Monday, October 17, 2016

I Menstruate And It's Not A Big Deal

Most of you know I worked full time as a high school librarian for fifteen years. One of the first things I learned was to have an extra pad or tampon in my desk – and they’re not for me.

I can’t tell you how many times girls have come into my office asking if I have something they can use for “…you know.” And of course I do, no matter whether they’re a student I get along with or not, and in the moment when I hand that “something” over we’re not a student and a staff member anymore – we’re just two women.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed before, as a college student or in my early twenties, in bathrooms of bars or a club when a perfect stranger’s hand sticks into my stall door from under the divider and says, “Hey, sorry. But do you have… something?” And again at the changing of hands, she’s not a stranger even if I never see her face. We’re just two women.

So why even among women do we struggle to say the word “pad” or “tampon?” Why do we slide them inside our sleeve or crush them in our fists as we walk to the bathroom so that no one will know that we’re menstruating? The fact that we shed our uterine lining means that we’re able to continue the human race, grow the next generation inside our bodies. But we’ve been taught that it’s bad, scary, shameful, dirty, or even gross.

In Biblical times a menstruating woman was considered unclean, and as a culture we haven’t come terribly far. In March of 2015, poet and artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo on her Instagram account of herself, curled up in bed, having bled through her pants. The photo was promptly flagged by users as offensive, and quickly removed from Instagram for violating community standards. Anyone who is familiar with Instagram knows you don’t have to wander far or scroll long to find any variety of explicit photos. Yet a fully clothed woman with a spot of blood on her pants caused an uproar.

Menstruation is not always met with disgust, but sometimes simple ignorance is to blame. I remember being in grade school and hearing about an older girl that had to be sent home early because she got her period in choir. The story had made some rounds by the time it reached the fifth graders, so the way we heard it, the girl had covered a chair in blood, gone home and had her period seven more times. They didn’t know if she was going to make it.

That one can be chalked up to the innocence of childhood, but I’ve had some dumbfounding experiences with adult males that can’t be so easily excused. When my boyfriend of nine years and I combined households, he soon learned that his sheets were our sheets. And our sheets have bloodstains. On all accounts he is a wonderful, kind, lovely person, who nicely asked me if I could possibly “wear something to bed to stop that from happening.”

To which I explained. “Honey, I am. You should see what would happen if I didn’t.”
“Really?” he asked. “It’s like that?”
“Yeah, honey. It’s like that.”

This came from a man in his late thirties who grew up with three older sisters. Even in a household of women, menstruation remained a mystery.

A few years ago a well-meaning man advised me not to venture into my garden during my time of the month, because it would make the pickles wilt. I told him that might not be the best gardening advice I’d ever heard but it was certainly a wonderful metaphor.

In 1892 famed axe-killer Lizzie Borden murdered her father and step-mother, yet when questioned about a spot of blood on her hemline by the police, she informed them it was from a “flea bite,” a euphemism at the time for menstrual blood. The officers promptly dropped that line of questioning, too mortified to continue. Lizzie was exonerated for lack of evidence.

Today we call that “getting out of gym class.”

As a YA author I’m often asked if I find myself restrained by the parameters of writing for teens, in terms of censorship. If you’ve read anything I’ve written then you’re probably aware the answer is “not really,” and – as I keep telling everyone – if I haven’t shocked you yet, just wait for the next one.

However, in an earlier draft of my debut NOT A DROP TO DRINK there was a mention of how my main character, Lynn, and her mother, handled menstruation in the post-apocalypse. Early readers asked me if that was really necessary as some might find it offensive. Being a new writer who only wanted to please, I chose to remove it. Looking back, I question how a book that opens with a nine year old shooting someone in the head in defense of her water source crossed the line by mentioning menstruation.

So where do we go from here? If red tents, axe-murders and wilted pickles litter the past what can we do in the present? Start by saying “pad” or “tampon” out loud, not asking for “something” because “you know.” Don’t be afraid to say menstruation, it’s not a dirty word. Don’t be ashamed to go into the store just to get a box of pads or tampons, because guys make that trip for condoms without thinking twice. Talk to your daughters openly about it, and – talk to your sons, too, so that their girlfriend doesn’t look at them like they’re stupid when they’re almost forty.

8 comments:

Krista Quintana said...

I had a similar experience with male ignorance. When I was a teenager, we had a family reunion where I got together with all of my cousins, and of course, I got my period. I was laying on one of the beds with really bad cramps, and all my female cousins were trying to help me feel better. My male cousin, the one with three older sisters and three younger sisters comes in the room and asks me what's wrong. We didn't really know how to tell him, and as he listened to our conversation, he realized that all of the girls in the room had gone through the same thing.

As he left, his parting comment was, "I never had that. I must have gotten the good genes." Little did he know how on point he was.

Gilly said...

Thanks for sharing! I completely endorse the idea of integrating this into our sons' lives too. I am determined that my boys will not be the boys who tease the girls who get their periods. They will be the ones who tell the others it's no big deal and go to the office/nurse/teacher to get a pad for a female friend with no embarrassment. I'm working on that by making sure my period (and others) is a normal topic of conversation in the house even now, when they're small, that pads and tampons are in the bathroom in an open basket to be reached if needed, not hidden under the sink, by having them in the room when I explain to my daughter what period products are, by letting them stick pads to a spare pair of underwear the same way their sister practices. It's not weird if I don't make it weird . . .

Erica Eliza said...

My favorite menstruation moment in a YA book is Over Your Dead Body by Dan Wells. The male main character in on the run with a female friend who has multiple personas from different centuries. She's on her period for most of the book, and he has to inform her of the fact each time she switches personas. She has to use pads instead of tampons because they freak out her more old-fashioned personas.

Deb R.H. said...

I don't think I know anyone who has a problem saying the actual thing. I usually hide them on the way to bathroom just because it's no one else's business. But I do remember horrifically lying to my cousins when I was younger about stained underwear, but I started menstruating earlier than average.

And screw the warning labels, I usually just wear a tampon to bed on the heavier days because I don't have time to push all the extra clothes off my bed (or hang them up) to take off my sheets, clean them, and then be expected to put them back on my bed the next evening. lol

Christina T said...

Thanks for this post! I completely agree. And while I may feel uncomfortable about it, that's just my upbringing I need to get over. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but we're made to feel that it is, which is completely unfortunate for a natural life cycle.

Honestly, I don't see how putting menstruation in a book is offensive. It's a completely natural and real part of life. I really appreciate when it's mentioned in YA books, because I mean come on. How are we supposed to handle this in a post-apocalyptic world? It happens. We all know it does. So how is it handled? It's not particularly realistic unless we can find a way to deal with it.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Thank you everyone for the comments! Interestingly, two days after I posted this story came out in Britain where a young would-be politician exhibited his complete ignorance of menstruation.

https://www.yahoo.com/beauty/teens-ignorant-tweets-show-why-we-need-to-teach-boys-about-periods-212959568.html

Posting as an example of how women's own qualms on speaking about such things helps ignorance spread. I'm sure someone has educated him rather thoroughly by now.

Kirtida Gautam said...

Hi Mindy,

It's so true. I have no clue why every single physical condition related to a woman's natural growth and function becomes "something" not to be dealt with directly, but dealing with it as a kind of "should not be mentioned" things.

Marie (Kim) R. said...

I work as a liveguard on a lake during the summer. We're around three girls and a lot of males and one day a young woman came to us, looked at the boys in fear as if something terrible had happened to her (I thought she had hurt herself or something like that) and then whispered "Do you have a tampon?". We didn't even understand her the first time she said it because she was so quiet. So one of my female friends went "You need a tampon?" with a normal voice and pulled one out of her bagpack. She was happy to have one, yet really embarrassed because my friend hadn't been so secretive. And we wondered, why it was such a big deal. As a close group of female friends we often talk about such things and I really do not understand why in 2016 it is still supposed to be something to be ashamed off. I remember when I first got my period I cried. I don't remember why, but I think that is definitely something we should adress in future generations and in ourselves.