Menstruation. The word itself is of a bittersweet association. It is a word that by its very structure, is clearly a process. It is a word that is pronounced exactly as it is spelled, a very simple men-stru-a-tion. The word holds so much value beyond its uncomplicated definition. It is a beautiful biological and natural process beginning at pubescence, an aspect of reproduction, a defining element of womanhood. Yet, the word holds much more value and a wide range of connotations and stigmatization that is far stretched beyond its roots in anatomy.
My first time coming into contact with the word menstruation was at some point in 4th grade. As I effortless flew through Judy Blume books, which I so proudly read having been a reading level above the rest of my class, I was enamored by the idea of delving into this author’s stories. Knowing that much of the stories centered around the lives of fictional girls whom I could relate to was exciting. But little did I know that I would be exposed to a topic of great societal, sexual, and biological worth at a time when all I was focused on was properly grasping the main idea of the book I was engrossed in.
Blume introduced me indirectly to menstruation in a way that felt comforting, consoling, and confusing all at once. I was unsure how to feel about what I was reading because I was unable to understand menstruation as a personal experience by distancing myself from the fictional main character. But at the same time, something about that initial exposure was satisfying enough, a small taste into an element of my womanhood, in a form that I preferred over all others.
“Mom, there is blood on my underwear!”
My first experiences of menstruation and my acute awareness of it was not in my own body but in living at home with a sister two years older than me. I remember seeing her one day pick up her blanket and sheets and put them in the bathtub, and I knew immediately what it was from. My mother and sister were very discrete about the whole situation, being very closed off and secretive about it, unknowing that I already had acquired some sort of knowledge on the topic. It was clear that they intended to keep it hidden from me. That was the first time I realized that this period thing was not something to be immensely proud of.
When I first got my period, it was ironically a few weeks after finishing the Judy Blume book and I was not as frightened as I expected to be. I had an “aha” moment in the bathroom as I sat on the toilet seat, looking down at my underwear, and seeing it lined with a deep crimson stain. I was proud of myself! Almost felt intelligent, for knowing what was happening to my body without consulting my mother at all. But of course, the next step in this pubescent, pinnacle moment was to confide in my mother and let her know that, “Mom, there is blood on my underwear!”
My mother was shocked when I first told her, I could see it in her eyes and overall expression, but she heavily attempted to mask it. She showed me where the pads were in the house, and all of a sudden it all made sense what those green little squares were for. She proceeded to tell me how to use it and then in one very simple sentence she said, “Maa, this is called a period.”
And that was that.
After the first time I got my period, I remember going to the library and obsessively reading a book I found about puberty and the changes that occur in the bodies of girls and boys as they step into it. I viewed all the images and read each and every word, absorbing all that I felt I needed to know about myself and what was happening to me.
As I started having my period regularly, I learned very shortly that this was something that I had to keep secret. I was to experience it, cramps and all, on my own and never bring it up especially around boys or men. It was strange to me to think that in a house of three women, that we were to tiptoe around something that all of us were experiencing regularly. My father was absolutely not to hear about it or know through any implication, such as the fact that I could not pray or fast while menstruating. But what always felt odd and sort of funny to me was the fact that my mother definitely told my father that my sister and I had gotten our first period. So why then, was it necessary to keep it a secret and treat menstruation as some sinful, shameful aspect of ourselves, when everyone at home knew about it?
A lot of my frustration with my period comes not from the painful cramps or physical discomfort but from the fact that it is treated, especially in my culture and cultural society, as a shameful process that women go through. It is constraining and oppressing to feel that I must always consciously hide something of myself that I always felt was powerful and profound. I understood that [religiously] I was not allowed to pray when on my period but I viewed that as God’s grace on women (and still do), rather than some type of punishment or sinful way of viewing it.
It was strange to me to think that in a house of three women, that we were to tiptoe around something that all of us were experiencing regularly.
I see my younger brother at home now growing up and about to hit puberty and I realize that he probably does not know or understand what menstruation is despite having two older sisters, simply because he was sheltered at home and kept from ever knowing what the women at home were experiencing every single month. This is absolutely unacceptable and not alright.
Menstruation is empowering and stands as a solid symbol of womanhood, yet it is depicted in my cultural society, and perhaps the overall society, as something that is tainting and shameful. I was brought up to feel embarrassed at any conversation about sexuality and reproduction, and periods were solely for a short conversation in the presence of only women.
How is it that menstruation is a defining aspect of reproduction, yet it is considered a women’s only topic? Why is it that women will experience the pains of cramps, the uncomfortable feeling, the rushes of blood flowing to the vagina, the paranoia that stains have formed on our pants, but men are shielded from ever even hearing about it?
It is unacceptable to be breeding our young men and women in a world and society in which an aspect of sexuality and reproduction is made to feel sinful. It is unfathomable that something so beautiful and vital is construed such that it has become a topic to keep on the hush-hush. It is necessary to put an end to this type of thinking and connoting of menstruation because it only works to perpetuate the shaming of womanhood and the dominance of a patriarchal mindset.