Regardless of the fellow commuter with his head hidden in a briefcase, and the other biting his tie, the father obliviously brushes away the ickyness of menstruation in place of excitement and care for his daughter. The period isn’t the problem: the squeamish passengers are, and what you see is the unravelling of a man who could be any of the other commuters on the bus on another day. When menstrual compassion and responsibility strikes, accepting menstruation isn’t such a deeply difficult or inconvenient move.
In the western imagination, first periods stand as a unique rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood; from innocent to fertile; from hairless to hairy (or aspirationally hairless). The act of bleeding alone, we are told, is the great crimson wave of change, which women must ride to a nearby cubicle and learn to quietly blot and simultaneously embrace. As menstruation begins, we finally make sense of the blue liquid in pad advertisements, and look confusingly at how thin and clotless it is.
The rite isn’t only physiological. My friend Hannah’s mother, to psycho-emotionally prepare Hannah for the arrival of her period, had sent Hannah to a womanhood camp for teenagers. When her period did come Hannah was sitting in class, well aware of the fact that she had no pads or tampons with her, because at her school sanitary items were regularly pillaged. Hannah visited the sick bay. She remembers this because the school nurse was evasive and flustered when she handed Hannah a pad. In a nearby bathroom cubicle Hannah unfolded her first sanitary item and discovered that pads have a sticky side. Sure, the sticky side of the pad isn’t absorbent, but it also kind of makes sense that a pad would need to stick to you to do its job (at least, this is what I thought the first time I stuck a pad to my labia majora and decided, as I smoothed the wings onto my inner-thighs, that something wasn’t right). Hannah shrugged and decided to return to the school nurse to find out how to apply the pad. She vividly recalls the nurse being uncomfortable about giving even a vague demonstration.
In comparison to Hannah’s nonchalance, Eleri, a cartoonist living in Vermont, got her first period in the shower. She hadn’t expected so much blood, and for it to flow so constantly. Her reaction was to wrap a towel around herself, lie on her bed, and wait to die.
On notepads and recording devices strewn around my desk a library of menstrual experiences accumulate. Transcribing them all, it becomes clear that a period is not just a single physiological rite. Periods are an encyclopaedia of social passages, experiences and memories, often handed on from someone who has previously encountered menstruation. My mother’s mother was often absent from everyday life. When it came to periods, however, Mum found her mother’s suddenly prying interest in her menstrual processes overwhelming. Consequently, Mum remembered her desire for space and took a hands-off approach to the menstrual preparation of her three daughters. Instead of waiting for us to come to her to ask for a pad, she casually took us down the sanitary items aisle of the supermarket during our usual weekly shop and suggested we stock up on whatever we wanted. We never sat down and spoke about periods in the way Sarah Tarca’s mother had. In managing the development of a comfortable privacy, each of our first periods took varied forms.
As a well-researched teen magazine reader and practiced tampon-inserter, I had thought I was well equipped to deal with the practicalities of menstruation, until I found myself pallid and whimpering “Why why why why why” from a hot bath during my first period. It was a family affair because it had to be: Dad was sent up the street for painkillers, and my sisters kept me company while I cramped all balled up on the couch – nobody could afford to be shy about what was loudly and tearfully going on. That first time, as I rolled onto my stomach to stretch out the sickening ache, my mother told me she’d experienced similar cramps as a teenager. Why no warning? Why hadn’t she told us about her period before? My rite was one of discovery, but did it need to be such a punishing revelation?
My youngest sister Bella recalls getting her period at a sleepover birthday party. Her friends were all there, Bella noticed that the host had pads in her wardrobe, but she didn’t approach anyone for help. Instead, she pulled the best-known emergency period trick in the book: she went to the bathroom, folded up a wad of toilet paper and placed it along the seat of her underpants. As most menstruators know, the toilet paper pad isn’t designed for longevity, but Bella’s makeshift menstrualwear saw her home. Even then she didn’t tell anyone she had started menstruating: not our mother, not our sister Millie, or me. Talking about her period, she seems unfazed by going it alone. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” she says. “It’s a fact of life, a natural thing that occurs, so why talk about it so much?” But grocery shopping is a fact of life, and sexual attraction is a fact of life; topics like these are constant fodder for conversation.
Grand Theft Auto V robs, tortures, fucks and murders its way into breaking seven Guinness World Records, including the best-selling videogame within twenty-four hours and the “fastest entertainment property” to generate $1 billion, but a t-shirt featuring a line-pencil sketch of an open menstruating vagina by Canadian artist Petra Collins is taken off the market by its distributor, American Apparel, as apparently it is man-hating and disgusting.
Alongside bikini tops flipping up in front of crushes and braces locking together in a toothy pash, many twenty to thirty-something ex-teen magazine readers most immediately recall anecdotes of period-getting in the ‘How Embarrassment’ section of their magazines. But I notice that the most recent edition of Dolly, collated under outgoing editor Tiffany Dunk, doesn’t feature any bloodied stories of humiliation. I ask Tiffany if the magazine still includes period-derived ‘OMG Confessions’. Her response is firm: “No. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, so we wouldn’t run a story like that – it’s something girls shouldn’t be embarrassed about.”
Recently Dolly ran a feature article on periods titled ‘All These Stories Are Normal’. The piece profiled six girls, each with a different menstrual experience: one girl got her period early, another late in her teens, another experiences a heavy flow, and some months one of the profiled girls doesn’t get a period. The article, Tiffany explains, serves to prove that there is no normal or not normal when it comes to getting your period. It’s a step toward demystifying menstruation for a readership who might otherwise only receive information through a high school physical education lesson, then one day find themselves lying on their beds, wrapped in a towel, waiting to die. But the article lies within a broader culture that still treats having any kind of period as a general state of abnormality.
On the afternoon I talk to Tiffany I walk through a supermarket checkout and catch a glimpse of magazines propped up with their caps lock cover stories. I recall that first time I stocked up on tampons by purchasing multiple copies of the same 1999 edition of Dolly. The memory of my own inexplicable embarrassment inspires me to vox pop the employee running through my groceries.
“I’ve never felt uncomfortable about someone buying sanitary items from me,” the supermarket attendee says. “And young people today, they just don’t seem fazed. Back when I was their age I was so embarrassed, but I think it’s a generational thing.” She thumbs to the aisles behind her, explaining that her three sons have all worked at the supermarket. Each, at some point, has restocked the sanitary items shelf. She knows this because they have come home talking about it. “Which is great, you know? I feel like there’s a gap there that’s being bridged.” But what is the gap? Is it the difference between grossed-out people who don’t want to know about periods, and the bloodied population who experience them?
In New Zealand in 2012, sanitary brand Libra launched an advertisement that used the fundamental difference between a cis-woman and a trans-woman (or a drag queen: the ad isn’t specific) as a selling point for their tampons, stating, “We get girls, love Libra”. The ad received heavy criticism because it transphobically positioned menstruation as some kind of gender admissions program. Marketing constantly tries to create profit by exacerbating the non-existent benefits of hilariously oblivious non-menstruators and men not understanding periods or vaginas. Haha! Lucky all those women who menstruate and get thrush: we’re a lucky, lucky menstruating, thrush-getting club, united by our ability to eye roll and buy a brand that understands our vaginal secrets. When business profits from momentarily othering non-menstruators, it tells an audience that menstruation and blood rites are only relevant to some people.
What is most unreal about all information regarding a bodily function being segregated to a strict group of people is that when humans talk about periods, we share stories that are not exclusive to menstruators. People of all genders and sexes have told me anecdotes about having, not having, experiencing and learning about periods. My ex-boyfriend discovered periods when I directed him to a medicine cabinet as I sat on the toilet seat hugging an ice cream bucket containing the swill of my own vomit. A friend who went to a high school sleepover found her schoolmate had been hiding all her used pads in a sock drawer. A trans-woman I spoke to lamented never being able to have a period. An immigration employee told me she was thrilled to be abandoning menstruation thanks to menopause. Everyone has a story.
I’m sitting in a cafe with my friends Kat and Sam, who are married. Sam has pushed his iPad aside, and Kat is picking through a cupcake. On the wall behind them is a black and white mural by Canberra artist George Rose, of Bruce Willis holding a cup of tea, little finger pointed at the cup handle. A speech bubble beside his head reads, “Yippee chai yay motherlovers.” Athletic, tomboyish and dreading the arrival of any mark of womanhood, at fifteen, George Rose took a week off school and despaired over her first period.
Kat, Sam and I have been discussing whether wet dreams are the male equivalent of beginning to menstruate. Sam grew up in a household of brothers – unsurprisingly, talk of periods has almost always been omitted from the family home. Once, though, Kat remembers when the two of them visited Sam’s parents. Kat had her period, and during the stay she placed her used tampons in the bathroom bin. It wasn’t until the two of them returned home that Sam’s mother called to let them know that the family dog had found Kat’s sanitary items and taken them out to the garden to chew on. I tell them that exactly the same thing used to happen in my family’s home, except that I have two sisters, and we had three dogs. There was a lot of garden cleaning and dog- and daughter-blaming in the epic fiasco that was the collective puberties of three newly-menstruating teenagers.
“It’s interesting you’re writing about this,” says Kat, “because if I was at work, I wouldn’t be telling my colleague about these experiences—I’ve mastered the surreptitious drawer-rummage and tampon-pass to co-workers who have been caught out—but when you ask me about menstruation, it’s rational: it feels as though we should be talking about it. It’s natural.”
From the fifty-plus period-derived conversations I’ve deliberately coordinated over the past six months, no one has spoken without laughing or expressing surprise at some aspect of periods. The most common reaction to being asked to recall a memory about periods ends up with people sighing after they’ve finished their story, realising aloud that their period monologue was the most they’d ever spoken about menstruation.
What Happens on the Bus to Canberra Stays With You
Let me finish telling you about that bus ride from Canberra to Wollongong.
For the rest of the journey I wonder that if my life were a film and I were watching ‘the bus scene’ whether I would recognise myself as one of those pathologically self-doubting protagonists in B-grade indie films. You know, the ones who resign themselves to all the crappy things they do, like the time they let their girlfriend leave, or the time they let their dad tell them they’ll never be a comedian.
When we reach Canberra my partner is waiting with a pad, bottled water, and two kinds of painkillers. We detour to the bathroom as we walk out of the depot and pass my bus driver, stooped over a tray of hot chips at a table in the café. I ask my partner to stand with my bag and I walk over.
“Excuse me,” I say. He glances at me and flashes a half-smile, putting a chip down. “I just wanted to thank you for making that announcement on the bus.” He flashes another half-smile and says it was no trouble. Despite his discomfort, and his desire to eat chips, I continue. “Actually, what you did was really important. My period pain is horrible, and to top it off, that bus had no bathroom. You’re lucky I didn’t throw up on the way; I only cried a bit from Wollongong to Goulburn. Your announcement meant someone gave me painkillers, so now I can get on with my day. Really, thank you.”
I say this to him because it is not terrible in any way to talk about a bodily function that lies at the gateway of the production of all human beings. Rejecting any sense of obligation to understand or explain menstruation does not result in periods magically evaporating. Rejecting period culture leads to a silencing of menstrual dialogue. What emerges from this silence are oppressive social rites: experiences by which menstruators alone are bound. Why sneak a tampon anywhere? Why feel apologetic about a period conversation at a café because those nearby might be offended? Why shove used pads in a drawer in an attempt to hide them? Why feel uncomfortable about asking a bus of strangers for painkillers and a pad? This culture of shame is useless, and once it’s pushed aside, we can begin to imagine an environment that integrates periods into The Hunger Games and western culture, without positioning menstruation as an antagonist, an insult, or invisible.
Writing this essay has been like living an exciting early episode of Sex and the City – an entire episode about periods, set in Canberra. It’s encouraged me into conversations that I would have squirmed over as a teen, for no reason beyond a private shyness about my body. Recently my friends Kate and Jules and I were sitting down to a candlelit dinner and I brought up the fact I use a silicone cup to catch my period, rather than a tampon. Kate’s initial reaction was laughter: she both revelled in, and couldn’t believe that I’d talk about my period so openly, or that I’d bring up my fringe approach to containing and disposing of my period during the eating of dinner. But she was also curious. Between swells of laughter, we spoke about the processes involved in ordering and using a menstrual cup. I received a text message two weeks later: she’d bought one. She just hoped she’d picked the right size.
Rosanna Stevens plays cello, studies a PhD, and is a McSweeney’s intern alumna who writes from suburban Canberra.
‘The Right Kind of Blood’ originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #22. Get your copy now.