What is period shaming?

When somebody implies that someone’s being irrational because they’re on their period or acts grossed out about it, that’s definitely period shaming — or, making people feel like their periods are something they need to hide

 Suzannah Weiss

I remember getting my first lesson on what a period is from watching the 1991 coming of age film, My Girl. Vada’s dad’s girlfriend has to explain what’s going on with her. (Vada’s mom passed away in the film).

The day they finally taught us about it at school? It was very awkward. It didn’t help when I realized that there were many euphemisms for the word. Aunt Flo, Lady Days, that time of the month, mother nature. etc

I reached the conclusion that (despite all logic and science) the menstrual cycle was something that was rather unfortunate and that it was a curse of some sort. Something I needed to fear. A Muslim classmate of mine informed me that being on your period automatically excludes one from certain practices and duties and in Leviticus there is something about women being unclean (Leviticus 15). As an 11 year old not very keen on making a follow up on the matter I remained with the belief that periods are embarrassing.

My friend heard me say “I don’t want to get my period” and she thought I was joking. I was dead serious. I would even pray that the cup would pass from me. (pun very much intended, email me if you don’t get it)

Wednesday the 16th of July 2014

I was horrified by the discovery I made in the bathroom. “How am I going to tell my family?” I thought. I was behaving like a fugitive when all that had really happened was: I had gotten my first period. What did I feel in that moment? Ashamed, cursed. Very awkwardly I told my sister and she helped me out. Consequently, she was the one to tell my mom because I was way too scared to confess that I had blighted the family name. (It was that deep for me guys)

What happened next?

I already had these backward ideas about periods and guess what? Some of the girls I learnt with went on to consolidate them. I went to the loo and there was the sound of crinkling paper… and people put two and two together. One girl confronted me about it as if I had just landed from outer space. Another came to me and said “I heard you got your period” and she said it with such contempt you’d think I’d sold my soul to the devil, seeing the hostility I denied vehemently.

There was no rest, bafowethu

The odds were never going to be my favour the following term. Swimming season had started. If I didn’t swim, the secret society of period shamers would know something was up with me. (To this day I only use pads) So this is what I’d do. I’d pack my sports bag and intentionally leave the swimming costume at home or in class. I would proceed to the changing rooms, remove my shoes and open the bag and find “Oh no I forgot my swimming costume” and I’d frantically search for it knowing it wasn’t there and then I would put my shoes back on and sit on the bench while others swam.

One time when I was packing my bag to leave the school building they grabbed it and rummaged through it to look for any “evidence”. That day all I had in my toiletry bag was a comb and tissue paper.

After that little “victory” I found myself Googling “How to open and unwrap pads discreetly”. I was in prison. When Highschool started I got a little bit of an allowance: there was more than one bathroom facility. I had three options located in different parts of the school. That lessened the chances of me bumping into someone I knew. Among the things that scared me at the time, “buying sanitary pads alone” was at the top there right next to centipedes and scorpions.

via GIPHY

How did we get here?

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The collective shame and hate of menstruation that women share has emerged partly out of a long-running history of considering femaleness inferior to maleness. Many cultures considered female sexuality not only as being dangerous but as causing women to be frail, irrational, and illogical. By the time humanity reached the Victorian era, Western women had long accepted femaleness as a curse to be borne but not celebrated.

Lisa Graham McMinn

Culture and traditions and all that jazz brought us here.

if we read all of Leviticus 15, we find equal attention given to men’s reproductive discharges, with equal contamination and equal requirements for purification. God’s not out to get women; he’s seeking to communicate something about cleanness and uncleanness among all people. 

Rachel Jones

The above quotation just tells me that if we’re going “by the book” men should be receiving as much smoke as women who are menstruating but look around, that is not the case. (and I am not saying that it should be either) I did a lot of research into period shaming and there is no universal reason as to why they are a taboo. There many of theories here: misogyny and ignorance feature prominently.

The following story jumped at me:

Get this, there was a doctor by the name Bela Schick and at one point in his medical career he tried to prove the existence of menotoxins. That women, by virtue of menstruation, emit toxins in their sweat. He concluded that flowers wilted faster if they were handled by menstruating nurses. Firstly, he got the menstruating nurse to handle the flowers haphazardly, and then the other nurse was instructed to gently place flowers in water. The former flowers wilted, obviously… but not because the hypothesis was true. All other variables were not kept constant. Guess what? People believed that menotoxins were an actual thing for a while.

That is one explanation for what shaped the narrative around menstruation in the West, but what about here in Africa? I asked a female relative and she stuttered and failed to come up with a reason. Maybe she was just taught to be afraid and she is passing the baton on to the next generation.

How do we get out of this mess?

It begins with you. Firstly, do not make girls/women feel like they need to hide the fact that they bleed every 28-35 days. I am not saying shout it from the rooftops but I am saying accept it as a fact. (Eg if you are asking around for painkillers to ease your menstrual cramps don’t feel like you need to lie and say “headache”)

It is “not like a palm tree bearing fruit at the end of its leaf“, i.e., it is nothing out of the ordinary. Secondly, don’t attribute every minor inconvenience to PMS or “that time of the month”. It is not cool. Euphemisms?

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Lastly, I found this article, A 5 minute theology of periods, quite helpful if you are trying to wrap your head around the stringent instructions in Leviticus 15 and their relevance today.