Most of you know I worked full time as a high school librarian for fifteen years. One of the first things I learned was to have an extra pad or tampon in my desk – and they’re not for me.
I can’t tell you how many times girls have come into my office asking if I have something they can use for “…you know.” And of course I do, no matter whether they’re a student I get along with or not, and in the moment when I hand that “something” over we’re not a student and a staff member anymore – we’re just two women.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed before, as a college student or in my early twenties, in bathrooms of bars or a club when a perfect stranger’s hand sticks into my stall door from under the divider and says, “Hey, sorry. But do you have… something?” And again at the changing of hands, she’s not a stranger even if I never see her face. We’re just two women.
So why even among women do we struggle to say the word “pad” or “tampon?” Why do we slide them inside our sleeve or crush them in our fists as we walk to the bathroom so that no one will know that we’re menstruating? The fact that we shed our uterine lining means that we’re able to continue the human race, grow the next generation inside our bodies. But we’ve been taught that it’s bad, scary, shameful, dirty, or even gross.
In Biblical times a menstruating woman was considered unclean, and as a culture we haven’t come terribly far. In March of 2015, poet and artist Rupi Kaur posted a photo on her Instagram account of herself, curled up in bed, having bled through her pants. The photo was promptly flagged by users as offensive, and quickly removed from Instagram for violating community standards. Anyone who is familiar with Instagram knows you don’t have to wander far or scroll long to find any variety of explicit photos. Yet a fully clothed woman with a spot of blood on her pants caused an uproar.
Menstruation is not always met with disgust, but sometimes simple ignorance is to blame. I remember being in grade school and hearing about an older girl that had to be sent home early because she got her period in choir. The story had made some rounds by the time it reached the fifth graders, so the way we heard it, the girl had covered a chair in blood, gone home and had her period seven more times. They didn’t know if she was going to make it.
That one can be chalked up to the innocence of childhood, but I’ve had some dumbfounding experiences with adult males that can’t be so easily excused. When my boyfriend of nine years and I combined households, he soon learned that his sheets were our sheets. And our sheets have bloodstains. On all accounts he is a wonderful, kind, lovely person, who nicely asked me if I could possibly “wear something to bed to stop that from happening.”
To which I explained. “Honey, I am. You should see what would happen if I didn’t.”
“Really?” he asked. “It’s like that?”
“Yeah, honey. It’s like that.”
This came from a man in his late thirties who grew up with three older sisters. Even in a household of women, menstruation remained a mystery.
A few years ago a well-meaning man advised me not to venture into my garden during my time of the month, because it would make the pickles wilt. I told him that might not be the best gardening advice I’d ever heard but it was certainly a wonderful metaphor.
In 1892 famed axe-killer Lizzie Borden murdered her father and step-mother, yet when questioned about a spot of blood on her hemline by the police, she informed them it was from a “flea bite,” a euphemism at the time for menstrual blood. The officers promptly dropped that line of questioning, too mortified to continue. Lizzie was exonerated for lack of evidence.
Today we call that “getting out of gym class.”
As a YA author I’m often asked if I find myself restrained by the parameters of writing for teens, in terms of censorship. If you’ve read anything I’ve written then you’re probably aware the answer is “not really,” and – as I keep telling everyone – if I haven’t shocked you yet, just wait for the next one.
However, in an earlier draft of my debut NOT A DROP TO DRINK there was a mention of how my main character, Lynn, and her mother, handled menstruation in the post-apocalypse. Early readers asked me if that was really necessary as some might find it offensive. Being a new writer who only wanted to please, I chose to remove it. Looking back, I question how a book that opens with a nine year old shooting someone in the head in defense of her water source crossed the line by mentioning menstruation.
So where do we go from here? If red tents, axe-murders and wilted pickles litter the past what can we do in the present? Start by saying “pad” or “tampon” out loud, not asking for “something” because “you know.” Don’t be afraid to say menstruation, it’s not a dirty word. Don’t be ashamed to go into the store just to get a box of pads or tampons, because guys make that trip for condoms without thinking twice. Talk to your daughters openly about it, and – talk to your sons, too, so that their girlfriend doesn’t look at them like they’re stupid when they’re almost forty.