3,500 days. Almost ten years. The average amount of time a woman (or menstruating person) spends on their period. Ten years of irreparable, stained underwear,feeling irrationally afraid of Toxic Shock Syndrome and sudden emotional turmoil at seeing an old man carefully eating McDonald’s twisty fries at a table by himself. The saccharinely happy, white trousered, period ad woman quickly proved to be a myth once you had finally gotten your ‘friends’, as my mam would call it
I remember wondering with friends as a teen, why advertising companies thought there was any need to romanticise a week of bleeding, cramps and sometimes irrational feelings of despair? A con! It was all a con. As someone who went to an all girls school, periods were discussed freely and sometimes graphically among the students. In second year, a timid male Religion teacher doled out a sanitary towel sponsored ‘period pamphlet’, and backed out of the room. All this book told us was stuff most of us already knew.
I asked a few different women how their relationship with their period has changed over time, where they learned about periods, how debilitating they are, and if they also sometimes feel like they aren’t 100% in control of their own mind when the curse is upon them.
‘Three to Six Tablespoons of Blood’
The way we glean information about periods varies from person to person. Sometimes it is very hushed and not really spoken about, a book left on a teenage bed by a shy mother. Other times it’s asking your dad straight out if tampons are for nosebleeds.
Sharon: “I had a book called ‘Everywoman’ I think? A lot of us had these kind of girl books, (again pre-internet, remember). TV would have had very little on it. We would have been really into teenage magazines as well which had, in my opinion, a disproportionate amount of column inches dedicated to toxic shock syndrome. I was pretty sure if I ever used a tampon I would die.”
Roisin: I‘d been given some very earnest and well-intentioned books which mentioned widening hips and ‘three to six tablespoons of blood’ or somesuch, which I found terrifying. They also featured pictures of pads with belts attached, which I have yet to see in real life, ever.”
Jessica: “I had seen my mam use pads and she told me they were for her period, so I’d heard the word before but didn’t know it meant you bled every month for the rest of your life basically.”
‘Becoming A Woman’
‘Menarche’, the word for your first period, comes from the Greek words for beginning and month. Some people get their first period as early as nine years old, and it can also come as late as 17 or 18 – depending on your own body. I asked the women if they could remember what the circumstances around their first period were.
Jessica: “I went to the bathroom, saw blood and panicked. I ran down to my mam and told her and she told my Italian Aunty who told everybody else and they all freaked out and started congratulating me on becoming a woman. SO WEIRD! But it got weirder; my Nonna (Italian grandmother) then went and baked me a cake to celebrate.”
Sharon: “My mam couldn’t contain herself, so (she) announced to the whole room when I came downstairs that I had ‘become a woman’. I remember my dad in the car going, ‘You alright?’ and I said yes and we never spoke of it again.”
‘I Feel Like PMS Makes Me Incompatible With Life.’
Periods are a horror show, and PMS can truly mess with your head both physically and mentally. It can wreak havoc on your life by rendering you listless and bedridden like a Victorian consumptive, or filled with an inexplicable white hot rage over some minor incident that you would not give a second thought to under normal circumstances. Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder or PDD is the most extreme form of PMS – which as well as causing the usual symptoms like bloating and cramps, can also trigger feelings of hopelessness, sadness and extreme anger.
Rachel: “I used to wake up in the middle of the night rolling around the bed trying to make it go away. I would wake up my mother so she would make me feel better and sometimes I would go downstairs at 4 in the morning to watch TV until the Panadol kicked in. After a couple of years of it, I learned to take Panadol before I went to bed. I feel so bad for my mother because when I was younger, I used to snap at her even when she was just trying to help. I don’t do that anymore now but when I do get mood swings, I feel like a crazy person.”
Roisin: “It distorts reality to a frightening degree. I get strange whims, I buy shit, I get extremely angry, I make strange decisions. At times I think it’s great, especially when you sit through Fury Road while PMS-ing and weep at the beauty of the thing. But I also feel like PMS makes me incompatible with life.”
Clare: “It used to be a lot worse before the pill. I would be doubled over in pain every time and it was extremely irregular which threw everything off balance for me along with my appetite and energy levels and moods. I can be a demon at times because I’m so tired from it.”
‘Have A Happy Period? Fuck You.’
When it comes to how advertising portrays periods, you would be forgiven for thinking that women bleed a blue gel like liquid while wearing white bikinis, laughing in meadows with their other jolly lady pals. There have been a few good forays into realism regarding ads, particularly by Kotex but there is still little to be said about the accuracy of most offerings. Where is the woman sneezing suddenly, then slowly realising the implications for her brand new underwear? Where is the woman tearing up at a DogsTrust ad as she deals with cramp induced nausea?
Roisin: “I fucking hate period advertising. It’s cynical, manipulative (as you’d expect–they’re literally marketing to hormonal women!), faux-’empowering’, body-shaming, patronising and it’s an overpriced racket which should be cheaper and/or free because it’s a necessity.”
Jessica: “I don’t know anyone who goes around in mini skirts dancing down the road when they have their period. More like curled up on the sofa with a box of chocolates in the baggiest tracksuit I own!”
Sharon: “Its changing now I absolutely died at the Full Moon party ad, that was great, but the last two decades has been awful. Have a happy period? Fuck you. The whole idea that having your period unannounced is in some way embarrassing is so wrong.”
Clare: “I think they should show some blood as that always seems to be a taboo.”
Do You Have Any ‘Lady Items’?
There has historically been a culture of shame and silence around periods. In the media, they have often been portrayed as something to be whispered about in a mortified fashion. Someone standing gingerly in the ‘feminine care aisle’ waiting for the cute boy at the checkout to go on his break so they can buy their tampons in ninja-esque fashion. This weird patriarchy-induced shame at a perfectly natural bodily function has decreased in recent years, but for some, the stigma remains.
Sharon: “I would talk about periods with anybody. I am of the school of ‘how is this my fault’, with other such topics as bowel movements and smears. I work with young adults and there are so many stigmas attached to so many things that we have no control over and theres no better remedy than stories.”
Rachel: “In college, my friend asked me if I had any “lady items” on me. I had a pad in my bag and I was trying to be subtle passing it to her because it was in a full enough corridor. She just grabbed it and said something like “I’m so open about that I don’t care who sees it”. There were lads around. I thought it was hilarious. That little situation taught me a lot I think.”
Sharon: “We got tampon lessons where we had to ‘John Wayne it’ by standing with one foot on the loo and leaning slightly. Which would have been fine only for well, wine, and also the cheerleaders outside the jacks door.”
Rachel: “A cousin called and said “Will you go to the shop and get me Tampax Pearl and meet me at mine”. I was like ugh, really? When I got to the shop there was a guy about my age (I was 17) working behind the till. I bought a bag of sweets as well to make it less embarrassing.. like that would help.”
‘To Taste It Drives Dogs Mad’
Periods have for centuries been regarded as disgusting, and yet some of these early descriptions convey an odd sense of fear from the author (usually a man). This combination of horror and reverence results in some fascinating reading. Pliny the Elder was a writer in Ancient Rome who warned of the toxicity of menstrual blood: ‘.Contact turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
You have a long relationship with your period. Longer than many romantic relationships or friendships. It’s not always simple though. Your period can be flaky. It should come once a month, but sometimes it visits you twice, or disappears without warning for weeks and weeks. It’s bloody and exhausting, and at the same time there’s a strange power in it. Just ask any teenage girl who wanted to get out of P.E.
Ellen Tannam is a Dublin based writer who enjoys reading about witches, petting dogs, and talking about how more tv characters should be gay. She has contributed to Headstuff and currently writes for Her.ie.