I magic-spelled my period right there in the movie theatre.
Periods to me were indeed a riddle (but not Tom Riddle), whispered among school girls, limited to theories, and wrapped up in myths.
Having grown up in an Indian household, in the Middle East, in a time when the internet was still in its infancy, my knowledge about the famous “aunt flow,” I would say, was non-existent.
Menstruation and Indian Culture
We never talked about menstruation at home. I saw my mom grace through each day with ease, expertly balancing both a career and a household. Today my 30-something-year-old self, struggling with significant premenstrual symptoms (aka PMS), questions myself daily how this is possible for anyone other than a superhuman. It begs to question though, how much menstruators have had to adapt to a household where such discussions were considered forbidden, hidden, and/or inconsequential. Was my mom secretly crying due to hormones and cramps and I had no idea?
Turning to my education, since I lived in a Middle Eastern country, the majority of our sex education and reproductive education was blacked out in most of our textbooks. So where did a young future menstruator seek information about her menstrual cycle pre-Google?
Often it was in the schoolyard during lunch break. Girls would welcome and whisper about first period stories and who was the latest to join their ranks of the ‘first-period train’. It was a mystery to me that I was excited and nervous about. Reaching menarche (a fancy word for your first period) was often displayed in pride since it symbolized growing up. And I was still waiting for its arrival, often feeling left out from the “big girl” groups.
For a girl who had never really learned about periods, and was shunned from what seemed like a prestigious girl gang, my feelings about it were pretty mixed. I recall checking my underwear several times a day hoping that today would be the day.
When did your first period call?
At a family screening of Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone as I unknowingly snacked on a rather large amount of chips and ketchup at the movie theatre. When my family and I walked through the parking lot my mom looked at my pants with a bizarre look on her face. “What is it?”, I asked while looking down. This was when I noticed as per usual, that I had spilled food onto my lap. This time, it was ketchup.
To me, this was a norm since I was (and still am) a highly clumsy eater who ends up with a lot in my lap that was intended for my mouth. However, mom was adamant, “No, what is that?” with a questioning finger aimed at my pants. This required a 90-degree turn of my thigh to inspect unfamiliar parts in an open parking lot. And there it was. A huge stain of blood, not ketchup. I finally (with a sigh of relief) had the appearance of the first of many period stains on my beige pair of pants.
Pride beamed from inside of me. I remember smiling. It was like I looked into the magic mirror in Harry Potter and my period, the thing I desired most, appeared. And as we headed home, my mom rushed me into the bathroom, to have my first of very few discussions on periods. She unwrapped a pad and showed me where it went on my underwear. And all this while I assumed we attached it to our bodies with some tape or thread.
My mother went on to explain how often the pad required changing and how to dispose of it. And that ended our discussion on the menstrual cycle. At that moment I realized a lot of things about being a menstruating girl with Indian parents.
Smashing the taboo around periods
My periods were only confined to whispers and the backs of closed doors, riddled with period taboos. We never spent a lot of money on period products, because they were discarded at the end of their use. My understanding of period products for the next decade was limited to pads. Thankfully I now know that there are a lot more options that are also helping me have a more sustainable period.
Today as I reflect on this period of uncertainty, it feels as though the gaps in my understanding of what was going to happen added to the apprehension, fear, and excitement I was facing. Talks of changes in mood, period cramps, irregularities, heavy bleeding never existed. For almost 15 years this was what I understood of periods. Ironically, today, being an advocate for menstruators around the globe, I still scarcely talk about my periods and their struggles (which are often many). Probably because it is a part of me that helps me feel close to my mom. Because to me, menstruation meant emulating my mother, who braved through these storms without a single complaint.
But for the young 13-year-old girl that knew near nothing about periods, I feel we need a drastic change in our view on periods. Your period is something working on a biological clock, and we often as young people have equated it as part of social status. We have no control over when we get our first period, no young menstruator should feel incomplete or left out because they haven't had their period call yet.
Young menstruators need to know what menstruation is before it arrives. They need to understand changes that occur not only physically, but mentally from start to finish of a menstrual cycle. It is vital to be exposed to several types of sustainable period products. The choice has to remain with the menstruator and their preferences.
Confining menstruation to closed doors and just the circles of menstruators are limiting. While menstruation is liberating, it can also be crippling. And I am glad that at least today, I know that these two sides of the coin exist and a period is a normal, healthy part of my body’s abilities.
Dr. Michelle Frank is a collaborator with YourPeriodCalled, alongside many other great initiatives around female health.
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