I set out to interview people from three generations to see how the experience of menstruation has changed across the years. My interviewees were my mother Uma, aged 59; my aunt Dharuni, aged 42; and my sister Esha, aged 22. All of them had faced different social circumstances from menarche to menopause. These are representative of how far we have come with regards to attitudes towards menstruation, and how far we have to go.
Uma: The first time it happened, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t even know that my first period was a period. I was 16 years old (1975). My household helper noticed that I was staining, and told me to sit in the corner on the floor and not touch anything. She then brought my mother, who put a coconut frond across the floor and told me I had to sleep on it for three days. Just imagine sleeping on that. I told them I couldn’t, so they gave me an old sari to put on the frond. No pillows. I was given only sweet things to eat, and wasn’t allowed to touch anything in the house for the three days. On the fourth day, I was asked to wash my hair, and lots of married women came to my house to bathe me. Before my first period, I knew women used to go outside for three days, but nobody had explained why or that I would have to go as well. I had no idea what to expect.
Dharuni: The first time it had happened, I was 13 (1989). I didn’t know it was spotting. I just saw that my panties were stained, and I was confused and scared. I was coming back from somewhere, I remember I was wearing a skirt, and when I got home I saw my panties were soaked, and I was experiencing some pain. I called my older sister and told her something was wrong; I didn’t want anybody else to know. She called our mom, and I remember feeling panicked about it. I really didn’t want to talk about it to anybody, because in the back of my mind, I felt I had done something wrong. My mom came, and I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember no one felt happy about it. No one stopped to make me feel good. What I distinctly remember, though, is that I was told to stay separately, I was given a piece of cloth, and my sister demonstrated how I had to use a homemade sanitary napkin.
Esha: I was 13 when I got my first period (2009). I was fairly well-informed about what to expect; my mother had taught me how to use a pad, and we had had a science class about periods. It started in school, but I didn’t freak out, and I had no apprehensions about telling my teacher that I was on my period. As I stood in the bus on my way back (as I couldn’t find a pad), I felt no shame telling anyone that I was on my period.
Uma: Everyone thought periods were an ‘unclean time’. Women had to go through extraordinary hardships. You couldn’t enter the house, you couldn’t touch anything, you had to depend on other people for the most basic things. The next few times, I didn’t tell my mother when I got my period. I had to hide it so I could help my younger siblings get ready for school, cook, and go to school. I would always tell her on a Friday, because Saturday and Sunday were holidays and I could afford to sit outside. By Monday, I’d be back in the house. My mother couldn’t attend her brother’s wedding because of periods, and women used to take medicines to delay periods during festivals and special occasions.
Dharuni: Sometimes we you were allowed to sit in the house, but by the fact that you couldn’t move, everybody knew. For me, that was the most embarrassing thing. We were given food way after everyone else. You couldn’t participate in any social activity, and if you touched any cloth, you had to wash it. You had your own set of plates, and couldn’t eat with the others. We felt like outcasts, and soon figured that if we didn’t tell, we wouldn’t have to be treated this way. The discomfort and the embarrassment were reason enough to stop sharing the monthly occurrences with our mother. When she found out that we were hiding this she’d make us sit out for three days. But with time, and a very unpleasant negotiation, we struck a bargain with her where we were allowed inside the house but were to stay away from the pooja area and the kitchen. Each sister fought her own war. And it was a war, there was no mistaking it. But one thing that sticks in my mind is my father’s compassionate side. I remember him saying, “If I can, I’ll take that pain.” He would have, too.
Esha: Middle school boys were a little bit—well, dudes in my class thought it was funny. They thought it was fun to shame people, like, if they found a pad in a girl’s bag, they’d wave it around and it would be hilarious for some reason. But I don’t think they were the majority of the boys, and otherwise I have had a fairly chill experience. I have never had a problem in asking for a pad; I think pads and water are two things nobody denies you. Actually, it’s a rule of a friend of mine, never to deny water or pads to anyone. We’ve never really been banned from doing anything (other than swimming, which I understand), but I know people in my generation who have. Some girls I know aren’t allowed to go into mandirs, or the kitchen.
Uma: Old saris were all that was available. As far as information is concerned, there was none.
Dharuni: Are you kidding me? (Makes ‘zero’ sign). At one point, some people came to show us pads, tell us what menstruation was, and show us how to use them. I remember giggling about it. The pads were too expensive, and the elders in my family thought them unnecessary. I had no idea how periods were related to having a child, or what they meant. I was unprepared, uninformed, and had no way of educating myself until much later.
Esha: In terms of sanitary products, that has never been a problem. There’s obviously a lot of variety, and I’d love to try out some of the new products, like menstrual cups, reusable cloth pads, and I would like to try Thinx (period panties). It was founded by two brown sisters, they featured a trans man in their ads, its tagline is ‘panties for people who menstruate”. (Of course, I know the founder of the company was accused of sexual harassment, and I don’t know if I want to support her business.)
Uma: I’ve seen a lot of positive changes, in the sense that people no longer exclude women from all social activities during those few days. Also, information and products available for menstrual hygiene are more accessible.
Dharuni: There is greater availability of material, and an understanding that it is not a bad thing anymore. Places of worship have become more open. But people who plan parties to announce the “attained age”? I don’t know about them, it makes me feel sick.
Esha: I’d only know about my generation firsthand. But over the years with my generation, we have come to realise that different people have different kinds of periods, and different amounts of pain. I go to an all girls’ college, and I’ve seen that people are understanding of people not being able to work because of their period, while that wasn’t the case in school. Also, my male friends have grown to be more understanding, and even inquisitive, about the process.
Uma: Early education of girls, mothers, and also boys, is essential.
Dharuni: Mothers need to be educated. They need to know how to talk to their kids about it, and what it means in the long run. A more simple and clear instruction should be given, in a standardised form, to young children about this. Things are a lot different now, so they’re not as bad as they used to be, but I speak from a place of privilege. I don’t think this exists four streets down, even.
Esha: Personally, I guess I’d like better understanding in public spaces. I’m okay with stains being visible, like I know it’s also a hygiene issue, but if I have stained and I’ve already changed my pad, and it isn’t likely to repeat, I don’t think it’s really anyone’s business to tell me that I’ve stained. And I know this might sound trite, but we need easier access to better quality products for everyone. Also, if you’re going to have a sense of humour about periods, try to have a good one, like a sensitive, informed one.
Uma: My menopause was, hmm… I had a lot of mood swings, and periods when I was physically and emotionally violent. For the first time, I had experienced rage. I immediately went for medical assistance, but lack of awareness led me to have a tough time.
Dharuni: Due to my thyroid problems, symptoms were mistaken to be something else at first. I lacked awareness to tell the two apart. When my periods became erratic, I started reading up, and visited a gynaecologist. I had seen my mom go through menopause, so I could see behavioural changes in me. After 4 or 5 months, I found out that I was in perimenopause. Now I’m on medication to manage mood swings and thyroid levels. My mother was untreated, and was very violent, physically abusive, and harsh. Now I know if she’d had the right support it would not have been so bad. Family and support system is a very important factor. But at the end of 365 days of perimenopause I feel a great sense of freedom that I don’t ever have to face periods again.
Esha: Are we done? I don’t have anything to say about menopause!