Why are we ashamed of a little blood?

Menstruation is monthly vaginal bleeding, as part of a woman’s normal reproductive cycle. For a physiologic body function over which women and girls have no control, there is an awful amount of shame and stigma that they have been socialized to experience and internalize regarding periods.

My earliest memories of periods are tinged with a hint of secrecy – a gaggle of 10yr-ish old girls, whispering furtively during night prep. The question though is, why were we talking in whispers and being secretive? I was at that time attending an all-girls school; everyone in the class was a girl who had either started menstruating, or would eventually start menstruating. Yet, in that class, there were 2 groups – girls who had gotten their periods, and had whispered conversations in small groups, about pads, periods and maybe boys; and the girls who had not.

Credit: Niraj Gera, Source

Another vivid set of memories is about being ‘stained’. Those heart-stopping moments when you got up from your seat to answer a question or walk out of class, and someone sidled up to you and whispered ‘you’re stained’, and a quick offer of a sweater or shawl to tie around your waist and hide the inconvenience which somehow seemed to be this awful awful signboard displaying something that wasn’t supposed to be shameful, but somehow was.

We would eventually grow out of talking about periods in whispers amongst ourselves. Did we though? Or did we only learn to speak in euphemisms and get better at hiding our discomfort – talking about ‘Aunty Flo’ or ‘my grandma’ who comes to visit once a month – we are still mortified when a man walks in on such conversations, and we will certainly never initiate a conversation on this topic, say in the workplace. What we definitely did not outgrow is the anxiety of having periods – the standing up surreptitiously from your seat at work, in the class, in a bus, in a restaurant, with a slight twist and a quick glance to check that all is well, and you’re not ‘stained’. Or better still, telling your girlfriend to help you check when you get up, and the latter hopefully giving you the all clear with a sign – or not. Whenever I travel or move to an unfamiliar place, one of my foremost anxieties is whether I am expecting a period while I am away, and how I would dispose of used sanitary products.

It is having to go out while you’re menstruating, but looking for nooks and crannies of your bag to hide extra sanitary pads, where if ‘someone’ were to carry your bag, they would not stumble upon this ‘contraband’ item – make it drug dealer, but for sanitary towels. It is walking into a supermarket, needing only sanitary towels, but buying a few other things to hide the fact that you’re buying sanitary towels; it is never being able to ask a male friend, colleague, and even spouse to buy them for you. It is the wide-eyed look of utter horror on some guys’ faces when you suggest that they can actually walk into a shop a buy pads for a girl. It is the drama on Naija Twitter last week, about whether it is reasonable for a guy to be expected to have sanitary towels in his house so that if his girlfriend comes to spend the night and is surprised by her period, she would have something to use – apparently, this idea that seems like a common sense courtesy should only be reserved for a woman one is married to, and even then, the man should not be expected to actually pay for the products. you know, like with his own money – *gasp*

There is personal shame, and there is societal shame and discrimination. Many cultures and religions from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo attach some form of stigma or the other to menstruation. Women are discriminated in terms of access to amenities and exclusion from communal activities, on account of periods. In some cultures, menstruating women are not allowed to cook food or even sleep in the same house with the family for the duration of the period. We should ask why – these taboos are not rooted in rationality, and add nothing to the society. Menstrual blood is neither unclean, nor does it make one dirty. It certainly does not ‘defile’ a home or a community.

Society period-shaming expresses itself in the casual sexism with which a colleague in the workplace can snidely attribute your bad mood to ‘that time of the month’, even when he has no way of knowing that for a fact; it is men, in this age and century, still believing that women are unfit to hold certain positions because they can’t be counted upon to always and at all times, act rationally (you know, what if it is that time of the month, and we need her to make a crucial decision??). Guys, it’s menstruation, not the the full moon. We don’t sprout fangs and develop bloodthirst. But for this reason, girls drop out of school, can’t access proper healthcare and can’t even advocate for their health needs. And women still have to ‘defend’ the presence or severity of their menstrual pain.

The conditioning is both overt and covert; it is present both in developing an advanced countries. Four years ago, I walked into a supermarket in England to buy sanitary towels. I saw my usual brand, but I saw another brand that was giving away a metal case, along with their pads – a time limited offer to get a beautiful case with which to ‘hide’ your sanitary towel when you need to go out. I bought that brand, because I felt that this was an amazing ‘innovation’! I could now hide my towels in plain sight. In making this offer, this brand was (unwittingly, I hope) reinforcing the notion that sanitary pads – even unused ones – are a thing of shame, and they were here to help us manage that shame a little better, with this pretty, brightly-colored metal case. Needless to say, I bought into it, wholesale. It would take me some years to decouple myself from that manner of thinking.

So, how can we address this issue that is clearly detrimental to the health, education, development and mental well-being of women and girls around the world? Well, we can start by normalizing menstruation – it is a normal body function, like breathing. One which women have no control over, but have to experience every month for an average of forty years. Let us have frank, open conversations about menstruation.

After all, na bleed we bleed, we no kill person.

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