OK, the squeamish people should have left us now.
I’m super impressed that Mad Men showed us Sally Draper’s first period, but mine was nothing like that. Instead of the bright red stain I was expecting, I got a small brown smear. I was 11, and I had no idea what it was. After worrying for a while, I told my mum that I had something weird going on in the knicker department, and she gently broke it to me that this was my period.
“But it’s not red, it’s brown,” I told her, not having considered what blood looks like when it dries, and really hoping I could argue my way out of this one. “It’s your period,” she said again, softer this time.
It was the last thing I wanted.
I loved American YA growing up, but one thing always confused me about books like Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret: you’re telling me these girls wanted their periods? What were they thinking?
I never wanted any of the things that happened in puberty; they all felt like a betrayal. I hadn’t even had time to think about the fact that my body might start to change before I was sprouting thick underarm hairs, struggling to fit into shorts, and of course, starting to bleed.
In Judy Blume’s world, being “developed” made you sophisticated and enviable and popular. In real life, it made you a freak. You had to hide the fact that you didn’t have a flat, hairless, non-bleeding body anymore if you didn’t want boys to publicly make fun of you or girls to gossip about you behind your back.
When your body is precocious, people think you are, too: like you willed these changes into existence rather than had them forced upon you. It makes some girls resentful, some boys nasty, some adults wary; telling you not to think you’re more grown up than you are just because your body’s maturing. The fact that these changes are so public only makes you feel more gross. I was so jealous of my friend, a runner nicknamed “stick insect” who didn’t get her period until she was 14. I didn’t even have the comfort of knowing my body was making it possible for me to have a baby, because I was 100% sure I never wanted one.
Plus, period pain was a surprise. It’s possible we covered it in the girls-only talk we got in primary school, but my head was buzzing so much from the long discussion of thrush and animated cartoons of erections that I wouldn’t have taken it in.
I got my first period in my first week of secondary school, most of which I spent bent over desks, barely able to engage with anyone or take in any information, thinking, it feels like I’m being kicked by a horse.
Finally, I went to the school nurse and whispered my problem and she gave me a lukewarm hot water bottle that I was only comfortable clutching to my abdomen when no one else was in the room. After a couple of coughing boys joined me, I tried to cover it with my hands and stared straight ahead. “What’s wrong with you?” One of them asked me. “Stomachache,” I said, as he sniggered with his friend.
You might not suspect it from this post, but I’m still a bit bashful talking about it now. In yoga, even though there’s a sign that says you need to tell your teacher if you’re pregnant or have your period, I find myself whispering out of the corner of my mouth, blushing when my teacher says near a man, “let me look at your routine and check which poses you shouldn’t do on your period,” her voice seeming to get louder on those last three words.
And I know I’m not imagining men’s discomfort. I have one male relative who made me buy tampons for his wife when I was nine, because he was more comfortable embarrassing a child than he was buying san-pro. I have another who makes vulgar jokes on social media but expressed (or affected) shock when I mentioned my period in passing.
It’s a cliché to say that if men had periods, it’s all we’d ever hear about, but it’s true. Masturbation is one of the biggest sources of male jokes, and that’s voluntary. Imagine if blood poured out of there once a month, causing exhaustion and stomach cramps that make you feel like you might vomit. Would men still be all “Ew,” about it, or would it be openly discussed and a totally valid reason for several sick days a month?
My friend Keris wrote a great blog post about how damaging people’s embarrassment around periods can be. Not only in this country, where we all pretend that blue liquid comes out of our vaginas, but also in the developing world, where millions of girls can’t get the education they want because of lack of access to sanitation. We’re literally losing millions of women’s contribution to the world because of a bit (or OK, a lot) of blood.
I’m so used to thinking about periods in shameful, “shhh” terms that it’s hard to shift my focus, but I loved Buzzfeed’s recent How Metal is Your Period? quiz, because that’s how we should think of them: like we’re hardcore for surviving this shit.
In Mad Men, it ends up being a rare bonding moment for Sally and Betty, who tells her daughter that, essentially, periods suck but they mean your body is working as it’s supposed to, which is the only consolation I’ve ever got from them. Except sometimes my body doesn’t work as it’s supposed to.
I used to think period apps were offensive and stupid: why not just write down in a diary when you were due, why did women need to be treated like dopes who didn’t know what day it was? I probably developed this opinion because the first period app I read about was designed for men to keep track of their partner’s periods, so they’d know when to patronisingly say “Sure, honey” instead of being pulled into an argument.
But just over a year ago, my period became a little less regular, and I realised that it was so much easier to keep track via an app than a diary. I use Period Tracker Lite, and if you can get past the twee graphics, it keeps track of when your period starts and finishes, how long your cycles are, and any symptoms or notes you want to add. (And it makes charts out of your data!) In the past, doctors have asked me when my last period was and I’ve had no idea. Now I always have that info to hand.
Which is how I know that my last cycle was 88 days. My period does this thing sometimes where it moves around ─ it’ll be at the start of the month for a while, then change to the end, and in between I might miss a period or be a few weeks late. After January, I missed two periods, and it moved from the start of the month to the middle.
It was weird, for the first time in my life, to spend several weeks wishing I had my period. And then I got it, and it was terrible.
As well as being heavier than ever, it felt like my uterus was trying to punch its way out of my body. “I forgot how awful this was,” I kept mumbling as I staggered around. Ibuprofen and paracetamol didn’t completely alleviate the pain and I didn’t have a hot water bottle. I tried to work but mostly ended up bent over my desk, drained and wan. I felt sorry for myself. (I still do.) But I want to talk about it. We should talk about it. Period.