Period Shame - why we have to stop the stigma
It’s that time of the month. As someone who once was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries and got told she may never have children, having a reminder that my body seems to be doing its thing is something I silently celebrate every month. Yes, I find bleeding a bit of an inconvenience, but for me, it’s also a stark reminder that, until after I had my first child, my periods were either absent or a bit hit and miss. As I mentioned in an earlier article, I am fully aware that I am very lucky when it comes to my menstruating: mood swings - yes; physical ailments - no. I feel for each and everyone who has to shove a hot water bottle down their pants, swallows paracetamol or is in so much pain they can’t get out of bed.
I know people who menstruate are more likely to openly talk about their struggles, but as always, that doesn’t necessarily help everyone understand what it is like and normalise it. There is still a certain taboo around bleeding and advertisements from Always & Co telling us how to stay fresh, whilst the model is smiling, skipping out the front door and goes about her day as if she has no care in the world are highly misleading to anyone who doesn’t have a period.
Having a period is not glamorous but it is also not something we should ever be ashamed of, no part of it. So even now, whilst I am writing these words, I know that I am part of the problem.
About a month ago I went running and suddenly noticed that - hurrah - something was moving down there and, as per usual, I was unprepared. My Secret Whispers CupIT menstrual cup was waiting at home, and I was far away from it, so all I could do was keep on running. Paranoia kicked in as quickly and instantly as my period had, and I spent the rest of my run worrying and fretting whether people may be able to see the blood, if someone would take pictures of me and post them on the internet for the world to see: "Bleeding woman running".
And then I remembered an article from a while ago. The story of a woman running the London Marathon and bleeding “freely”. No tampons, no sanitary pads, no menstrual cup. I recall seeing a picture, her running leggings showing a dark stain in her crotch. She ran in front of thousands and her story was documented on national and international news. And there I was worrying if someone bothered me on my lonesome run.
When I got home there was blood, enough to be visible if you knew it, but not enough to provoke a new internet sensation. But then I got a bit cross. Why was it that, if I showed period blood, I’d get ridiculed, but if I bled from any other part of my body, I’d get sympathy? I wanted to know more about that marathon runner.
It doesn’t take me long to find the woman in question. A quick search on Google and the photo I remember alongside various articles, one from Cosmopolitan, one from The Independent, and the original blog post. The lady in question is Kiran Gandhi, a drummer, producer and activist, who previously toured with M.I.A. Apart from thinking how beautiful she is, I also remark that her smile in those photos from the London Marathon is more intriguing to me than the dark stain from her period blood.
I read the Cosmo article first. Kiran describes her period and says she is usually in a lot of pain for which she takes medication. Her period started the day before she ran the marathon and she was worried whether she could actually run - not much information is out there on this, unlike for men on how to stop their nipples chafing. In the Cosmo article, Kiran is asked why she chose red running leggings instead of black ones - the latter being more subtle and could have hidden the blood. Kiran remarks that she had chosen her outfit to fit a cancer charity she was running for and also felt it would have meant bad luck to change it. I understand the question being asked but it also makes me uncomfortable. Why is what we wear always up for debate and scrutiny? Is it suitable, is it demure, is it appropriate, is it slutty, is it too short, too long, too wide, too tight, too bright, too this, too that? Who is the judge on what is fine and what is not? I love Kiran’s answer and I am glad she wore the red leggings, too.
Turning to Kiran’s personal account, she mentions that her final decision to run the marathon and bleed freely was down to the fact that “if there’s one person society can’t eff with, it’s a marathon runner”. Kiran recounts how her thoughts circled those very important issues and I am surprised (or maybe not) to see that they pretty much match my own ideas. She muses “how women and men have been socialised to pretend periods don’t exist. Through period-shaming, society prevents us from bonding over an experience that 50 per cent of the world's population share monthly.” I am starting to become annoyed by the fact that, if you see a marathon runner’s nipples bleeding, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but Kiran received a few disgusted and snide comments on her 26.2 miles run. Once again, we rely on that strange notion that, if we can’t see it, it either doesn’t exist or it can’t be that bad, and then are outraged if someone dares to show us the unseen.
“By making it difficult to speak about, we don’t have language to express period pain in the workplace”, Kiran says. “Such differences between women and men should be accepted, but they're not. Because it's all kept quiet, women are made to think that they shouldn't complain or talk about their own bodily functions, since no-one can see it happening. And if you can’t see it, it’s probably “not a big deal.” Why is this an important issue? Because "this" is happening, right now, everywhere.”
Our periods exist, they are real, and they are natural. Similarly with breastfeeding, our bodies and their natural functions are being subjected to scrutiny and how we should or shouldn’t cover up, hide, prevent, adjust, reshape and reform ourselves into what someone once decided was acceptable. Are we really still there? Is there really still that much stigma? Are we doing enough?
Reading Kiran’s story has evoked pride, courage and strength in me. That lioness, that cheetah I have inside me that doesn’t care and wants to stand up for what is right is very much alive and raring to go. I take Kiran’s account and her words with me: “I think about feminism, body-positivity, and having the ovaries to practice what you preach.”
Like Kiran, I feel empowered. But I also realise just how much more work we have to do.
Please note that, in this article, I am writing about my own experiences and those of my society and culture. I have not conducted enough research yet to include all other societies and cultures.
Sources for this article can be found here:
You can follow Kiran Gandhi on Instagram @madamegandhi
Carola is a writer, content and copywriter and published author. You can find her on Instagram @chameleoninhighheels, Facebook @chameleoninhighheels and on www.chameleoninhighheels.com.