We don’t really need to rack our brains to remember the first time we got periods and the kind of ambivalent, tempestuous feelings we had about the same. I know girls who even burst into tears because they were scared, confused and oblivious to this sudden turn that their lives had taken. Literally everyone I know, including myself, was hesitant to admit to each other or talk openly to others about it because, inadvertently or not, there was always that feeling of shame, chagrin and guilt associated with it that we just couldn’t purge ourselves of. The kind of code names that we conjured up in order to talk about it freely and explicitly in public itself speaks volumes about how the topic of menstruation has always reeled under the insurmountable weight of taboos entrenching it.
Biology classes explaining menstruation and sex were always fraught with instances of everyone dissolving into paroxysms of bashful, coy giggles and shooting furtive glances at each other. Even the teachers preferred to rush and squirm through the classes, explaining the biological facts properly, but almost always failing to explain the other implications underlying it. I remember having menstruation awareness classes conducted by gynaecologists, but somehow, they also managed to end up being farcical and quite hilarious.
In fact, I clearly remember a lot of instances from that time that seemed pretty normative to me then, but which I now find preposterous and nonsensical. One such instance is that of my cousin sharing with me how her biology teacher happened to be a guy and how literally everyone in class was so mortified, especially on behalf of the teacher, because, well, he was a guy and it was pretty much revolting for any male at all to discuss the repugnant topic of periods. Both of us spent quite a bit of time crooning about how embarrassing and awkward it would have been and I also eagerly contributed to my own set of embarrassing reminiscences from those biology classes when my teacher literally walked out of the class in ire because of the way we kept disrupting our class with our unnecessary giggles and discreet comments thrown at each other. Then there were those countless instances of us staining our white coloured sports uniforms on Wednesdays owing to periods and those furious, painstaking efforts to wash and dry it quickly before the next class and before the unsuspecting guys in our class could learn about it. I don’t think it ever struck me during those blissfully oblivious days of my pre-teen and early teenage, how it was totally fine and devoid of shame for us to stain our uniforms, even the white ones, with glaring, obtrusive streaks of brown dirt from the puddles during rain and from even falling down during physical education classes, but how it was such an unfathomable and earth shattering prospect when it was our periods which contributed to our stained uniforms instead of dirt.
A natural, inevitable, biological process like menstruation, which if you think about it, is the reason why all of us even exist, couldn’t ever be made known or acknowledged even. It’s brushed aside and jettisoned to its unacknowledged, ignominious existence in those hushed, surreptitious whispers among girls huddled together in washrooms, decoded and veiled under painstakingly thought out codes and conspicuous efforts to not ever be uttered aloud in public, and daresay, in front of guys. We all knew it existed and experienced its implications every month, but to ever deem it a sense of normalcy was just so elusive a prospect.
The first step towards changing the discussion about menstruation in India should be denuding it of the stigma and secrecy surrounding it, so that people can come out and talk about issues pertaining to it. Menstrual taboos and the concomitant shame and fear of talking about it openly also makes a lot of us blithely ignore issues like irregular cycles, menstrual pain and other such problems and seek help regarding the same. The exorbitant prices of sanitary napkins in India would be another such issue. Why is it that something as necessary and integral to health and hygiene as sanitary napkins are priced so high? Also, the alternative options to sanitary napkins should also be promulgated and made known to girls.
The basic right to information and the choices available relating to this should be publicised. Apart from tampons and pads, most women aren’t even aware of far better options like menstrual cups. I first came to know about it only because of the feminism related pages on Facebook actively sharing it. The first menstrual cup was patented back in 1937, and even now, most people remain oblivious to its existence.
Menstrual cups are worn inside the vagina to collect menstrual fluid and can be left there for 12 hours even. It can also be easily removed, washed and reinserted. It is also an economical option because it can even be used up to a decade with proper care. If even this doesn’t work to convince you, you can at least think about the environmental implications of it. The cup necessitates throwing away only one cardboard box or no waste at all, whereas pads and tampons generate inconceivable amounts of waste every year. Menstrual cups implicitly encourage users to engage and involve in the process of menstruation instead of painstakingly trying to downplay its existence and significance. The way pads and tampons are advertised and marketed itself is problematic, because they aim to stifle and obliterate the experience of menstruation by resorting to gimmicks that proclaim how they would almost make you feel like you are not on your periods, how you can breeze through an otherwise repulsive process or that they are scented to divert you from the gross realities of periods. They also resort to the use of a blue liquid on their pads to signify blood and not something red in colour because people still uncannily prefer to beat around the bush about what exactly menstruation implies. Media also jumping on the bandwagon with their inveigles to convince young girls that their products are the best remedy to a revolting, shameful “hygienic crisis” like periods would simply aggravate the matter of menstrual hygiene and awareness. It might seem like there are no explicit ramifications of such ways of selling pads and tampons, but it acts to exacerbate and reinforce the notion of it being this unhygienic, dirty, tabooed process that would rather be blithely ignored or obliterated rather than be accepted as something normal.
It bolsters the stigma and popular myths already besieging menstruation and menstruating women, and any lingering doubts and inclination to question such nonsensical prejudices would be inadvertently ignored or stifled because of popular culture and media also joining in to popularize the stigma. Even the mere act of handing out a pad to someone in public or even taking it out will be done covertly and obscurely with the aid of a cover to shield its existence from the crude gaze of the public. Even while a purchase is made, care is taken to wrap it up and veil its presence from the outside world. These seemingly trivial details and behavioural nuances that we impetuously consider normal have a lot of pernicious ramifications. The very existence of interminable taboos beleaguering the topic of menstruation implies a lot of disconcerting realities.
The next time you feel obliged to not talk about menstruation or menstruation related issues because you’re apprehensive of the sort of reactions it would incite, just think about how your socially conditioned silence and passivity is what is contributing to the continued indifference to the issue of menstrual hygiene awareness. We will no longer be shamed into silence or saying we are down. There’s nothing so bleak and disconcerting about being on your period. #IAmNotDown should be our new platitude instead of letting our heads hangs low and admitting ruefully that we are on our periods.