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Not long ago, I came across an image on Instagram. It featured 5 different elements within the ‘female reproductive organs’ map, with letters attached to them, to match with their actual names: womb, vagina, cervix, ovaries, and vulva. Alongside the picture came a simple question: “Can you name these?” And it got me thinking. Why? Because I wondered, could I confidently say what was what? And if the options were not offered to me, would I even be able to answer what each one was, off the top of my head? I’m ashamed to say this, but I probably wouldn’t. But then, I thought, when was the last time I actually had to figure out what the attributes of my birth sex were, and when did I learn any of this?
After spending some time racking my brain around this, digging into old memories to figure out when someone ever offered me a chance to know what my genitals really looked like on paper, it hit me. It happened once. Back in secondary school. You know that time when your teacher starts talking about sexual organs, and everyone in the classroom is too uncomfortable to talk about it, so they laugh out loud and make jokes about it. Yes, I really think that was the only time it ever happened. That was my only lesson about our ‘reproductive’ system – as they liked to refer to it - a big laugh and one picture, thank you very much.
It’s sad to think that today, as a cisgender woman in my thirties, I’m not able to look at this image and think “Sure, easy! There you go!”. Instead, I saved this image on my phone to get back to it on my own time and do some research online to make sure I got it right. But after a few days of reflection, I realised that it’s not so much that I’m ashamed of myself for not being sure of it, I am actually angry at our educational system, and society in general, for allowing us to go through life without knowing who we really are.
I had my first period when I was thirteen. I was in secondary school, out with my friends during our break, playing and chatting away, when suddenly, one of them told me there was a stain on my bum. There it was in all its glory, without any care in the world. I was lucky enough to not have anyone else spotting it and being laughed at, and I simply wrapped my jumper around my waist before heading back home – a ten minute walk from school – to throw my knickers in the laundry basket, take new ones and use one of my mum’s pads.
But while I thought back of that time in school, what came to mind is that people who menstruate have always been conditioned to feel shame for bleeding; and that shame is inflicted on us (especially at a young age) over the most natural thing in the world, having our period. We’re laughed at when we take a pad out to change it, in-between classes, we’re called a slut or ‘easy’ for using a tampon. The discomfort of talking about it completely erased any discussion within the school system, or at home for that matter, outside of the classic and outdated idea that we are now “a woman”. What does that even mean? As I remember it, one minute I was a girl and could do whatever girls did, but the minute I got my period I suddenly was seen as a woman and lost my privileges as a kid. This still doesn’t make any sense to me. Bleeding (or not bleeding) doesn’t change who you are, nor does it define it.
People are - still today - uncomfortable talking about it, and do whatever they can to relay the conversation to the bottom of the list. Just look at how brands have been advertising hygiene products for years; showing a blue fluid going into a pad to show the virtue of their products. Well, guess what? I am not a Smurf, and my periods are not blue. What the hell was that about?
We need to stop shaming people for what nature offers them, and we need to stop hiding the reality of it: blaming our temper on our hormones, laughing at us for having a stain on our pants, minimising the pain and beauty of having our periods. Instead, we all need to educate ourselves, empower ourselves, listen to each other, help each other, acknowledge our pains, and recognise that what we’ve been offered is a gift. And whoever doesn’t experience, comprehend, or no longer has periods, can also offer support.
There’s still a long way to go, but a new generation of individuals, organisations, and social activists (Bloody Good Period, Binti, Period, The Red Box Project to name a few) help break taboos and raise awareness about periods, cramps, fluids, related illnesses, inequalities, lack of access to menstrual products, and more. I have also enjoyed “Period. End of Sentence” on Netflix, “Period” on Amazon Prime, and the brilliant “Pandora’s Box” as I educated myself about the topic. And if you live in London, UK, don’t miss out on the Vagina Museum, the world's first bricks and mortar museum about the gynaecological anatomy.
In the past couple of months, bills have been passed in countries such as Scotland and New Zealand to make access to sanitary products free - especially in schools, where the lack of access is high. Sanitary products are still luxury items, and all countries need to make free access to sanitary products a reality. In the meantime, I will continue educating myself, talk about periods freely, and hopefully, bleed in peace.