When people are on their periods, their demeanour tends to change. Possibly not very noticeably to an outsider, but they become more self-conscious, more aware of themselves and their bodies in everything that they do. This is because, for all intents and purposes, when someone is on their period they’re constantly carrying an inescapable secret between their legs.
This may sound dramatic, and I’m not trying to suggest that a visible sign of a person’s menstrual status is likely to lead to their outright ostracization from society (at least not in our cultural context). Yet, it’s generally accepted that there’s just something a bit uncomfortable about knowing that someone is on their period, or about other people knowing that you’re on yours. Around half the population, give or take, will menstruate at some point in their lives, and yet despite this, there’s still something just a little bit off about it. It’s private, it’s taboo, it’s – well, it’s icky.
Most people who menstruate have developed subtle little ways of concealing that fact, outside of the obvious use of menstrual products. It’s not enough just to use a pad or a tampon – for about five days a month, my mind is preoccupied with ensuring my menstrual blood never leaks through my clothes or, God forbid, onto the chair I’ve been self-consciously occupying for the last hour. Teenage girls, and sometimes grown women, tip-toe around the words ‘period’ and ‘tampon’, substituting one of the myriad of metaphors Western society has developed to avoid directly confronting the issue. Perhaps from the non-menstruating outside, this all just seems like common courtesy – avoiding the discussion of bodily functions is fairly common praxis in the name of public decency. Yet the fact that shopkeepers are far more shocked when I frankly ask where the tampons are than when I do the same with toilet paper tells us that there’s something deeper-rooted at play here.
Throughout history, menstruation has been constructed by the power-holders in society as something that embodies everything that’s wrong with women. Menstruation being icky is not a new phenomenon, but it hasn’t always been there either. Islam, Judaism and Christianity all traditionally associate menstruation with Eve’s sin in paradise, and thus as a sign of women’s general impurity. While women have been excluded from religious spheres specifically during their periods, the ‘icky menstruation’ construction allowed male religious leaders to construct themselves as pure and holy in contrast to women who were unclean and impure in general, as their menstruation specifically demonstrates. Even as human knowledge derived increasingly from science, beliefs about menstruation remained fundamentally the same, and continued to shape women’s social identity. While sperm was seen as the essence of life, menstruating women were capable of spoiling sauces and meat because of their polluting nature, and again were excluded from certain activities.
Menstruation has also been established as a sign of women’s fragility throughout history. 19th-century science once again demonstrated ‘proof’ of existing moral beliefs about periods with theories such as that which saw them as an internal wound caused by ovulation, justifying their exclusion from the public sphere. French debates about the participation of women in the workforce saw the medical profession confirm beliefs about women being fragile susceptible to disease. Without any demonstration of proof, these attributes were linked to their physicality as opposed to exhaustion and poor working conditions. Because of these blind, uninformed assertions based on pre-existing notions of women’s inferiority, menstruation was used as evidence of what was already believed in order to justify their subordination. If a woman can’t keep control of her own fragile, polluting body, how can she be expected to function in the workplace?
All of this may seem far removed from our 21st-centutry, enlightened existence. Sure, sexism still exists, but it’s rarely as blatant as claiming that women are inferior because of their biology. In reality though, many of these ideas about menstruation persist – the framing of the logic has just shifted. In the modern world, there’s a general acceptance that a combination of women and pork isn’t a recipe for disaster, yet there’s still a huge hang-up about having sex with someone who’s on their period. Claims that this is in the name of protecting precious bedsheets hold little weight in light of the knowledge that this problem can very easily be rectified with the use of an unassuming towel. I’ve seen grown men flinch at the sight of an unused pad, simply because any notion of periods is repulsive to them. On the issue of women’s fragility, since the 20th century the debate has shifted from one concerned about women’s health to one concerned about the threat to productivity. Women have consistently shown to be judged as less competent when menstruating, and in 2011 the CEO of a New Zealand workers’ representative organisation argued that women should be paid less because menstruation leads them to take more sick days. Sure, a Swedish TV presenter may once have vomited live on air because she was on her period, but then again, a BBC radio presenter threw up in the middle of the shipping forecast because he was hungover.
The bottom line of all of this is that periods are one of the most persistent taboos in Western society. The maintenance of all of these outdated beliefs may no longer result in the outright exclusion of women from the public sphere, but periods definitely still aren’t fit for public consumption. Consequently, women and girls police their bodies for about five days out of a month, going to unreasonable efforts to make sure that the unsavoury parts of our sacred reproductive abilities stay firmly out of sight and out of mind. Teenagers staying out of the water at pool parties, an embittered 20-something being crudely rejected by her one-night stand, a grown adult smuggling tampons from handbag to pocket to shield the world from a biological fact – these are the realities of menstrual stigma today. When you take into account the fact that some women continue to use tampons despite their fear of the threat of toxic shock syndrome, you realise just how skewed our priorities are. At this point in the development of society, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that I be able to wear slightly bloodstained white jeans without anybody actually caring.
If you want to read more from Sinéad about periods, follow her blog https://bleedingallover.com/
Sinéad Harrington – Features Writer