Thank you to everyone who came to the Red Tent this week…it felt very special to be talking about the thing that we never talk about. Our periods.
We told our menstrual stories; when we started, how we felt about starting our journey into womanhood and how the start of our menses changed how some people saw us. We spoke about the ups and downs of periods, and now, for some of us, the losing of them.
Yet, what was most interesting was the absence. First of all, this was by far the smallest Red Tent so far and this was the only one which I had announced as having a ‘theme’; a theme which arose from animated discussion last month. So was it just that November feeling and other commitments which prevented people from coming out, or was it the thought of talking about our hormones which put people off?
Because the second, most interesting absence, was the fact that for so many years, we women had not spoken about our periods in the way we did last night; with pride and to a group who understood.
I was late starting my periods, one of last in my peer group. I remember the excited chatter on the school field as we talked about who had started and what we were ‘using’. I also remember the dread that a deep red stain would soak through our lurid, turquoise, nylon, oh-so-cool-for – three- months- at-some-point-in-the-70s tunic and shame us. I remember boys (who shall remain nameless, but are remembered) who fired our tampons across the room like rockets or who laughed at those of us who wore a ‘brick’.
I had breasts, and body hair and the most painful boils, but no periods and so it was I entered into the world of white coats and strange fingers inserted into my virginity, alone in a room while my mum smoked outside because she didn’t like hospitals. After some years, and skin so painful and ugly that I missed all the parties and ‘getting off with’ people as I couldn’t bear to be seen, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries (PCOS) and told I would probably never have children. I was put on the pill well before I was having sex and I stayed on there, apart from pregnancies, until I was in my early 40s.
While I was on the pill, I had no relationship with my periods. I was grateful for clear skin and a new social life. I didn’t much like the sick feeling of getting used to the artificial hormones. But this was it. I was a grown up woman and this is what they did; went on the pill. I can’t tell you what effect the pill had on my moods or my sex drive as I had no time without the pill to compare to.
I wasn’t alone. Being on the pill was like a dampening down, a negation of something which is entirely natural. Many of us were on the pill for no other reason than because we could be or should be, ‘just in case’.
It was only when newly single in my 40s that I put my foot down and came off the pill against the doctor’s advice. I came off the pill and discovered I was having periods, of my own, regularly, for the first time in my life. I could even tell when I was ovulating. I went to the doctors who tested my blood and agreed, that indeed, I did seem to be ovulating naturally. And so I continue to do.
I can’t tell you how exciting it was to find out that my body works! To know that I do ovulate and have periods and can understand my moods and energy levels as they change through my cycle. I felt connected to my body in a new way. Yes I had birthed 2 children by then, but both were conceived using fertility drugs, so it wasn’t until I had my own periods, without the withdrawal bleed of the pill, that I really tuned inwards.
I had no idea of how to work with this cycle within me. I went to a herbalist who explained that my lack of periods aged in my teenage years might have been because of stress rather than PCOS, which fits in with what was happening at home at that time and my re-occurring cystitis (which again, was only diagnosed as triggered by stress many years later). The herbalist also explained how to work with my periods rather than against them; to rest in the week before, and to avoid social occasions. She explained why it was that just before my period was due I became hyper sensitive to noise and touch. She also explained why I was much more social in the middle of the month and why my creativity bloomed just after my period. No one had taught me this before.
And, last night, it turned out, I was not alone. We had, to a greater or lesser extent been told about the practicalities of blood, but not about the emotional implications and about what they meant for how to live our lives. No one had talked to us about what it means to be a woman.
There was anger that these cycles had been suppressed in so many of us through the pill, but also in a wall of silent disapproval. The social expectation that we women should behave as men do, that we should not show any symptoms caused by our periods but plough on through, drugging out the pain or tiredness or tears.
There was also anger at tax paid on sanitary products as if they were ‘luxuries’, and that for some women, in our ‘civilized’ society, sanitary products are indeed a luxury that they can ill afford. Periods are political.
I work with young women who are starting their periods and in some ways things have improved. They talk to each other more about their periods and are more aware of PMT. But in so many ways, nothing has changed. They still feel ashamed of having to go and change their sanitary products and they still hate having to tell the teachers (who still seem gauche and unaware). The boys still tease them and they still have no idea about how to work with the cycles of their emotion and their energy rather than pushing through it as if they were male
We older women have a lot of work to do. We need to educate ourselves and in turn the young women we meet. Red School is educating us all about periods and the Red Tent movement is doing it’s bit too. There were some amazing books mentioned last night too. (see below) and I will certainly be taking the time to educate myself some more, for the time I still have with my periods, but for the younger women I meet and work with.
And as to men. I came home to partner who asked how the night had been. He’s heard my ‘periods are political’ rant before and is in agreement that women should be able to talk about them without shame. However, when I suggest, again, that society needs to shift to a more female friendly way of operating, he finds it hard to stop his eyes from rolling, but he does try.
We have a long way to go and it is down to women to educate and influence men and younger women and the only way we can do that is by talking about periods, by sharing our experiences and honouring our own rhythms and cycles.
It starts with us.