The first time I came across a commercial on sanitary pads, I was around 7, and I wondered what they were for. I could vaguely grasp that they were meant for women, and also that they were supposed to soak up moisture and ‘prevent stains’, but I had no idea why women needed these exclusively. I asked my mom, and even at that age,I could tell she was pretending not to have heard. That was a signal to me that I wasn’t meant to ask, and not just because I was a boy, or because I was 7. The first time I realized mom used pads too was when I was around 11 when a pack of pads had accidentally popped out of her shopping bag. Without betraying any sense of alarm, she delivered it a neat sweep with her right hand, out of my field of vision – it was almost a perfect magic trick. This time I didn’t ask. After all, the product was named Whisper. Sanitary pads, it seemed, were meant to be coy, as were those using them.
I guess mom was confident I would learn at school when I had become “old enough”, that the story of birds and the bees also involved a bloody affair. At 14, one fateful afternoon I was introduced to the human reproductive system by a biology teacher who described a penis as a “somewhat cylindrical, somewhat triangular organ found in the male pubic region” when one of the more inquisitive girls in class had demanded to know more about it. By then, thanks to the grapevine, I had already learned that girls weren’t using pads to absorb sweat in their crotches. The grapevine had an impish name for menstrual blood too – Bloody Mary.
So this biology teacher described “Bloody Mary” as something along the lines of “monthly shedding of endometrial lining along with blood from the vagina in post-pubertal females”. Some of us boys stared blankly at him, some of us nodded to hide our befuddlement. I didn’t ask any questions, because by then all the questions on my mind had chemically reacted with each other, and thereby become indistinguishable from one another. I wearily looked at The Girl Who Asked, and she didn’t seem keen on repeating her feat – she had heard boys chuckling (I wasn’t one of them, trust me). By the time the lecture ended, the only thing I personally got wiser about was that sanitary pads were meant to absorb menstrual flow, and were an important part of female hygiene. I was left deeply unsatisfied. I read the biology textbook and it made a reference to menstrual cramps but didn’t enlighten the reader further. I was scared to look on the internet. After all, I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about this stuff.
Nearly two decades after I had first asked my mom, a friend told me one day about her dreaded ‘monthly visitor’ and how she was stressed about its impending visit. By then I had managed to learn that menstruation was just a function of humans being sexually reproducing primates, that there were complex religious and social dimensions to it, and also that it could cause serious cramps and mood swings in some women which could affect their productivity. In other words, I was theoretically prepared to have a conversation with her about it. But still, her sudden candour left me dumbfounded. Clearly, she wanted to have a conversation with me about her periods. But I had never had a conversation with anyone on the subject and so, I was unsure what to say or do because I didn’t know what the appropriate response would be.
My “response” in the end was to look away from her into the void and purse my lips in an effort to show that I understood her anxiety. I have no way of knowing what she thought of my performance, and she has never talked to me about her ‘monthly visitor’ again. I haven’t asked her either.
I realized that this was unfortunate because if educated people like my friend and me don’t talk to each other about Bloody Mary, we will never be able to talk about pressing sociopolitical issues that torment those who menstruate. If despite being a friend, I come across as insensitive to a woman’s concerns about her menses, I am failing to provide her with the kind of visible support that she might need. I might sign a petition on Change.org to make sanitary pads tax free, or donate to help provide underprivileged girls with free pads, or even write an essay on YKA to show my support, but all that’s more about satisfying oneself that one is “doing good”, and less about making an effort to bring about systemic changes that are crucially necessary if Indian society at large is to change the way it thinks about menstruation.
The biggest problem with society’s attitude towards menstruation lies in its deliberate and oppressive silence on the topic. A lot of hush-hush around menstruation in India has to do with how it is viewed as impure and polluting. The irony is that a lot of scared young girls and women, especially the underprivileged ones, tend to “pollute” themselves by using unsanitary stuff like grass, dirty cloth, soil, ash etc to clean up their monthly mess. Folk “wisdom” on menstruation is passed down less through conversation, and more through silence. The silence can be attributed to ignorance and superstition, but also broadly to a patriarchal society’s attitude towards women. Higher up the socioeconomic ladder, while women might not be resource-deprived, they are not infrequently left emotionally deprived because Bloody Mary is dismissed as a niche or a women’s issue – by men who have no experience of it. Women are pressured not to make a big deal out of “just blood and cramps”, again probably because men tend to treat cramps as an occupational hazard, while for many women it’s a part of their life till menopause. Pain isn’t any sweeter just because it’s expected. Ask those who get their teeth extracted, even better to ask those who have given birth (this writer hopes not to have either experience, ever – although the probability of the latter is quite low).
But the brunt of this kind of cultural oppression is borne by underprivileged women, who are the majority – poor working women in cities and rural areas, homeless women, Adivasi women, Dalit women, women in sex work and their children. Most of these women have no access to any kind of knowledge or support network that is available to their privileged counterparts. Since they experience the worst of hardcore patriarchy, they are dehumanized and their experiences are not even given an audience. They have no knowledge of their rights, and even if they do, they don’t know how to enforce them. They have little counselling or mental healthcare resources available. Insensitivity towards teen and preteen girls, who don’t yet fully understand their menses and have no access to sanitary pads or support, forces many of them to miss school or drop out altogether. In extreme cases, driven by depression due to gratuitous shaming and teasing in addition to the anxiety and pain of menstruating, some of them commit suicide. Clearly, it’s way more than “just blood and cramps”.
Let’s see how. Some (not all) women may suffer from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), symptoms of which include extreme irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, fatigue and muscle and joint pain. The generic painkiller is not necessarily enough to subdue pain due to dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps. Different women might need different interventions. For example, some women might find that using menstrual cups (I highly recommend reading this very well-written and informative piece) eases the pain.
Dealing with all this every damn month seems quite tough. Most importantly, it’s the mental stress takes a heavy toll on a menstruating woman. Recent research shows that during menstrual phases, women are at 26% greater risk of suicide deaths, 17% greater risk of suicide attempts, and 20% greater risk of psychiatric admissions at menstruation. Also, during the premenstrual phase, women are at a 13% greater risk of psychiatric admissions. It has also been found that women with irregular cycles are less than half as likely to have a current anxiety disorder as those that report regular cycles.
Additionally, “women with shorter cycles (≤28 days) have one and one-half times to two times greater risk of current affective disorder, lifetime affective disorder, lifetime anxiety disorder, lifetime substance use or dependence disorder and lifetime drug abuse or dependence”. Older research at AIIMS, Delhi found that a much greater percentage of women were likelier to commit suicide during their menstrual phases than when they were not menstruating (25% vs 4.5%). Although the researchers themselves warn against drawing definitive conclusions from the data and advise further research, they acknowledge the “need to understand the impact within a larger psychological, social, and cultural frame”, since it’s difficult to ignore such a significant association. What we understand from all this is that some women (again, not all) might be prone to serious mental health problems during menstruation, and such women need support. A culture of silence and sexism prevents such women from speaking to others for the support that they desperately need.
Before anything else, we need to educate ourselves. We don’t need to have a PhD on the subject, but it’s possible to understand the basics. Numero uno on the to-do list is to stop mansplaining “women’s issues” to women, step down from the high horse of male chauvinism and acknowledge that we don’t and won’t ever have it in us to take a Bloody Mary, and therefore we are not in a position to judge menstruating women or dismiss their concerns.
Next, not only must we listen to women – reading what women write on the subject of menstruation is a great way of doing it, it’s active listening; that’s not to say that men can’t write well on the subject – we should also actively encourage women to speak or write about their experiences with menstruation. We must understand that periods are not a disease, nor meant to spread any. It’s just a regular, basic biological process like peeing or sleeping, just potentially more stressful than either. Once we start looking at it this way, there would be fewer incentives to crack jokes about it. “You got a sleep issue? See a doctor. You got a problem with your periods? Have you seen your ob-gyn?” It’s not that difficult. Also frame it in terms of equal and equitable treatment. Why should there be a sweeping ban on menstruating women from entering the Sabarimala if there is none on masturbating men? The latter should be more “impure” than the former, given how much emphasis some Hindu philosophies lay on “conserving” semen (for what it’s worth, there is no benefit to “conserving” semen, and masturbation might actually have some benefits). Menstrual leaves are not “unfair” (my personal opinion, just as an example) because some women might need leave when they are on their periods, just like everyone does when they are facing some temporary debilitation. Next, we must be vocal with our support. It could be something small, like trying to educate and sensitize male colleagues who like to crack ignorant and sexist jokes about menstruating women. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. You could be that one guy on your WhatsApp group who fact-checks memes about menstruation wherever necessary. Or you could try your hand at something bigger, like volunteering in a drive to educate people about menstruation and menstrual hygiene, especially those who are most vulnerable, and those who are in direct control of their fate, mostly men. It’s very important for us to let people know what we think, so we can be sought out for support when it’s needed. It’s also important to continue educating ourselves on the topic so we don’t become complacent or smug – we can never really know too much.
But at the end of the day, it is a women’s issue, isn’t it? Isn’t it okay if men just stop mocking women, both cis and trans, for menstruating, be more sensitive and let women be? Why do men need to intervene? Well, one big reason is that society is unfortunately still extremely patriarchal, and in most pockets, men exclusively control the resources. That tends to make women entirely dependent on men for everything. Their interests become secondary, or even irrelevant. What matters in such arrangements is what men want from women – and in most cases, it’s just food, babies and a shut mouth. Inability or refusal to provide any of the three elicits primaeval violence.
If you didn’t like that spoilt brat in seventh grade who thought the desk you shared with him belonged exclusively to him, you should abhor this kind of male sense of entitlement. Menstruation is one of the unique issues women have that they don’t share with men. Apart from a very small percentage of women – the resplendent tip of a humongous iceberg – women, half the population (in India, not really, but let’s just stretch our imagination), have almost no control over how they regulate their monthly bleeding, and on top of that they have to deal with all the stigma attached to what is a basic healthcare and hygiene issue. If educated men like us can do no better than jeer menstruating women for their cramps, what use is our education? Neither our ability to learn about something outside of our own experiential universe (no matter how much we quote Baldwin or Toni Morrison or Garcia Marquez), nor the violence of mocking people signal to others (or really, to ourselves, if we think about it) that we are educated; it merely shows that we have not checked our privilege.
I have vowed to make myself more visible with my support for the rights of those who menstruate. I want to contribute towards normalising dialogue around menstruation, and also towards making homes, schools, colleges, public places, houses of worship, public transport and workplaces friendlier for menstruating women, in whatever way I can. I also want to keep my eyes and ears open, so I am listening to women for something my male privilege wouldn’t otherwise allow me to realize about menstruation. So next time someone like my friend wants to open up to me, or men like me, about menstruation, they will know I am game to talk about it; that I am not a bag of Whisper anymore.