Right at the onset let me post a disclaimer — this is about periods…menstruation…menses…chums… call it what you will. So, if a perfectly natural biological function makes you squeamish, you may want to skip this article. Next, I would like to welcome both men and women to air their views and opinions freely.
I, like most other women, had the most normal reaction to my first period…I thought I was dying. Ahem…yes yes, go on, snigger. I thought I had cancer and my uninformed brain suggested that the blood I noticed on my bed-sheet, the first thing in the morning, meant I was terminally ill and my time on this precious earth was limited.
I was all prepared to be heroic and tell my mother with a calm face that she shouldn’t cry. Yes. Quite the heroine.
Alas, my mother only reacted with a laugh. I probably looked aghast despite all my inner heroic turmoil. “It’s perfectly natural,” I was told. Ummm…maybe the information that one fine day I was suddenly going to wake up in a blood-soaked bed could have been given earlier?? No, mum?
I hit puberty earlier than most peers. The advantage was that in the next couple of years, when friends were hit on the head with the ‘bloody’ mess, I could behave like a wise old hen and look on with the been-there-done-that face.
But, while my mother, and sisters and father, were really cool about it, what surprised me was the fact that I was sworn to secrecy about it. Come on, I started bleeding from an orifice I didn’t even know existed, I was uncomfortable and cramping, had a strange thing strapped between my legs (aka sanitary napkin) which rubbed uncomfortably each time I walked and I couldn’t even tell my friends why I don’t want to climb up that mulberry tree?? Not fair. And, of course, while some discussions with girls could be understood, any chat with boys was completely and irrevocably off-bounds.
The secrecy continued well into middle school, when we were ushered off for special “period” classes. I found the whole thing confusing and more than a little funny. The precocious boys, of course, knew, albeit patchily, that it had something to do with “that time of the month.”
The embarrassed secrecy, of both teachers and students alike, meant that there was something totally “off” about the whole deal. And us poor girls, thrust into the perils of ‘womanhood’ without our permission, faced some teasing about the whole affair. That is until a guy one day decided to break the secrecy code and asked, point blank, what it was all about. Embarrassment, blushing female faces, etc apart, the discussion did take place.
We beat our education system to it. Think about it. They teach you about menstruation and hormones in Class 9 or 10, by which time half the class (the girls) has already been going through it for at least three years if not more and the other half has probably already inculcated the myths associated with it, and have begun to believe it is wrong and unclean/impure?
Periods are a strange thing. No, really! When my friends started going through it I heard strange stories, of how the first time was celebrated (yes, celebrated, with a party and the whole deal) and also of how they were not allowed to do certain things, such as, enter the kitchen. Many were told to sit quietly during “that time” and not play. Others asked me if I go to the temple when I am down because they have been forbidden from places of worship during that time.
I am ever so grateful that my parents were so simply cool about it (yes, despite my planned histrionics!). It was just another day. There was no celebration nor any ostracisation. No warning against physical activity (in fact, if I remember right, one day when I whined far too much about feeling unwell my mum just scolded me into going to play. And, yes, I felt much better after that). But the secrecy was still there, not because it was impure or wrong, but because my parents felt our society was not ready to talk about periods openly.
It was only as I grew up my belief that we need to stop treating periods like they don’t exist was strengthened. A headache always gets us sympathetic tut-tuts, offers of help and advice to take it easy. So, why is it that when women are bleeding, cramping and generally feeling like crazed, emotional wrecks, they are still expected to act cheerful?
It was, ironically, a man who got me thinking about it. On a particularly bad “first” day, cranky as hell and cramping up to top it all, I slouched in a corner to ease my discomfort just a bit when this friend asked, simply, “Are you down?” No embarrassment. Not a snigger. Not even excessive, disabling pity. Just, simply, “Are you down?” The affirmative answer let loose surprisingly sympathetic offers of help. Since then, I’ve noticed that the men in my life (besides those in my family) have consistently proven to be surprisingly understanding of the predicament of “those days.”
They are uninhibited in their concern and unencumbered with discomfort.
It is simple. Maybe the process of involving men and women in each other’s problems needs to start earlier. Way earlier. Like, in Class VI! We may find that women feel more comfortable about themselves and their bodies. We may also find that men are more respectful and understanding. The veils, which are regularly torn through half-baked information received from more than one source, perpetuate more myths than truths and it is time we do away with this silly ‘secret’.