How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
A photo of a fully clothed woman lying in bed with a period stain on her clothes and sheets was removed twice by Instagram. Even though the photo does not include nudity, sexual acts or violence Instagram claimed the photo, taken by Canadian poet Rupi Kaur did not follow community guidelines. Instagram has since claimed it was removed accidentally and has issued an apology to Kaur who took the photo as part of a series she and her sister had created about menstruation. You can read Kaur’s powerful response and see more of her work at rupikaur.com.
Whether or not Instagram accidentally removed the photo, this incident does raise a bigger issue which is how uncomfortable many seem to still be about menstruation.
When I was in fifth grade, there was a commercial for OB tampons that would play constantly during "General Hospital." (Yes, I watched soap operas at age 10). Even though I was watching Frisco and Felicia doing it (mind you at the time I thought "doing it" was a guy lays in bed with a sheet up to his waist and girl lays in bed with a sheet up to her collarbone), I didn't know the purpose of a tampon.
Up until that point, my only experience with menstruation was screaming "At least I don't bleed in my pants" at my 14-year-old sister as we stood in a very crowded walkway of the Smithsonian. We were on a family vacation in DC and earlier in the trip I caught my mom washing my sister's period-stained jeans in the hotel bathroom sink. I just assumed she cut her butt or something and thus used this info to shame her in the middle of our nation's capital.
So back to that OB commercial. The ad had a super catchy tune and featured cute girls in fun black-and-white outfits dancing, so I, being the ham I was, would sing the OB song while dancing around the school yard at recess. "OB it's the way it should be! Keep it simple and set yourself free!" I thought to myself "what a lovely for advertisement for happiness" (if only you could buy a box of happiness at CVS).
Eventually a boy in my class told me the song I was singing was gross. He didn't give the greatest explanation except that my favorite show tune was about "disgusting secret stuff that happens down there." I immediately canceled all future OB song performances. The last thing I wanted to be as a 5th grade girl was disgusting to a boy.
A year later, when I got a more proper education about menstruation in health class I felt embarrassed about my musical numbers at recess and for the Smithsonian incident. (I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to my sister). I also felt dread that soon I would have to deal with ruining my jeans every month for the next 35+ years.
I also, in retrospect, felt angry that the boys and girls were separated when we learned about our periods. Maybe if the boys learned exactly what a period was and what it did, they wouldn’t be so terrified of it.
Two years later, when I did get my first period it wasn't as scary as I feared. My mom cried with joy and my grandma gave me $50 to congratulate me (and I was like "Oooh does this mean I'll get $50 every month?")
I was kind of bummed that having my period wasn't all about joyfully dancing in polka dots but also relieved that having my period didn't automatically equate to ruining my Z Cavariccis.
What followed my first period was years of sneaking off to the bathroom with a tampon slipped up my sleeve so that no one would know I was experiencing “disgusting secret stuff that happens down there.” I’d look around the room for potential spies before shamefully whispering “Do you have a pad?” to my girlfriends. I’d make sure my tampons were discretely buried in my dorm room closet so as not to make male visitors uncomfortable.
While I obviously can’t speak for all women, I assume many would agree that the relationship we have with our periods is complicated. It can feel like a blessing and a curse.
I hate it when arrives in the middle of me trapped on a 4-hour bus ride without a tampon. I hate when the days leading up to my period I’m bloated, cranky and if anyone even come within 5 inches of my breasts, I feel pain. I hate it when I just put in a new tampon and 20 minutes later I’ve already bled through the tampon, my underwear and onto my friend’s sofa.
I love when arrives in the midst of one of my (frequent and unwarranted) pregnancy scares. I am a paranoid person, so even when I’m on the pill, using condoms and having him pull out, I think I’m pregnant. (I’m getting older so my pregnancy scares are now turning into “Will I ever get pregnant?” scares, but that’s a whole other story). I love it when as soon as I get my period, I feel lighter and refreshed and like my body is purging out a month's worth of blood and feelings. I loved my period when, back in 2001 it finally returned after a six month hiatus caused by a stint of disordered eating. When I got healthy and my period returned, I never felt more grateful for cramps in my life. It took a while, but my love definitely surpasses my hate.
It makes me sad that periods aren’t more frequently and freely spoken about in a genuine way when it is such a significant thing in women’s lives. The portrayal of menstruation in pop culture is usually in the form of a schlubby sitcom husband who gets embarrassed when he has to go to the drugstore and buy tampons for his wife. Periods are used as a write-off for women’s moods “She’s being a real bitch, must be her time of the month” or as an insult certain men say to other men “Stop being such a pussy bro, what are you on your period?” As a comedian, I’ve been told not to talk about my period on stage because it’s “too female.”
Meanwhile if it weren’t for periods none of us would even be here right now. Based on that fact alone, menstruation deserves to be celebrated not shamed. I bet if men bled once a month, penis tampon companies would proudly sponsor race car drivers. That photo Kaur shared was one of the most realistic portrayals of menstruation I’ve seen in media, more of that please!
So if Beyonce is reading this, I implore her to write an empowering song about how wings on your maxi pad gives girls the wings to fly toward their dreams.
While the attitude that boy had toward periods in 5th grade is still the attitude some folks (aka people that reported that Instagram photo) still have as adults, I’m just glad my attitude changed. I walk to the bathroom with a tampon blatantly in my hand. As a comedian, I make period jokes on stage that make women and men laugh. And once in a while I even find myself singing that catchy OB song in public. Yes folks, EVERY MONTH FOR 3-4 DAYS I BLEED FROM MY VAGINA! There, I said it. It’s on the Internet, forever. God, that felt good.
I’d love to hear about your periods in the comments -- the moment you learned what it was, the moment you really hated it or learned to love it, times you also shamed your poor bleeding older sister.
And if you hated everything I wrote in this essay, just blame it on it being my “time of the month.”