A couple weeks ago I was buying menstruation supplies at a popular big-box store when the probably-stoned youthful checkout dude got to the package of pads on the rolling conveyor belt, and gave a heavy sigh, his hand hovering just above the box apprehensively.
He stood stock still for a moment. “Excuse me?” I said, because, like, what else do you say? In 25 years of buying lots and lots of specially-designed menstrual-blood-absorbing products I have never in my life had a checkout person do anything but numbly ring up those purchases with the same bland disinterest as they would any other item.
Probably-stoned checkout dude proceeded to literally shake his fist at the package of Always and intone somberly, “My nemesis!”
Wait, is this happening? Are we actually going to talk about periods? I thought. Okay, I guess. Maybe his objection is environmental. “You dislike that women bleed on disposable plastic? I mean, it is wasteful, and Diva Cups are a thing, but some of us have really heavy periods or other reasons for not being down with that and there’s kinda no other feasible option.”
“....uuurrrgggh…” He face had frozen. He still hadn’t picked up the box.
“Are you troubled by the often shame-centered marketing of menstrual products? The suggestion that women are somehow less ‘clean’ during their periods? It’s harmful and unnecessary I agree, but trust me, you want people who have periods to have access to this stuff anyway. A world of free-bleeders would have a lot of slippery floors.”
“....huunnnhhh….” He was staring at me now, eyes wide with terror.
“Or are you just grossed out by periods, in general? Periods are a fairly normal aspect of having a uterus for many people. This is not to say they’re pleasant, especially when they’re clotty or painful, but it’s a fact of life for a huge number of individuals and it seems pointless to be scared of it. Like, not any more than you’d be scared of toilet paper, which will ultimately be covered in actual human feces.”
“....IIIIIIIII….” Eye contact broken, apparently now motivated just to get me away from him as quickly as possible, he lifted the box to scan it.
“I mean, it’s not like they’re used.”
His whole body went rigid. “WHY WOULD SOMEONE DO THAT, IN THE STORE?”
“Oh, you know sometimes like a liter will come out in a huge firehose spray and you just have to stuff something in there right away to catch it.”
“THAT CAN HAPPEN?”
“No, I’m fucking with you.”
I’m summing up, but this is more or less how the conversation went down. As tempting as it was give him an actual lecture about the impropriety of making any value-laden comment on anything a person ever buys -- aside from something truly innocuous like, “what a cute sweater!” -- let alone something as culturally loaded as menstrual pads, I didn’t pursue it. We both laughed and moved on.
I went to Twitter, as you do, to tell everyone about this. And a bunch of people favorited my humorous tweets (#periodpower!), and I felt briefly validated. But then I asked myself, Why did I need to go tell Twitter about this? Why am I telling you, right now? The honest answer is that I thought it was funny, that the young man in question was just a kid and maybe didn’t know better than to find any reminder that Periods Exist distasteful, even if his going the extra mile and vocally expressing his disgust was probably a bit over the line. For the most part, I tend to think of menstrual ick as a quaint relic of the past, and rank it alongside other toilet-related activities that are not especially pleasant to talk about openly, but which are natural and normal and above all, not shameful in the least.
As recently as 1910, a short essay in The Lancet inquired, “Are women during their menses centres of mysterious infection, as such, should they be allowed to handle food designed for human consumption?” In a historical overview -- which it should be noted is extremely of its era in language -- it finds:
The Bible is explicit on the subject of menstruation… The menstruous woman was held to be unclean for seven days, at the end of which she sacrificed turtle-doves as a sin and burnt offering. Coitus at such a period was a very grave offence. In ancient Persia the persons guilty of it were devoted to the fires of Hell until the Day of Judgment. The Zend-Avesta is full of regulations tending to isolate “unclean" women, and metrorrhagia is condemned as a crime to be visited with 100 strokes of the lash…
Metrorrhagia, which I had to look up, simply means any spotting that happens not during one’s period -- for example, many women experience brief midcycle spotting when they ovulate, or women with other hormonal or reproductive issues might spot sporadically with no warning. So evidently women who bled midcycle, for whatever reason, even if it was out of their control, were actually criminals.
Heathen antiquity in Greece and Rome was full of superstition with regard to the menses, and we need only quote PLINY who believed that a menstruous woman walking through the fields before sunrise kills noxious insects, while after the sun is up she exerts a withering effect on green corn and young vines. Her presence rusts razors, dulls mirrors, and causes abortion. The Middle Ages improved on all this. The menstrual fluid was held to generate vipers and vampires, and, conversely, it possessed medicinal qualities.
Generate vipers and vampires. Kill noxious insects. People straight-up believed that periods gave women SUPERPOWERS. They also believed that bleeding ladies should not do any housework, more or less; various folk beliefs held that fruit and vegetables canned by a mestruating woman will spoil; meat she butchers will rot; bread she makes will fail to rise; milk she handles will curdle; and even her hair will refuse to curl. (One wonders how much women really fought these assumptions; given the massive amount of work in tending a house before modern technology, it might have been worth encouraging these beliefs to get a week off once a month.) And these beliefs weren’t all negative, either; in some traditions, menstrual blood added to a drink would serve as a love potion or as a medicinal tonic.
Personally, the only menstrual-related superpower I’ve ever experienced is the fact that I become even more of an extreme klutz during PMS -- and this is actually a real thing that happens to lots of women. If you’ve ever felt like PMS makes you ten thousand times more likely to drop anything you pick up or fall down for no apparent reason, the reason might be hormonal, although the exact mechanism is a mystery.
Given that the menstrual taboo has existed for thousands of years -- and still exists, as many cultures employ so-called “menstrual huts” to sequester bleeding women even today -- I probably shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction of the checkout dude. He’s just a product of a long-lived culture that says menstruation is gross, powerful and terrifying. And I may not be able to parthenogenetically generate vipers during that time of the month, but I can certainly say something.
I expect he won’t be commenting on anyone else’s period purchases again for a long while.
Author Note: Oh hey I just now realized this was a topic over the weekend as well. I guess we're synchronized?