Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.
When I started my period, I didn’t think I was dying because my mother had actually explained it to me. I got to stay at home from school (Yay!), and nobody made a lot of fuss about it. I figured out how pads worked, had a mildly exciting moment at school where all the other girls told me in hushed whispers that I “had grown up”. And also that I was now apparently ready to talk about bras. Weird.
So an open family aside, there was an aspect of my periods which did bother me: cramps. Menstrual cramps, the bane of many women’s lives. So many of us have one day where it’s all ‘Don’t talk to me, my stomach is killing me’. In case anyone’s wondering: no, it’s not an exaggeration. It really does hurt that bad sometimes.
My cramps were pretty bad for a while, especially post my 15th birthday. Before that, I always had fairly timely periods and I never understood people who suffered from ‘period cramps’. Sympathised, yes but never really got it. And then the cramps hit and often the first days of my periods became kind of bad. Didn’t want to travel, didn’t want to eat. Just wanted to curl up in bed and weep for humanity, all that jazz.
So here’s the thing. People were sympathetic, but it was a distant kind of sympathy. Like “Yes we know it hurts, but you can’t stop life because of it, can you?” Women were more sympathetic, in a ‘Been there, done that’ kind of way. But it boiled down to one thing: whatever the pain was, I would have to put up with it. That kind of sucked, because who wants to shove their aching body into a crowded bus? But apparently, I had to because “This is a fact of life and you can’t avoid it”.
So I did, at least for a while. I even conditioned myself to think the pain was ‘all in my head’, and if I ignored it, it would go away. The first days were bad, and as the cramps decreased over the following days, it became something of a sign of ‘look there’s nothing wrong, this is totally normal’.
The thing is: things were totally not normal. A few years down the line, I missed a period and then another one. Luckily, my parents did not lose their heads over whether or not I was pregnant (the horror!) but after the second time I missed my period, I visited a gynaecologist where I found out that I had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS.
The name sounds terrifying, but this is actually a more common condition than most people think. At least 1 in 10 women in India suffer from PCOS, and it’s a condition that can be dealt with through healthy eating and exercising. But the point is not that I found out that I had PCOS but how I found out. Basically, I waited until my pains got bad enough to move from “This is normal” to “Wait, there could be something wrong here”.
So I ask: Why do we treat period pain as if it’s something ‘normal’? Many women will feel period cramps throughout their lives without any specific medical disorder, a condition which is called ‘Primary Dysmenorrhoea’. For many of them (like me!), there is an underlying reason which can range from PCOS to Endometritis. But so many women normalise their pain that it doesn’t occur to them that something may be wrong unless the pain gets literally that bad.
The other question is: Even without my condition if I had menstrual cramps does that mean that my pain is just something inside my head?
When somebody complains of a headache, do people tell them, ‘Prove you have a fever or get the fuck out’? Menstrual cramps are as real a pain as a headache, fever or any other ailment, and they deserve to be given importance. So the next time someone is complaining about menstrual cramps, don’t tell them to just ‘Deal with it’. It’s pain. It’s real.
If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse , do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.