The stigma around menstruation has been with us a loooooong time. In fact, it’s historically been such a taboo topic that we know very little about how women managed their periods in ancient times. Men held the pens back in those days and none, apparently, felt compelled to write much down about the life-giving bodily function that roughly half of humanity experienced. (They did, though, manage to record that Attila the Hun warmed up his dinner by shoving the ‘half-raw flesh of any animal’ between his thighs and his horse, so, you know, thanks, fellas!)
Then, as they often do now, people feared what they didn’t understand: no one knew that the earth was round, so the edges of maps warned, “Here be dragons!” And no one knew how a woman could bleed from her vagina (itself a mysterious orifice) for several days and not die, so they figured dragons must have something to do with that too. It didn’t help that Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher who was evidently full of shit, claimed menstrual blood was so poisonous and possessed of black magic that it would turn wine sour, kill trees and crops, blunten swords, make mirrors fog up, turn bronze and iron rusty, kill bees in their hives and turn dogs mad should they taste it. (Why would a dog …? You know what, never mind.) Then there’s the story of Hypatia–a female philosopher and mathematician in Ancient Greece–who was only able to dissuade an apparently lovesick admirer by tossing her blood-soaked menstrual rags at him. The dude was so grossed out he ran away. (Next time, take a hint, bro.)
Even those taking a more medical view throughout history thought periods were an essential monthly disease or illness. One early theory was that because women were ‘more sedentary’ and less efficient than men, they had a backlog of blood and ‘waste’ that must be regularly eliminated for their health. Another suggestion was that women experienced an internal chemical ferment, which would eventually build up and spill out from the womb, the ‘naturally weak’ point of the female body. No one could quite figure out exactly why periods happened or what they were–but they were pretty much in agreement that whatever it was, it was yuck.
The persistent shame around menstruation is also thanks in no small part to religious dictates on the matter, which are almost all variations on the theme that a menstruating woman is somehow ‘impure’. Jewish laws teach that a woman is in a ‘profane’ state (as in, ‘not sacred’) while she bleeds, and that anyone who touches her also becomes ‘unclean’. She must sleep on white sheets for a week before before she’s allowed to touch her husband again, and only once her bed linen is stain-free can she take a ritualistic bath and return to the marital bed. In Islam as well, women must perform ceremonial ablutions once they’ve stopped bleeding before they can have sex again, and during Ramadan they cannot fast or pray while having a period. Much of Christianity’s anti-menstruation doctrine is in the Old Testament’s Leviticus, and is supposed to be ignored. Still, many churches have banned women from receiving communion while they’re having their period, and some once taught that having intercourse with a bleeding woman was a sin that would lead to deformed offspring. Meanwhile, Hinduism considers menstruating women so tainted that they’re not even allowed inside their own kitchens, let alone a temple.
Little wonder that for thousands of years, in most cultures around the world, periods weren’t openly discussed or acknowledged and were almost always paired with the idea that they’re disgusting and dirty.
Even when the first commercially available sanitary products hit the Western market in the late 1800s, advertisements were so vague about their actual purpose that no one really knew what they were for. Well into the 20th century, women handed ‘silent coupons’ to clerks in department stores, or simply dropped change into a moneybox when they purchased pads, so that no one ever had to say aloud what it was they needed.
Let us be clear: the taboo around talking about periods is extremely, offensively, laughably stupid. Imagine if we all just pretended sneezing–a natural biological process–wasn’t a thing. Or only ever referred to it in hushed tones as “that time of the spontaneous nose spasm”, and hid under our desks and
buried our faces into soundproof pillows hoping that no one would know that we were currently experiencing ‘sternutation’ (yep, you just learnt the science word for ‘sneezing’). Or if instead of responding to a sneeze with a casual “bless you”, we blushed in shame and disgust and worried that our dogs might go crazy if they heard it.
It’s nice to know that not all cultures are this uncomfortable with periods. In Japan, a girl’s first period (menarche) was celebrated with a traditional dish of red rice and beans. The Navajos have their girls demonstrate their strength with a race, and in some parts of Ghana, girls are given gifts and ‘celebrated like a queen’ while they sit under ceremonial umbrellas.
But these examples are sadly rarities. Period shame around the world still exists to this day, and in some cases, it is quite literally life-threatening. In parts of rural India and Nepal, menstruating women are considered ‘untouchables’. They’re ostracised from the community and sent to isolated ‘menstruation huts’, where some have died from exposure or from smoke inhalation after lighting a fire to try to stay warm in the freezing depths of a Himalayan winter.
In the secular West, by and large, we’ve become more comfortable with period talk. Some TV ads now dare to use red fluid instead of the euphemistic ‘blue water’ in their product demonstrations. Popular culture increasingly features open conversations about once unthinkable topics, like period sex.
But even in the most seemingly modern pockets of the developed world, there are still some girls missing school because they can’t afford adequate sanitary protection, or are scared of being teased. There are still women trying to muffle the sound of their plastic period wrapper in toilet cubicles, and men who’d rather not know anything about ‘what goes on down there’.
Period shame is the product of historical ignorance, fear, and misogyny. The way to beat it is with knowledge, understanding, and pride in the female body’s awesome reproductive power.
This article is from issue 15 of Lunch Lady magazine, you can buy the issue in our shop HERE.