Women’s bodies, sexuality and the stigma of menstruation

Disclaimer: this is a straight-forward, blunt, personal perspective about women and periods. If you’re squeamish about these things I encourage you to get over it and read it anyway. Looking forward to respectful and thoughtful, contributing comments. Let’s talk about this and take away the stigma of menstruation.

***

Ladies, do you remember the circumstances of your first period?

What about you men, do you remember when your sisters started…? Or your daughters?

I don’t remember much, other than the usual sentiments of discomfort, anxiety about leaks, and how unfair it was to have to go through this crap for the next 40+ years.

At school, they talked to us a little about the menstrual cycle, and briefly touched on pregnancy and STDs, including HIV. If I remember correctly, they talked more about condoms and protection than what a female body goes through during a complete cycle.

And that was in grade 10 or 11. Most girls start their periods well before then…

I stumbled through my teen years pretty much ignorant and naive as far as my changing body was concerned.

Among things I would have liked to understand better was that the first day of my period is Day 1. I don’t know why this wasn’t made clear to me (or why I didn’t really get it). For some reason I thought Day 1 was the day the period ended…

I didn’t understand about ovulation either. Ovulation was a term I associated with getting pregnant, but I was 14, 15 and not concerned with making babies…Turns out, ovulation has a much more complex meaning than just as a marker for optimal pregnancy.

Or was it explained to me and it just didn’t sink in? I mean, teenagers aren’t the most lucid when it comes to absorbing explanations…

I also didn’t know that ovulation could, and does, take place a few days before and after Day 14. Because I didn’t count my cycle properly, ovulation days didn’t mean much to me.

Neither did I comprehend why, during those ovulation days, an increase in sexual thoughts populated my brain. Not that actual sex was an issue really – I was not sexually active until much later. But, it would have helped me to understand my body better had it been explained to me that thinking about sex or sexual activity prior to, and during ovulation was normal.

I remembered times when I was suddenly more interested in how girls dressed, and how boys reacted to girls when they were dressed a certain way. I was never a fashion conscious person – we didn’t have the money for the type of clothes that the preppy 1980s girls wore, so I didn’t think much about that stuff. But I suddenly noticed them. I noticed their outfits, their shoes, or how they wore their hair.

I also noticed how stiff the boys seemed at that age, rarely moving when a girl walked past their desk in a classroom, staring straight ahead, not talking to anyone. (lol) Of course I didn’t know why that happened then, either. 😊

And, I was suddenly interested in Soap Operas.

Anyone watch General Hospital or Y&R after school? 😂

Those soap gals had such exciting, romantic lives… 🙄

I remember my mom telling me to track my periods, but I don’t remember why. The general understanding was to count the cycle days (typically 28) so I could anticipate when my period might come and be prepared. It was about being practical, to avoid leaks and extra laundry more than a deeper understanding what my body was going through.

No one explained how my menstrual cycle affected the largest sex organ in my body – the brain.

As a teen girl, I didn’t understand the intricacies of my body. Sure, the books and pamphlets I was given gave me all the technical jargon, but it didn’t enlighten me about all the other stuff that came along with it, such as the things that were private and weren’t discussed with anyone.

I had so many questions I never asked:

  • Why did I think about sex when I had no experience with the act itself?
  • Why did what boys thought about me become more important than what I thought about myself?
  • Why did I feel ugly and fat?
  • Why did I hate my hair?
  • Why did I have so much acne?
  • Why didn’t anyone explain to me why touching myself in certain ways made me feel good but ashamed?
  • Was it wrong to touch myself?
  • Did anyone else go through this?
  • Was I normal?

Frankly, I did not connect my period to anything at all to do with my sexuality.

Periods were messy and an inconvenience, and the thought of using a tampon as a 14 year old girl was mortifying and weird.

Ugh. I thank my lucky stars I’m not a teen girl anymore…

Today, everyone discusses everything – just go to social media and search a tag related to menstruation, women’s bodies, or sex. You’ll have it all blown up in your face. An by it I mean all kinds of stupidity, usually.

No wonder there is a growing awareness in western culture that is trying to remove the stigma of menstruation.

The stigma of menstruation is perpetrated by a general lack of education, cultural taboos, discrimination, and often silence.

Simultaneously though, I will give credit to those who try to normalize all things related to female biology and sexuality via social media outlets.

There are some gynecological doctors on twitter who do a great job calling out stupidity placed by some men (and also sometimes women, or far-right religious individuals or organizations) who are ignorant, hurtful, judgemental and often very wrong.

Dr. Gunter is one such person who challenges misinformation about women, girls and all things related to their bodies on twitter:

Jensplaining – Dr. Jen Gunter

She is not the only one, but she’s a well-known one. (click the image to go to her twitter feed)

There are many other good sources like websites, books and podcasts that will guide anyone who hungers for accurate, current information all over the internet. As long as you know how to sift through the incorrect, misunderstood or downright stupid shit, you can learn a lot and, simultaneously see that there are many others out there who are just like you.

There is something to be said about these types of communities – online or otherwise.

You are not alone in your misunderstanding. There is no shame in not knowing.

As a young teen myself, I was not given any talks at all beyond the very basics (and focused mostly on practicalities) in terms of understanding my body. It simply wasn’t something anyone spent a lot of time thinking about back in the 1980s.

The idea, I think, was that as a menstruating female you were expected to figure it out like the many generations before you had. Maybe this is because some women who were mothering teen girls during the 80s (or before) weren’t sure how to initiate this type of conversation with their daughters. Or, maybe they were uncomfortable and inexperienced. Their own mothers may not have talked to them about these things either.

How things have changed.

I talk to my daughter, but not usually before I ask her what she knows first. Kids today, they get bombarded by so much information and not all of it is pertinent, true, current or clear.

I sometimes ask her what her friends say, what school says during health class, or what she’s been taught, or not. I ask her how she feels, and invite her to approach me with any questions she has, even if it feels embarrassing.

I talk to her about my own experiences, emphasizing that there will be similarities, but also differences, and not to worry if she has different experiences than I did, or her friends do.

I don’t do all that in one sitting. I take my time, watch her, see when a good time would be to approach the subject. And I wait to see how she feels in terms of continuing the conversation.

My job is to give her the tools she needs: accurate information, supplies, and support.

The most important message I give her however is this:

No matter what you read or hear, whatever happens to your body is normal.

You are normal.

If you don’t have a 28 day cycle, it’s normal.

If you have a 28 day cycle and then it changes to 30 days, or 22 days, it’s normal.

If you bleed a lot or a little, it’s normal.

If you have a bit of discomfort or pain, or none, it’s normal.

I also told her that if something feels off, to tell me, or to ask to go see a doctor. She is the only ones who can determine whether or not something doesn’t feel right to her. If she’s unsure, she can say something to me, and we can assess together, and go to a doctor if need be. There is no reason to feel shameful or bashful.

She gets it. I think most of us parent our girls similarly today. This is incredible progress from generations past, isn’t it. I am hopeful our girls will continue to grow into strong, self-confident women who are comfortable with their bodies, their biological functions and their sexuality.

I did give my daughter an app for tracking her cycle, the same one I’m using. I explained that tracking her cycle will help her understand her body better, and went through some detail. There’s a way to track cravings, pain and cramps, little or a lot of flow, acne breakouts and that sort of thing. I do this too – I can sometimes tell by the predictions based on data I’ve input why I may have a sudden drop in mood, or whatever. I mean, it’s more challenging now with perimenopause since nothing in my body is consistent, but it still helps.

But for a young girl just starting out, over time she can learn more about her body based on the data she enters into the app. I gave he a concrete example:

“You know how I’m not a big ice cream fan? Well, once a month for a day or two, I feel this very heavy craving for ice cream. When I entered this information into my app for a few months, I was able to see that this craving always happened around the same time during my cycle. It gave me a clue as to where I was in my cycle.”

This is the sort of concrete information I was missing when I was a teen girl. I’m not faulting anyone about this lack of information, I’m simply saying that times have changed and we tend to be more open today than we were back then.

There was a time not that long ago when I worried about imminent menopause, and the end of my youth. (Which is ridiculous, I’m not young anymore…) 😉

I no longer feel that way (mostly). I actually spent almost the entire summer without a period, over four months. I thought YAY it’s done! Except, at a most inopportune time and without access to supplies, the damn period hit me again and pestered me with a bloody murder scene for 14 days straight without a break.

Even that is normal, I explained to my daughter.

Sigh.

We are at opposite ends – she is starting, and I am, hopefully, nearing the end.

I realize this is a little bit personal and not everyone is comfortable talking about this topic on the internet, so there is no pressure to contribute to the conversation. But if you do, thank you for reading, and especially commenting. 🙂

See you in the comments.

31 thoughts on “Women’s bodies, sexuality and the stigma of menstruation

  1. Everything you write about here, I can relate to and feel its truth. You’re doing a great job being present and open to your daughter. I have not been so good with my sons – one I am happy about what I’ve shared so far and talked through, the other I feel is more difficult. As the elder, I should have connected with him first on the subject of sex and bodies, but it’s harder with him – firstly to find the right time, and secondly, for it to not sound like a lecture or a monologue. Boys are different and ideally, their dad would be doing this too. But I know he isn’t and can’t so, as usual, that leaves it all on me. Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a boy and he is 15 and resistant to listening to his mom. About many things, but especially about this. Yet when I pulled him aside to tell him the downstairs bathroom, which typically my daughter rarely uses, will have some extra supplies in it and to be respectful of his sister’s privacy, he was fine. That’s a huge step.

      Trying to normalize everything is jey, I think… 🙂

      Like

  2. This is a great post. We don’t have kids yet but I made sure my fiance was comfortable talking about periods. They are a natural occurring bodily function and if there are ever issues or I need supplies then it needs to be a conversation we are comfortable having.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was very mis-informed as an 11 year old getting her first period. I had no idea what caused it or what the whole thing was about!. My mother did not help things much at all.
    Sadly, despite my best efforts, I don’t feel that I gave my own daughter as much support and information as I could. have. She still got some of her info from the internet and her friends.
    Maybe that is unavoidable in the age of the internet.

    Like

  4. Great post! Let’s shine the light on Women’s Business, to take away the stigma & shame indeed. I didn’t start my period till I was nearly 17; was too embarrassed to tell my Mum for the first few; didn’t even buy pads but made wads of toilet paper… so crazy to think of now 😫
    My cycle was fast: every 23 days, and the day before it came I’d always feel like buying chocolate, which I don’t actually really like much… 🙄
    Stopped at 50- yes, I remember the bleeding was like a murder at the end there- kinda missed them for a while- the rhythm of life & my hormones- now I’m 54 & the hot flushes are nearly gone… 🙏🏼

    And here’s a confession: never used a tampon. Always felt like it was supposed to FLOW OUT, not be restricted… just another perspective to share 🙏🏼❤️
    Thanks so much for writing this, G

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I went into it all without a single clue because that was one of those delicate things that was just simply NOT talked about in my house. Sure, we had a couple of events at school where they supposedly taught us some of it, but I was conveniently sick on those days and didn’t even get that much. Outside of knowing it happened and the generic range of about once a month, I didn’t know a thing. It was utterly terrifying and traumatizing to go through that with no real knowledge or way to get knowledge (I think I was one of the first in my group of friends). Add on the ridiculousness and humiliation of the circumstances around the first time itself and I have an event that is permanently etched in technicolor detail in my memory. It messed me up so much, I was adamant I wasn’t going to allow my daughter to have a similar trauma. Terrified that she’d start before we could have any conversations about it, I started very broad, general conversations with her when she was 9. Now at 16, she talks to me freely about what is going on because I’ve made it comfortable for her to do so. I think taking away that stigma is massively important for girls and women. I’m now creeping up on the other end of things and feel as though I’m in much the same boat as I was in the beginning. At least for this part, I’ve got the internet.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I was lucky with my mom, she did everything she could for this early starter. Our bodies are weird and strange when we’re young. They only get stranger from then on out. No one talks about this and I liked how you tackled this topic. Head on, with facts and I will be following Dr. Gunter. Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did not know. She is really active in Twitter so that’s where I see her pop up. I also read some of her book. I am not a huge fan of her writing style (her voice) but appreciate her straight-forward, accurate, science-based approach to explaining the biological functions. I’ll check out her blog, thanks for mentioning it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The only advice I was given was not to wash my hair during my period. Couldn’t understand why not back then (and my mother, bless her, couldn’t explain – she was just telling me what she’d been told, I guess) – and I’ve never been able to work out why that would ever be a problem.

    Being a bit of a rebel, and also of a scientific bent, I washed my hair anyway to see what would happen. Nothing happened.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. OMG I forgot to mention this whole hair washing thing. I have a friend who until her mid 20s refused to shower when on her period, as her mom told her it was not done.

      She blindly believed this. Wasn’t curious as to why, or what would happen.

      I told her at the time, that a shower felt even more amazing during the period days, including the hair washing, why did she believe this?

      She said she was told to do a sponge bath instead and not to wash her hair at all. (Periods can last longer than a week at times…astonishing.)

      I’m trying to remember if maybe it had something to do with inadequate access to indoor plumbing? Or water was expensive and if all the girls in the household had longer showers it would cost a lot more? Or…something else?

      I wonder where this idea came from…

      Thank you for mentioning this, and thank you for commenting.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. When I was still working, we used to sell Plan B, the morning after pill, which was restricted to behind the counter at that time, and one of the questions I had to ask, was where are you in your cycle. It always amazed me how many young girls did not know, and also were not aware that ovulation took place mid-cycle, but then I don’t know what they teach these days in women’s health class. I had hoped it would have improved since my young teenage years, in the late 60’s, when the girls in grades 5-8 were pulled into a special class and shown a very vague film which left us with more questions than answers!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. See? I knew I wasn’t the only one who didn’t clue in to the whole cycle thing…thank you for telling us this.

      I am sure that even today, with information accessible more easily than before, there is probably a whole slew of MISinformation going on so it’s still crucial we talk to our kids about these things often, and clearly. Just to ensure they are equipped with accurate information.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I love this Claudette! I have always thought that I could have been much more straightforward with my kids, not so much about the biology but about how hormonal changes in males and females play such a huge role in general. Perhaps, with your open and honest style you have the direction your writing needs to go…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the nice comment, Deb. I don’t know what got into me…but I was suddenly overwhelmed with all these memories. (I’m raising a tween girl, that’s probably the influence there…). I will think about what you said. 🙂

      Like

  10. I was very well informed and actually looked forward to my first period. Yes, I mistakenly thought the whole becoming a woman thing was cool. Until it caught me unaware during a bicycle rally at school. I was wearing white pants… and shall leave it at that.
    😳

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This is so true and well written!
    Sexuality was barely discussed in classrooms, sex education was a pretty much a part of biology lesson, divorced from feelings. Talk of consent feels a very post “me-too” thing. Also while people used to use the word paedo as a joke and everyone understood it was wrong, it was somehow swept under the rug that some of my 14 year old peers were in “relationships” with over 18s like it was fine. It seemed to be the general culture that if a teenage girl behaved flirtateously it was fine, and even adults turned a blind eye, while the word “slut” got thrown around school a lot.
    I hated the culture of high school in the 00s (when I went) and hope to God it’s not the same for my children.
    Same for menstruation, I remember getting frustrated cos I had to try and remember about progesterone and oestrogen and when they turned up in the cycle for a class test and frankly finding it super confusing and alien to me, when it should be spoken about in terms which are understandable familiar. They should get kids to read your piece I think!
    My son already knows about menstruation (he’s six) cos he went through that annoying phase of following me to the bathroom and shouted in a public toilets “Mummy’s pooed in her pants!/Mummy’s wearing a nappy!” and I wasn’t having him going around assuming that! So hopefully the next generation of young men will be less ignorant/disgusted by periods!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. That’s funny, what the little boy did – they have no filters, the kids, and that is probably a good thing!!

      I agree that many things were confusing including terms people used, or behaviour. I remember our nurse who taught sex ed in grade 11 I think, she was so embarrassed. I thought, why? She’s supposed to be teaching us the technical side of things, what’s embarrassing about the most normal, natural biological function? Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I had a very forward father: he congratulated me on becoming a woman and then he danced around an outdoor fire on our pit with my brothers. The two were not connected as he was enjoying the outdoor air in the mountains on our farm and the wonderful view but it makes for a good story.

    Liked by 3 people

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