LOUISE O'NEILL: 'Periods are still seen as something that should be kept secret for fear we scare the men-folk'

When I first began writing, I had my own blog. The most popular piece I ever posted was when I shared embarrassing period stories and asked other women to comment underneath with their own, writes Louise O'Neill.

It was glorious — so many gals, so many hilarious tales to tell — because the vast majority of women will have had a period ‘disaster’ but too often, don’t have a space in which to talk about them.

Despite the fact that over 50% of the population either currently menstruates (or have menstruated in the past/will in the future), periods are still seen as something that should be kept secret, for fear we scare the men-folk, no doubt.

Many of the world’s major religions traditionally deemed a menstruating woman ‘unclean’, but the concept of banishing women to menstruation huts once a month is now considered utterly archaic in Western society.

However, the stigma remains.

Adverts for sanitary towels show blue liquid being poured onto the product to demonstrate its efficacy because red is far too close to (quelle horror!) blood.

I have friends who are doubled over on the floor in agony every month because of endometriosis, and are told it’s an inappropriate topic to discuss in polite conversation.

Some American voters admitted that they were reluctant to vote for a woman for fear she might detonate a nuclear bomb because of PMS while her opponent openly ridiculed a female reporter by saying there was ‘blood coming out of her whatever’.

Vaginas are for ‘pussy grabbing’, according to the President of the US, not for a biological necessity.

If you think a woman having her periods is repugnant, I think it’s important that you explore your prejudices.

Why do certain men proclaim Scarface and Pulp Fiction as their favourite movies and who play blood-soaked video games, then turn around and call periods ‘disgusting’?

I remember watching Superbad and laughing when Jonah Hill’s character discovers the woman he is dancing with has bled onto his jeans while privately thinking ‘I would die of shame if that happened to me’.

But why did Hill’s character, and all the men in the scene, find it quite so revolting?

If the woman had cut her finger and stained his clothes as a result, would that have elicited such a strong reaction?

As Lindy West wrote in her brilliant collection of essays, Shrill, “(my period) is not more gross than faeces, urine, pus, bile, vomit, or... phlegm.

And yet we are not horrified every time we go to the bathroom.

We do not stigmatise people with stomach flu. The active ingredient in period stigma is misogyny.”

And this misogyny around periods can have other, more insidious effects.

In her essay How Periods Affect Potential for Time magazine, Meghan Markle wrote that “from sub-Saharan Africa to India, Iran, and several other countries, the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation directly inhibit young women from pursuing an education...

Many girls shared that they feel embarrassed to go to school during their periods, ill equipped with rags instead of pads, unable to participate in sports, and without a bathroom available to care for themselves, they often opt to drop out of school”.

This phenomenon of ‘Period Poverty’ is happening closer to home as well.

Sanitary protection was for many years classed as a luxury item and new research estimated that women spend over €20,000 on their periods over a life time.

But what of those who cannot afford to pay for tampons or pads? In a Guardian article this month, journalist Frances Ryan spoke to Kerry, a 35-year-old mother of three from Aberdeen, who was forced to go without sanitary protection for a year.

“If it’s a choice between electricity, snacks for the kids, or sanitary towels... Even that £2 at the end of the month matters.”

Often, she would be unable to leave the house during her period so she could “y’know, be near the toilet”.

A charity called Freedom4Girls in the UK was contacted by schools who were concerned about teenage girls’ attendance because they would skip school when they were menstruating, forced to use stuffed toilet paper or old socks in lieu of proper sanitary products.

Here in Ireland, the focus has been on providing homeless women with assistance.

The founder of Homeless Period Dublin, Petra, told The Daily Edge she “saw the volume of women homeless in Dublin and witnessed their lack of sanitation during the day, as they had to leave the homeless shelter they were using.”

Petra set up a sanitary donation initiative in Ireland in December 2016 and Amy O’Connor of the Daily Edge writes they “collect sanitary towels, tampons, wipes, and panty liners, and pass these donations onto other charitable organisations assisting both low income and homeless women.” ( thehomelessperiod.com)

This situation is untenable and cannot be allowed to continue.

Homeless women have the right to their dignity. Young girls have the right to a proper education.

Women are human beings too, not, as Lindy West superbly puts it “off-brand men with defective genitals”.

We deserve to have our bodies and our lives and our experiences respected — and that
includes the fact most of us bleed every month.

If it makes you uncomfortable, it is not our problem anymore.

¦ Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours and Asking For It


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