Monday, September 20, 2010

Menarche, Menstruation, Menopause

I have five years left of bleeding. My mother had menopause at 52, when she had a stroke. Pretty handy to do both at once. My oldest sister at 50, and my next sister said at 50 that she hadn't bled for a year, so she was done. I'm expecting menopause to be great, and I'm looking forward to it. So I have four or five years left, and I'm going to talk about periods.

For thirty odd years I've been having periods and never mentioned them. I wonder at women who answer 'I've got my period' when I ask 'how are you? because I've always considered periods to be a private matter, but now, with a few years left, it is my chance to talk about it. I've been discreet for thirty odd years. I've managed my periods with discretion, pretending to all onlookers that nothing is going on. No-one outside my household would ever know if I was shedding the lining of my unfertilised womb or not. Not any more.

I've talked to my kids about them. They know where babies come from, and what periods are. When we saw an ad on tv for new pads that have flowers on them my eight year old said 'What's the point of that when they'll just get blood on them?' So proud. We've come a long way since girls were told they had rocks in their stomach, or when girls were told nothing and thought that bleeding meant they were dying. I'm glad. I was raised in a household of six females and three males, and all the females were discreet. We kept a brown paper bag of supplies under our beds, and discreetly carried what we needed to the bathroom, and disposed of the waste in the incinerator. I'm old enough to have used belted pads, pinned onto knickers. Yes I am. There were certainly no advertisements for sanitary products on television, and when they started, I was highly embarrassed. Highly. If we had a day home from school due to period pain my mother would say to my father we had 'women's troubles'. Enough said. My mother was told she wasn't to wash her hair when she had her period, or go swimming, because she would get brain damage. Way to keep women in their place.

I recently read 'My Little Red Book', edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. It is a collection of stories about women and girls' first periods. What struck me was how excited the mothers were about their daughters starting their periods. And how the daughters met their mother's excitement. Some girls seem to have started at camp, away from their mothers, then pretended that their second was their first in order to please their mothers. What's that about? And the girls were all happy to start. They wanted to start. They didn't want to be the last amongst their friends. Some pretended they had started when they hadn't. Why the hurry? And most of them had read 'Are you There God? It's Me Margaret', which was published in 1970. I haven't read it. Surely there must be other books since that came out. Anyway, I'm happy for my kids to read 'My Little Red Book' when the time comes.

Part of the money raised from the book sales go to help organisations that support women's health and education. One of them is in Kenya, The Health and Water Foundation. They provide toilets, sanitary supplies and female teachers to help keep girls in school who otherwise would stay home when they have their period. A cause I had never heard of before, never thought of, and one that is worth supporting.

I know that girls start their periods earlier these days. Some of my daughters' friends, the larger ones, have breast buds. My girls are slight and small and likely to start later rather then sooner. I'm glad.

I wouldn't wish periods on anyone. Having periods is not fun. It is natural, sure, and a sign of good health, but it is a pain. Literally, and a pain to manage. I won't be cheering when my kids start. I'll be telling them, on one hand, to do whatever they would normally do, but on the other hand, if you feel you need to rest, this is your time to rest. Personally, I never schedule to host a party when my period is due. I know I don't feel like doing extra work and coping with extra stress, so I schedule around my period.

Menstruation is a feminist issue. It is something that women are dealing with all through their reproductive lives. Pain, mood swings, how it affects relationships and workplace performance. Some say PMT is the way women make a stand on all the issues they've been putting up with. It clears the air. It is all real, and in order to be taken seriously in the workplace, we feel we need to pretend it doesn't happen. We try to medicalise it away. Or we pretend it doesn't matter. But it does.

With my four or five years left, I'm going sustainable. When I was at university I used to use sea sponges instead of tampons. I'd rinse them in a solution of diluted tea tree oil and apple cider vinegar. I'm going to do that again. And I'm going to get a moon cup. No more landfill for me.

There has been a movement recently to bring menstruation into the open. Menstruation is now a site of feminist activism. While I'm not quite up to using menstrual blood in art works, these quotes from an article in The Guardian last year are interesting:

'It seems that menstrual activism (otherwise known as radical menstruation, menstrual anarchy, or menarchy) is having a moment. The term is used to describe a whole range of actions, not all considered political by the person involved: simple efforts to speak openly about periods, radical affronts to negative attitudes and campaigns for more environmentally friendly sanitary products. (It is estimated that a woman will dispose of 11,400 tampons in her lifetime – an ecological disaster.)...

Next spring, Chris Bobel, associate professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, publishes New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. Most menstrual activists, says Bobel, "begin by thinking, wait a minute! Do we have to regard our period as something dirty? Do we have to greet a girl's first period with silence? And then they get interested in challenging that.

So, the kids will be starting while I will be stopping. It will be interesting. I'll celebrate with them when they start. And support them however I can. But I won't be excited. It doesn't mean they are women; they'll still be kids. I'll be excited when I stop.

So here are some resources about menstruation. I'm glad I have more information to give to my kids than my mum could give to her children.

Cups and cloth pads

About advertising for sanitary products not allowed to say 'vagina' or down there'.

A story about Kotex mocking their own riding-a-horse/frolicking-on-the-beach/doing-yoga-in-white-pants advertisements.

A documentary film - looks good - I'd like to see it with the kids

About menstruation - a good student project - and I think it includes part of the film I was shown in high school

The Museum of Menstruation and Women's heath - interesting - wow!

video of the period fairy

How do you feel about your period?
What have you told your kids about it?


Melissa said...

Thanks for links...we used a book called The Care and Keeping of You to discuss getting your period a few years ago. Strangely, the only time I have gotten embarrased talking about these issues was when we were covering the page on underarm hair...what is that about ??!! ( and whilst on the topic, I truly thought I was the only woman who could no longer see properly when shaving those underarms!)

Lots to talk about on this topic but I have to go and eat breakfast before the builders arrive :)

Jenny said...

Great topic to talk about. I have no qualms talking about it simply because I get terrible period pain and I can't pretend I'm fine. I fainted in the street when I was 14 with period pain - how terribly mortifying. Also fainted at school in Year 12 in the Year 12 common room. Threw up once in a council garbage bin with pain when I was at uni. Exciting hey?!

I think women should talk about it because frankly I'm sick of losing a day a month feeling pretty terrible, yet, as per usual, having to just keep on going. And it just getting played down as nothing much. Am still convinced that if men had to go through it, there would be a day of paid leave a month allowed for period pain!

Earth Mother Earth's Child said...

Hi Motherhugger
Interesting article - I enjoyed reading it.
Have you seen The Moon Inside You DVD ? I've been working with it, as part of the Menstrual Health Workshops I run, which make for some open / candid conversations, let me tell you !!
Re: 'sanitary' goods etc being sent overseas. Think of the word 'sanitary'.....when we go into a supermarket or shop and we're looking for pads or tampons, we're usually about to come into bleeding or we are bleeding. So, we look up for the sign that tells us which aisle they're in. What 'sanitary' or 'hygiene' tell us is this : "I'm coming into or I'm IN my un-sanitary phase". OR "I'm coming into or am IN my un-hygienic stage". Not good. At all. Let's call them what they ARE, i.e. menstrual products. Nice and simple.
Also, as good as the idea is sending these products overseas, do we know the quality of the products ? Did you know that the standard supermarket or store bought pads and tampons still contain a host of nasties which CAUSE infertility, endometriosis, cysts, heavy bleeding, cramping. Whilst it sounds admirable that we're sending product to enable these women to go to work - what is the true cost ? Yes, they can earn money NOW. What about the short-medium-long term implications.
Let me know what you think. Martina/.