OK homies, so Menstrual Hygiene Day is coming soon (May 28) and there are a lot of write-ups and awareness campaigns going on. Basically, this day is celebrated to break taboos surrounding menstruation, raise awareness on the importance of good menstrual hygiene management worldwide. You can follow these hashtags to stay on top of things.
I wanted to share a chapter about menstruation from my book Third World Woman: Weird AF Tales of An Accidental Feminist.
In chapter 3 of this book, I wanted to write about my period story. Not about the first time I had it but one where I knew what a period was but wasn’t mature enough to understand, let alone deal with, the shame attached to it.
It has my observations and my tale of horror. I wanted to share it on the occasion of World Menstrual Hygiene Day, so here it is:
It was the worst day of my childhood. The school toilet was dark and reeked vigorously of phenyl – a cleaning fluid that would have been used to rinse the waste of the million students that used the toilet previously. Think I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect? This was an Indian school, where each class had about 7 sections with 40 students each. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure I’m not too far off.
I sat down in the last stall of the large communal washroom, and wondered what had I done? Why was God punishing me? Why was this happening to me?
My abdomen hurt like a tractor had gone wild in my uterus, or Nicki Minaj was rehearsing her Anaconda dance in my fallopian tubes. Two hours had passed. I could see the sunlight scatter on the floor through the high but tiny window. I could see my blurred reflection, and I hated my face. It was time to reflect. I saw the lady janitor drop by few times, but I dared not ask for help. I felt too ashamed, and as a result, I hid every time.
My school dress was stained with blood thanks to a new phenomenon in my life: menstruation. There were changes all around and inside of me, and I had not been taught to prepare for these transformations. On the inside, it looked like a crime scene from Saw 3.
Although I had an elder sister, we never really talked about this stuff openly. One day when out of the blue (or red, if you prefer a more visceral analogy), I began menstruating and life just crashed around me. I have a blurred memory of what happened and how I dealt with it, but what I remember perfectly is the shame attached to the experience.
We were an educated family and pretty modern, but that didn’t stretch to open discussions about puberty. In fact, I was told not to pray, not to touch certain things, and that since I was now impure, I should wear long and dark clothes. Since I was really a child, I could not handle walking around normally, or sleep in those moon-white fragrant linens as you see on advertisements.
Tampons still do not exist in India, so the ‘go-to’ feminine hygiene product a maxi pad the size of Barbie’s mattress that could soak up the next Tsunami.
It still failed its mission, somehow; and this mission failure would occur mostly during school time when there were these nasty, sticky creatures called ‘boys’ lurking around.
This was the doomsday scenario for me. I had a stained dress, and I couldn’t leave the toilet or ask anybody for help. Apparently, the child that I was felt too ashamed to talk about my problem with anyone. It was about my honour, after all. I rather would have died than shared my indignity. I cried for a while and fought with God for making me a girl. Then my attention drifted off to the reflection of my face on the floor; the pinkish ugly pimple on my cheek, wondering why it always appeared during this time of the month. That pimple thought was in turn interrupted by some unpleasant, and rather frightening, noises coming from the nearby toilet stall.
Three hours passed, and finally, the bell of hope rang. The last class ended and children popped out of the school building like slaves freed from the ship of Spartacus. Finally, I snuck out of the toilet and ran to my class through the empty corridors, still reeking of sweat. I ran away, hung my school bag as low on my back as I could manage, and somehow reached home sitting on a cycle rickshaw.
You see, I was absolutely unaware of what menstruation was before it happened with me like some kind of awful accident. I have no idea why, but my mom never discussed it. When I ask now, her straightforward answer is that “children must not know about grown-up things.” I often find myself wondering why such a grown up thing happens to children if this is the case.
Menstruation is biological, but periods are social.
Menstruation is a perfectly healthy bodily function that is discussed in the Biology class, while periods are those hidden, shameful curses that fall upon us once a month.
Menstruation is good; the world needs menstruating girls to create the next generation of humans, so we will have more wars and cars. But periods? Periods are bad. An ugly, dirty part of womanhood, that needs to be confined to the four walls of a hygienically questionable school toilet.
A menstruating woman can bring a human to life, while a woman on her period is supposed to stay away from praying, the kitchen and even their husband because she is filthy. In Nepal, menstruating women are sent to exile in huts where sometimes they even die. Google it.
If you need to buy female hygiene products, aka sanitary napkins (tampons are unheard of) in India, the conversation goes something like this.
Girl enters a pharmacy.
Girl looks to the right, looks to left, and slowly passes a small piece of paper to the clerk.
The guy slyly looks at the paper and gives a secret look back. This is like a James Bond movie!
He then goes at the back of his shop and reaches for a packet of Whisper sanitary pads.
Wraps in a newspaper, then another newspaper then a black plastic bag, then a newspaper, then another plastic bag.
Clerk returns slyly gives the bulky package to girl, “your package is ready.”
20 rupees, please!
Girl leaves, hoping that nobody saw her transaction.
Clerk vigorously washes his hands.
I consider tampons to be the greatest invention of all time in the female hygiene department. However, India is far from accepting tampon as a regular commercial product. The first time my mom and sister saw a tampon, they weren’t as excited as I was. Not only did they fear that my hymen would break and my virginity would be destroyed, erasing my worth in the Indian society as a woman, but also that inserting a tampon could provide me with sexual pleasure. Of course, that is not what a woman’s vagina is for. It exists only to please our husbands.
I will discuss the myth of virginity at length in the next chapter but for now, if like my mom and sister you don’t already know, there is no such thing as ‘virginity’, and inserting a tampon certainly isn’t sexual pleasure. The best part about a tampon is that it feels like nothing. Which I’m sure some women would also claim about their husbands, but that’s not for me to say.
When I look back and analyze my menstruation history, I find nothing but shame and disgust. I wish I never had to go through those horrible, embarrassing years of feeling shameful about a very natural and healthy bodily function that took place within me.
Aditi Gupta is a young woman who introduced Menstrupedia to India not too long ago. Not only are women now being told about what menstruation is, but Aditi is informing boys about the process and challenging the social stigma of shame.
Where were these cool, new, exciting period comics and fun wisdom when I was locked inside that stinky toilet for 4 hours waiting for the school day to end?
PS. Out of curiosity, I ordered a silicon moon cup from China recently to advance my use of feminine hygiene products. I don’t think I’ll be giving it a shot anytime soon, simply because I’m not a fan of cleaning up after a crime scene. Tampons are easier to dispose of, so I’m going to continue with them for now but considering their carbon footprint, I am not sure how long I’d continue.
– The Puberty Blues (and Reds, and Yellows, and Pinks…), Chapter 3, Third World Woman