Me: “Imagine that once a month you got a crushing pain in your penis, like someone had taken an axe to it. And then it started gushing blood for a week or ten days. And this happens every month, every year, for about thirty years of your life.
And you tie a little nappy round the end so that the blood doesn’t go everywhere, but that’s not very comfortable so you can also buy little packed-cotton rods that you can put up there, to soak it up at the source, as it were.
But they don’t ever work perfectly, and in any case they don’t work for very long, so you keep having to nip to the loo to change it for a fresh one. And you still have months where you leak and stain your underpants, your bedsheets, your pyjamas.
And imagine that every man you know has a story about leaking horribly and embarrassingly in public, and that a lot of these happened in high school, where all the boys were particularly insecure about it and all the girls jeered and cackled whenever it happened.
And now imagine that your experience is only an average kind of period, and that lots of men get crushing migraines once a month, or have to take days off work so they can lie in bed with this awful, crushing penis pain, knowing it was never going to stop.
And lots of men in other cultures have it even worse: excluded from eating with family, going into kitchens and temples, bathing, touching other people – all because of this horrible involuntary bloodbath they can’t, hello, actually control and is also, HELLO, the mechanism by which their families are made in the first place.
And I don’t think it’s very difficult to imagine how you would feel like an angry bear while this was happening, even if your stomach wasn’t like a distended balloon of rage and your hormones weren’t tossing around like a ship on a stormy sea, WHICH THEY ARE.
So. What would you think of THAT?”
Husband: [stops eating toast]
Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day, which aims to ‘create a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation in a hygienic way – wherever she is – in privacy, safety and with dignity’. You’d hope that this would be a given, but of course it isn’t: in many cultures, restrictive menstruation taboos still exist, and even in those without ritualised exclusions, social taboos still keep periods out of our conversation and media.
An indefinable but strong sense that menstruation was shameful is the reason that I would cough in the school loos to disguise the tell-tale thwwwip as I ripped the cover off my sanitary pads. It’s the reason I told the office I had a ‘headache’ when I bled out uncontrollably during German and soaked my pants and tights almost down to the knees. It’s why I only discuss my period with a few close, female friends, and refer to it in stupid codes with anyone else.
It’s the same in the wider public conversation. The most famous (and, today, still one of the only) depictions of menstruation onscreen involves a teenage girl turning her first period into a murderous bloodbath. Artist Rupi Kaur had an image from her photo series, Period – showing a woman lying in bed with a tiny blood stain on her pyjamas and sheets – taken down by Instagram twice, despite the fact that this has happened to basically everyone with a uterus, including their own female employees and COO. And it was only after an unedifying six-month scrap that Chancellor George Osbourne recognised tampons as a non-luxury item and took steps to remove the VAT ‘tampon tax’.
As though old George would ever crouch in a toilet and use a beefed-up cotton bud to stop himself bleeding all over Debenhams and call it a luxury activity.
Periods are gross. They are. But they’re also an unavoidable fact of life for half the world’s population. Making them feel more comfortable and normal for vulnerable teenage girls – especially the 54% of them who don’t feel they can discuss periods with anyone, or the one billion women and girls worldwide who don’t have access to a toilet at all – is something all of us can do.
So say something about your period today on social media, using the hashtag #menstruationmatters. Talk about it openly with the teenagers you know. Watch Water Aid’s excellent ‘period drama’ video (when Elizabeth asks Mr Darcy to buy her some tampons: reader, I lolled). Sign their petition asking for worldwide access to taps and toilets, and consider donating if you can.
And thwwippp off your sanitary pad cover with triumph and without shame, dear ladies. I hereby give you permission to thwwippp to your uterus’s content.