For people who menstruate, the idea of leaking through their clothes whilst on their period is enough to make their eyes twitch. Shakespearean levels of tragedy will of course ensue if the spectacle of period blood emerges through our clothes. But joking aside, period shame is a very real thing. The stigma around periods is debilitating, but why is the sight of period blood and the discussion around periods still so taboo?
The thought of strangers seeing our period blood makes us nervous
A few weeks ago, whilst travelling home on the tube, I was stopped by a woman who told me that I had bled through my skirt. Embarrassment flushed across my cheeks, I was wearing a long cream skirt. I couldn't see the stain, but imagined it was something akin to having sat in a big bucket of red paint. But then I thought - so what?
Four tube changes later, and I had been stopped by five people - one woman had essentially accosted me in her efforts to convey the disastrous news. “Thank you, I know”. I turned away, but she grabbed my shoulder again. “You should tie your coat around your skirt” she said, whilst wildly gesticulating with her hands.
The fear of leaking through usually prompts women to avoid wearing items of clothing - a dress? Maybe my period product will fall out onto the floor. Gym leggings? People will see the outline of my pad. White trousers? Don’t even think about it.
Period shaming stops us from doing so many things
But this fear, combined with the general discomfort and embarrassment some feel when on their period, can also stop women from performing simple activities. Going to the gym, sitting down on a chair, going to the beach - all are given more consideration when menstruating, and sometimes this leads to completely ruling it out. A 2018 survey found over half of women feel ashamed of their periods, whilst 29% have cancelled plans to avoid explaining that they are on their period.
Why? Well it seems menstrual blood disgusts and offends in a way no other blood seems to. Women have internalised this, meaning we go out of our way to ensure no one has to suffer the indignity of seeing an actual period.
Women's fertility is prized, sex is ubiqutous, and the pregnant woman is applauded - and yet the part in between all of that, the process that signals a woman is not pregnant, that part is stigmatised. Generational shame is heaped onto us; periods are seen as women not fulfilling their biological function, not being as feminine as they should be, not working properly. It’s the red that dilutes the purity of a woman, and we’ve internalised that this red is to be concealed.
This of course is just one element of period shame; we spoke to Rachel Grocott from Bloody Good Period, and asked her who she thought was to blame:“It's the patriarchy, this is about the control of women and their biological functions, and I think it's a part of a society that says that the needs of women and people who menstruate do not matter - and periods are something to be hidden away.”
Period shame - internalised from a young age
My first memory of periods was sitting on the floor in front of the bathroom. Sat on the loo with her underwear around her ankles, my Mother did her best to explain what the red gloop in them was to her young daughter. She screwed up her face and said “they’re not very nice”. The damage was done, my first interaction with a period informed me that they were repulsive.
Of course we absorb these messages from family, friends and teachers, but they are only the product of a society which has always demonised periods. As Rachel Grocott points out: “For generations we have been subjected to these massive advertisement campaigns, with huge budgets, by the manufacturers of period products - for items that are discreet, that will cover up odour, that are rustle free so that someone can't hear you changing your product in the toilet.
“Those are signals that this is not stuff to be talked about, this is to be hidden away.”
If we’re taught from a young age to stay quiet about our periods, to hide things away, to not mention the pain, to not express our emotions, then we grow up believing that this extends to all areas of our lives. Our ability to say no, to speak up for ourselves, to love our bodies, to explain that something doesn't quite feel right - these are all negatively impacted by the information we absorb as children. And so small things, like the way we even say the word period, if we change that, we can change a lot.
Period stigma - why period seems to be the hardest word
Time of the month. Aunt Flo. Having the painters in. On the rag. On the blob. Monthly friend. There are communists in the funhouse (Danish). Mad cow disease (Finnish). We humans have come up with a million creative ways to avoid using the word ‘period’ - in actual fact, an international study in 2016 found over 5000 slang terms. Period euphemisms can be humorous, but it's disappointing to look through a list of puns likening periods to illness, hysteria, insanity and filth, and to see that periods are thought of as disgusting, annoying, and to be avoided.
Period shaming has consequences that spread far beyond feeling embarrassed about leaking through our clothes, but to normalise periods we need to get comfortable with the idea that a small blotch of red is nothing to fear. If it happens, it happens. As Michelle Obama said - it is what it is. And we need to eschew the euphemisms we use because we’re too embarrassed to use the word period. Out with the mad cow disease, in with period. Period.
The night my period leaked through my skirt, I got home and looked at myself in the mirror. The stain was small - less having sat in a bucket of paint, more having sat on a tomato. I did feel momentarily embarrassed, but choosing not to cover up was my small feminist act, a finger up to the patriarchy, and to a society that pressures women to feel shame about this natural bodily function. Try it yourself. Go with the flow.