What I wish I’d known about periods

I had a basic intro to periods, very much the nuts and bolts and much less about the experience of it all.  There are so many things we don’t really discuss and really should do so that girls don’t go through their teens and twenties wondering if this or that is normal.  And we really need to get over euphemisms…  And boys and men really need to learn about periods…

When you are on your period you may…

  • have clots. Clots that look a lot like something has been living inside you and died. Clots that look a lot like images anti-abortion people use to argue against early pregnancy abortion. These clots are normal.  They are made of blood and tissue.  Everything I’ve read suggests you only need to be concerned if they are larger than a 10p piece.
  • find that the colour of the blood changes.
  • think that everyone can smell that you’re on your period, but really they can’t.
  • have diarrhoea. The body releases prostaglandins which cause your uterus to cramp and your digestive system is very close and can cramp by association.
  • use products other than just tampons and towels.  See period pants and menstrual cups as well as other reusable options.  You can use whatever works for you.  If you go with tampons or cups, you may need to practice.
  • have period pains that affect more than just your uterus.  You may get headaches, back pain, sore breasts, leg ache…
  • feel bloating
  • leak on your underwear, clothes, pjs and bedding.  A great way to get blood out of fabric is to soak it in cold water with salt.
  • get blood on your hands. You probably will.  It washes off.  It’s cool.
  • get the wings on your sanitary towel stuck to each other and have to fight with them to get them apart.
  • want to use a period tracking app – technically not what i wish i’d known as smartphones weren’t around but use technology to help you!
  • if you need period products when you’re in public, you can ask a stranger in the bathroom.
  • a bit of an aside but your discharge changes throughout the month and you can use this to tell if you’re ovulating.

What do you wish you’d known earlier in your menstruating life?

A short history of period products

Today we are lucky to have a choice of period products, including disposable and reusable options.  Traditionally, however, people who menstruate haven’t been so lucky…

Back in ancient Egypt, papyrus was used and in ancient Japan paper was used.  The Native Americans made a version of sanitary towels using buffalo skin and moss, which, comparatively, sounds heavenly!

That said, as an aside, it’s not always clear what is true.  Take the case of Tampax telling website readers that in ancient Greece, wool was wrapped around wood and used as a tampon.  As appealing as the myth seems to be, it’s likely just that.  Although it could be a misunderstanding of an ancient Greek treatment for vaginal issues, it could be an attempt by tampon companies at naturalising their product, especially given we’ll see the concerns around virginity later… Another problem is that most of history is written by men… And upper class men at that…

“Part of the reason that there is little extant evidence is located in the dual nature of sanitary protection.  This subject is both taboo and mundane, leading to an apparent lack of contemporary early modern sources.  Menstruation is a commonplace experience for women the world over, yet it is often considered a subject to be left unspoken.”
 – Sara Read

Evidence that Read has found, suggests that in the 17th century, some women were using ‘clouts’ or ‘rags’, folded cloths used to absorb blood.  However, this wasn’t across all classes.  She has found other evidence that suggests only higher ranking women would wear sanitary protection.  Sponges may have been used, possibly just by prostitutes.  Her paper, linked below, is a very interesting read about attitudes and beliefs around menstruation in early modern England as well as practices.

Whilst DIY methods were certainly used, and especially in more recent history we know rags or homemade pads were used, for much of history, it’s likely that free bleeding was the main ‘choice’, especially amongst the poorer strata of society.

In the second half of the 19th century, a variety of patents were filed in the US for various period paraphernalia – and as an aside, much of what I’ve been able to find is based on period products in the US.  These included horrific sounding early takes on a menstrual cup – generally made of metal or hard rubber, rubber pants and period aprons…

“The menstrual apron and pad holder in front are cloth-covered rubber. The wearer pinned absorbent cloth, such as bird’s-eye diaper cloth, onto the inner side of the holder. Of course, the woman wore the whole contraption “backwards,” under her dress, and over her buttocks, to keep the menstrual blood away from her clothing.”
– Museum of Menstruation

You can see an advert for one of these over at MUM.

Whilst all the options pre-20th century sound awful, they were also being used at a time when people had fewer periods.  Between a later age of menarche, more pregnancies and time spent breastfeeding and poor nutrition, menstruation was often suppressed during an adult’s life.

A lot changed at the back end of the 19th century when disposable sanitary towels went on sale.  By the 1890s, middle class women were ordering mass produced sanitary napkins, or buying the fabric to make their own at home.  Disposable options were particularly revolutionary.  Before this, women were trying to deal with bloody cloths and handwashing but now, they could simply be thrown away – funny how things go full circle!

In 1899, a female German doctor wrote the following in a book aimed at middle class women:

“It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.”

This suggests that this was a very common practice, and also adding weight to the move towards contraptions to deal with bleeding.  This also came at a time when, in America at least, menstrual blood was considered dangerous and so reusable rags were thought to harbour germs and gases which could contaminate the user.  Advertising claimed that doctors supported disposable options as healthier.  For anyone starting their period at this time, commercial options seemed to be the ideal, a basic necessity.

A common method of protection in the 1900s included linen belts with napkins pinned to them and by the 1920s, the belts were sued with disposable napkins.  During the first world war, nurses had noticed the cellulose that was used for bandages absorbed blood better than cotton.  They realised the potential and began using it for their periods.  Kotex saw the market opportunity and manufactured these new, highly absorbent, disposable napkins.

The 1930s saw the arrival of tampons for married women but were not for unmarried women as it was thought they would break the very precious hymen.  It was 1929 that Dr Haas created the tampon, likely based on earlier prototypes, and it was also likely that being a male doctor gave him some kudos.  A businesswoman marketed them under the name Tampax in 1936 and whilst it was adopted by some, others thought because it was worn internally it was little more than a dildo.  In reality, tampons offered freedom from belts, pins, pads and chafing and allowed for physical activity.  Dancers and swimmers in particular welcomed them.

Around this time, Leona Chalmers patented the menstrual cup, but it didn’t take off.

Concerns around tampons were addressed in the 1940s. Dr Robert Latou Dickinson gave tampons a boost when he said that they are narrow enough not to break the hymen and hence are not a threat to virginity.  He also said that any sexual stimulation from the tampon was momentary and nothing compared to how the sanitary pad rubbed against the body.

Despite the expectation that women should work through their periods during World War Two, the 50s found women encouraged to be quiet and restful instead.  It was at this time that PMS was labelled.

In the 1960s, washable cloth pads came back into fashion and with the hippie movement, the menstrual cup was relaunched but again it didn’t take off.  In 1969, the self adhesive pad came out and allowed you to get rid of the belts and pins.

By the 90s, sanitary towels had grown wings and although bulkier than the pads today, they were very recognisable.  Despite many people using tampons, fears over the hymen remained.  A Tampax advert in Seventeen, showed a concerned girl asking if she’d still be a virgin if she used a tampon.

In the 2000s  and 2010s, menstrual cups finally took off and period pants hit the market and reusable and environmentally friendly products have grown in popularity.

Links

PMS and why it’s bad for us

In the last couple of weeks I have read two books which have covered PMS and the way it is used to control women.  I hadn’t really thought about it before and I think it’s something we need to be more aware of.

First, I am not talking about PMDD – premenstrual dysphoric disorder – which is a debilitating depression.  Instead I am talking about PMS – premenstrual syndrome – which is a label often used by society to limit or belittle women and our emotions.  PMS tends to refer more to the milder symptoms of bloating, fatigue and anger that most women experience.

Secondly, this isn’t really about the changing ideas around what a period is and how symptoms might be managed although I would like to do a post around that at some stage.

Another aside, when I am talking about women, I am referring to anyone who menstruates.  I am aware that not all people who menstruate are women and not all women menstruate however my hands cannot cope with typing that all out each time cos chronic pain fun… As much of this is about how other people view PMS, much of the research and reading is centred on women as it is generally perceived that women make up the majority of people who menstruate.  This is mostly around perception of menstruation than the actual person who may or may not be bleeding.

I’m going to start with a clearer definition of PMS as it’s something that gets thrown around A LOT.

“Though there is no blood test to confirm the presence of PMS, the diagnosis is calculated clinically just like depression or bipolar disorder.”
– Altman

The upshot is that you cannot just say you have PMS.  You need to have specific symptoms at specific points in your cycle and it has to be a regular thing.  The pre in premenstrual syndrome is important.  The times in the cycle that you’d be experiencing symptoms are a couple of weeks before you start to bleed through till a couple of days after your period begins.  It is important to note here that that gives a wide berth.  Half a woman’s year could be covered by PMS.

Society also affects our understanding or even existence of symptoms around periods.  For example, the ancient greeks didn’t note any mood changes with periods but did not physical changes such as breast tenderness.  Statistics around PMS also vary from culture to culture.  A World Health Organisation study from 1981 highlights this, reporting that only 23% of women in Indonesia described themselves as having premenstrual mood changes whereas for the former Yugoslavia it was 73%.  The study concluded that “socially mediated expectations and beliefs determine the incidence of premenstrual syndrome.”

In fact, according to Michael Stolberg (from Altman’s book) the idea of menstruation and what is happening affects our experiences of PMS:

“Like any disease, people give meaning to the symptoms, and those meanings can be personal, they can be cultural, and they change with time.”
– Stolberg

This means that the symptoms themselves can vary from culture to culture as well:

“World Health Organization surveys indicate that menstrual cycle-related complaints (except cramps) are most likely to be reported by women who live in Western Europe, Australia, and North America. Data collected from women in Hong Kong and mainland China indicate that the most commonly reported premenstrual symptoms are fatigue, water retention, pain, and increased sensitivity to cold. American women do not report cold sensitivity and Chinese women rarely report negative affect.”
– Joan Chrisler and Paula Caplan

Altman goes on to discuss periods in the 16th century which were understood to be the body getting rid of toxins and the associated symptoms such as cramps were due to the fact that the toxins were particularly nasty.  Headaches might arise because of excess blood being collected from the body.

Jumping forward a few centuries, we arise at premenstrual tension – PMT – was described in 1931 by Robert Frank and linked symptoms such as irritability, bloating, pain, depression, nervousness, restlessness and the “impulse for foolish and ill considered actions” with the ovaries.  It was this same decade that Karen Horney said that the mood swings that came with periods were primarily a problem for childless working women and came about because they were suppressing their natural desire for a child.

The idea of periods and how they impaired women has also changed over time, often to reflect the changing ways in which women were oppressed.  Menstruation was used to argue against women learning, becoming doctors and whether we should be able to vote or not.  Essentially, periods are the go to anytime you want to subjugate women.

Then, in the second world war, things changed.  Suddenly women were needed in the work place and so the entire rhetoric around periods flipped.

“Women suddenly looked up to Rosie the Riveter with her biceps flexed.  They were told that they were strong, agile and dexterous – their periods and premenstrual pains couldn’t stop them from doing anything.  Even informational videos were made to teach women that premenstrual suffering was nothing more than folkloric balderdash.”
– Altman

But change didn’t last long and following the end of the war, at the same time as men were returning to their jobs, studies came out about the importance of women in the home, the dangers of workplaces to unborn children and the women carrying them.  Studies also alleged to show that women’s periods made them less competent than male workers.

It was in this era that along came Katharina Dalton, in 1953, with PMS.  Dalton was a gynaecologist who had carried out studies which showed that premenstrual women were at risk of becoming shoplifters, child abusers, violent and even murders.  Obviously, this would not be ok at work, even if you suffered from symptoms at the other end of the spectrum where weakness, poor decision making and xxx lay.  She suggested that during certain times of the months, women in the workplace should be given less skilled jobs so that they didn’t screw up important tasks.  According to Dalton, we couldn’t even be expected to go shopping successfully as we’d end up buying dresses of the wrong colour or fit…

Dalton went further than the workplace and laid out the risks involved in the family and even when it came to hobbies.  One should avoid racket sports because of arm weakness, poorer vision and slower movement.  Dressmaking wasn’t safe as you might cut out pieces from expensive fabric only to find you’ve spoilt it.  Even driving was a risk, and not just for the driver with PMS, it was a risk to be a passenger with PMS – “in the few seconds between a car climbing a kerb and before it hits a wall an alert passenger may brace herself and cover her head for protection, but the passenger in her paramenstruum may be too slow to take even these elementary precautions.”  Presumably then too, any woman with PMS must also avoid walking near cars, cycling and climbing ladders because who knows how delayed reactions might affect them.

As if that wasn’t enough restriction in your life, it seems too that you should avoid being the sole carer for children as you might not notice that they are in danger and if you do, you may not be able to react quick enough.

“As proof of this, Dalton cites a 1970 survey of children who were admitted as emergencies to the North Middlesex Hospital in London; 49% of the mothers were in their paramenstruum on the day the child was admitted.  But if the paramenstruum is defined as the week before your period is due plus the week of your period – in other words, two weeks out of every month – wouldn’t it make sense that 50% of all women would have to be in their paramenstruum at any given time, whether in casualty or in the street?”
– Houppert

Hopefully opinions around PMS have changed somewhat today but why then, do we have so many women justifying their behaviour by saying they’re PMS-ing or men blaming PMS for our emotions?  Well, for one it’s convenient.  As women we are still stereotyped to be gentle and giving and to care for others so when we explode from time to time and our behaviour defies this image, it’s handy to have an excuse.  And as PMS is so culturally engrained, who would question that?

“the term has become a convenient catch-all for women’s complaints, a way of discounting women’s anger – and often their legitimate concerns – by attributing their dissatisfaction to hormones.”
– Houppert

In the many years since Dalton labelled a set of symptoms PMS, it has become a short hand for an irrationally angry woman.  And through that, has legitimised the idea that women’s concerns or frustrations need not be taken seriously.

“We’ve decided to tip the balance towards the physiological because potions and cures are easier to come by than social transformation… Blaming women’s anger on PMS lets society off the hook”
– Houppert

Basically, wherever you are in your cycle, your emotions and feelings are valid and no one should be using PMS as a way to ignore, invalidate or mock you.

By lumping period related cycles under PMS, it also seems to have let the medical profession off the hook.  So many times when you go to a doctor with concerns about your periods and the associated symptoms, it’s dismissed as just PMS.  Additionally, there hasn’t been much research into PMS, especially when compared to male health issues such as erectile dysfunction… By saying, “it’s just your hormones”, partners, parents, doctors and so on get away with saying and doing things that wouldn’t be considered ok in other circumstances.

Before I end, I want to be clear that if you are experiencing symptoms around your period, it may be best to speak to a doctor.  What is normal for one person isn’t necessarily for another.  And just because PMS as a label may have abused, it doesn’t mean that the symptoms that fall under it’s umbrella are not serious.

Further reading

Period pants and disability

I’ve written before about my difficult relationship with my periods… I have heavy bleeding, struggle with period pains, can’t use contraception to stop my periods and due to my disability have very limited options in terms of how I cope with the bleeding.  I can’t use a moon cup or tampons (I have vaginismus so nothing goes up there), my hand pain can make using sanitary towels difficult so my carers have to get involved and I’m also actually allergic to them…  I have tried reusable sanitary towels which overcome the allergy but not the hand side of things…

Aside, this isn’t a sponsored post.

I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about period knickers and when they first came on my radar they were expensive and reviews didn’t seem great.  At that point, I wasn’t having to ask my carers for much help so the idea of asking them to rinse blood stained underwear just didn’t feel great.  Since then, my periods have got heavier so carers have had to rinse knickers, pj bottoms and bedding on a monthly basis.  I’ve also had to ask carers to help me take off and put on my sanitary towels more often.  With this in mind, I revisited period knickers and found that the market had increased and with this, reviews had been more favourable.

So I ordered a pair of Modibodi heavy absorbency pants.  I was reassured that they offer a refund if you buy a pair and they are faulty, they offer a sixty day replacement.  I was cautious but hopeful.  The first time I wore them I waited until a couple of days into my cycle and wore them during the day.  And it all went really well!

I think the only way to explain is a bit graphic but it does illustrate things better… So that first day I tested the absorbency by wiping the gusset with toilet roll and… nothing!  Well, there was a teeny tiny smear of very little blood once, such a different picture to when I use sanitary towels.  I was so impressed I actually wore them that night as well with no leakage!

But what about day one of a period?  Well, that has now been tested.  And it’s all been great! When we rinsed them there was so much blood and yet, no blood on my clothes, pjs or bedding!  The only blood that’s been on the knickers themselves is clots and that just sits on top of sanitary towels anyway.  As I said, when it came to rinsing them there was a lot of blood but once rinsed and left to dry, they get chucked in the washing basket.  And it is just rinsing, you don’t need to hand wash them properly, no need for washing powder or kneading, just rinse in cold water!

I am still very early on in my journey with period pants but I am impressed so far.  After the first test I was so impressed that I went ahead and got enough for a full cycle.  I would recommend them and, whilst I know that different things work for different disabilities, I do think they are going to be a very helpful tool in the disabled persons toolkit.

Me and my period

Note: this post is going to be explicit and possibly more detail than you want.  You have been warned.

I’m reading a lot of spiritual feminist stuff at the moment and the idea of menstruation not being a shameful thing is coming up repeatedly.

Society has issues with any kind of bodily output but as something that only women* experience, periods are considered especially icky. It’s a “curse”, it’s something that we talk about in euphemisms, it’s a taboo.

When was the last time you heard someone refer to blood when talking about periods (another way of avoiding saying menstruation).  You might hear pms, bloating, that time of the month.  You might hear reference to it as a way of explaining why a woman isn’t happy with something or is standing up for something.  As a way of undermining women.  But you are very unlikely to hear about blood.

The idea of menstruation is one that is associated with unnatural things, despite it being so incredibly natural.  It is considered disgusting despite it being the very reason that you are alive today – without it, your mother couldn’t have carried you.

There is so much I want to say about periods and the different ways that they are experienced in different parts of the world.  There are some girls out there who can’t go to school because they can’t access sanitary products.  There are some people out there who are forced or coerced to take birth control so that their periods stop.  There are people out there who really struggle with their periods and are brushed off when they try to seek help for their pain or their moods.

But this post is entitled me and my periods.  So, back to me.

I have never liked my periods.

I remember wanting my period because I thought my mother would treat me differently.  I thought, because it would connect the two of us and not my sister, she would love me.  Obviously this was not the case.  But I clung to it.  And getting your period was grown up and like most young people I was in a rush to become an adult.

But once I got my period (on a canal boat… eugh!), everything changed and nothing changed.  My relationship with my mother was exactly the same.  But now I had to contend with potentially unpredictable bleeding. A mother who blamed any acting out or standing up for myself as hormones.  Everything was blamed on my hormones.  And I was expected to use tampons, because my mother did.  But what no one tells you is that inserting a tampon isn’t supposed to make you cry in pain.  That it shouldn’t be like forcing your hand through a brick wall.  See my post about vaginismus for more metaphors and similes on the matter of inserting anything into my vagina.

And when you are 13, you are already so scared that you aren’t right and I had no sense of self esteem and then to top it off my vagina seemed to be broken and I had no words to explain this.

Fast forward a few years and I am now experiencing horrific pain with my period.  It also comes with an unpredictable and quite inconvenient dose of diarrhoea.  To the point I missed a number of lectures.  And didn’t feel I could tell anyone why.  Sharing two toilets with nine other people didn’t make this any easier…

I went on the pill.  Yay, my periods should be manageable, whoop!  No.  Yes I knew when I was going to bleed each month but on the odd occasion I tried to skip my bleed, I would instead end up with a month long period.  On the plus side, there was regularity and it was lighter.  Although actually, I’ve always been pretty regular with my periods.  My body loves them.

A few years later and I lost a lot of weight because of anorexia.  Periods stopping are a sign or symptom of anorexia – at the time I was thinking at least some good would come from this.  But no.  My body loves its periods.  Despite being incredibly underweight, I still had them.  I only missed 3.

A few more years and my body still loves to have its periods.  I am not going to have children, I can’t have children and my periods are heavy and messy and humiliating.  Any shred of dignity is lost when my carers have to shower me when I’m bleeding.  They have to wash blood out of underwear, out of pjs and out of my bedding.  At times they have to change my sanitary towels.

Even when I am physically up to changing my sanitary towels, I still have other issues.  I love that some people find their period empowering and a way to connect to their body.  For me, it is about lack of control, lack of dignity and the mess that comes with it.  Other than blood stains, you also have to contend with the actual bleeding.  Guys, I bet you’ve not thought about this – there are times in my cycle where the blood is continuous.

I’m trying to decide how explicit to get here. F*ck it.  

So when you are trying to wipe yourself clean after using the toilet, you have not only got to deal with the diarrhoea, you also have to keep wiping the blood until you think you might get your knickers and hence sanitary towel up round your waist in time to not get blood all over the place.  This involves a lot of wiping.  And my hands struggle at the best of times**.

There is the matter of dry, crusty blood that arises because I still only get one shower a week regardless of whether I am bleeding or not.  There is the matter of being allergic to the sticky side of sanitary towels.  There is the cramping and all the other stuff that comes with a period for most women.

So I do not like my period.

I wish I did.  I wish I could enjoy it or at least not hate it.  But at least I am hating it as a conscious choice.  We are socialised to not like our periods – they are messy and they are reminders to the patriarchy that however powerful men get, they will not be able to create life.  We are socialised to be quiet and hide ourselves away when we are bleeding.  We are socialised to pretend there’s no blood involved.

So feel free to love or hate your period, or feel indifferent if that’s how you feel.  But examine your reasons. Is it because you do get awful pain or is it because that is how you’ve been told you should feel?


*not all people who menstruate are women, not all women menstruate but i’m using the word woman here anyway for ease of language and am speaking in generalities.

**I have a toilet topper which does have a wash and blow function but I find it useless for periods, advice is welcomed from others in similar circumstances!

Disability and periods

So, I mentioned in a previous post that I am on a mission to stop my periods.  Why? Don’t I know all the nasty side effects of messing with your hormones?  Why yes, I do.  I also know that there is a long history of people, women especially, with disabilities being forcibly sterilised, often without their knowledge.  So I am aware that this topic is fraught with oppression, including internalised oppression, pain and illness.


But I have reached the decision that my periods need to go.  I don’t want, and can’t, ever have children so I don’t need to be careful of my fertility.  My more pressing concern is that once a month, I wake up with blood stained underwear, pjs and bedding.  My carers then have to deal with that.  And when my hands are bad, they also have to change my sanitary towels.  Which is utterly undignified.  Plus, I’m allergic to the sticky part of sanitary towels so that’s extra fun…

My carers also have to wash me and being showered by someone whilst on my period isn’t a step I’m ready for.  So at the point in the month where I am probably most in need of washing, I don’t.

So, an attempt to cling onto my last dregs of dignity is why I am trying, and currently failing, to stop my periods.  So far I tried the coil which didn’t even make it inside me, I’ve tried several different types of pill which all contain lactose so I’m dealing with the side effects of that (I’m lactose intolerant and even teeny amounts make my tummy unhappy) and I’m currently having more periods than I did before I started.  I’m aware that the pill can often cause irregular bleeding to start with and my doctor wants me to give it three months… I’m six weeks in and have had three long bleeds…  One thing to note is that the pill I’m on, Cerezette, is tiny.  I can’t actually pick it up so my carers have to drop it into my mouth.  Not a great option if you have hand issues and have no one to help.

Other options for stopping your period include the implant and the injection but according to my GP, the coil, followed by the pill are most effective at stopping your periods.  Plus, once the injection is injected, that’s it…  If you only want to delay your period, there is a tablet out there which can do it for about 20 days I think, Norethisterone.  I took it when I went to rural Ghana at 19 but again, it didn’t work for me… My periods are pretty persistent… Even at my lowest weight with anorexia, I only had three period free months… BTW, anorexia is a bad method for stopping your periods!

If you are disabled and want to keep your period but find tampons and sanitary towels hard to use and would prefer a more suitable option in terms of menstruation products then you’re in luck.  I read a fantastic post by crippledscholar which opened my eyes to some of the alternatives.  I’d highly recommend reading the post and reading through the comments.

There are lots of kinds of menstrual cups out there and they can be used one handedly apparently.  There are also period pants which I didn’t know about which are expensive but look like a good option provided you can wash them by hand.  Another option is reusable sanitary towels, you can get different kinds of fasteners so can try and find what’s easiest for you.  Again though,  you’ll need to have a way of washing the blood out before chucking them in the washing machine.

Side note: I came across a photo project whilst I was looking into whether there were any other menstrual products available (I couldn’t find any others, please let me know if you have).  It was a photo a day of the cervix as it goes through a monthly cycle.  I found it interesting and wanted to make you aware of it.