Sex Ed: Beyond the Classroom

Why I Stopped Skipping My Period

After decades of treating menstruation as a burden, I learned to reconsider

BY


Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus
Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus

I always forget the gentle moments in the 1976 film adaptation of Carrie. Before she bleeds for the first time, Carrie is any girl with a bar of soap: alone in the shower, curious and feeling. Minutes later, blood leaks down her thigh. Her classmates jeer and hurl tampons at her. She bursts a light bulb with her mind. The first paperback edition of the book had no title or even Stephen King’s name on the front cover. The text read, simply: “A novel of a girl possessed of a terrifying power.” After the shower scene, it’s hard to tell if this line refers to her telekinesis or period.

Like Carrie, my first period arrived after gym class when I was fourteen. I was wearing pastel pink track pants. I distrusted the antiquarian pad dispenser in the girl’s washroom, so I stuffed a wad of tissue in my underwear. We were reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in English, and I began to think of my pad as a hemophiliac albatross between my legs. In the months before, I had willed my period to arrive so I could stop anticipating it. But no one prepared me for the gore. I expected a tidy smirch, a punctuation mark in my underwear. Any embarrassment I possessed about being the last girl in my grade to menstruate dissipated when I experienced its muck—for five days? Every month? I didn’t sign up for that.

So I felt relieved, if anything, when I didn’t bleed again for another year. Nurses had explained cycles could begin unevenly; I wasn’t worried. As time passed, I even indulged in the theory that my uterus and I had colluded to bleed once as a rite of passage, then hasta mañana till I wanted kids. Later, I would see my reluctance to claim our untidy biology reflected in this passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

The little girl feels that her body is escaping her, that it is no longer the clear expression of her individuality; it becomes foreign to her; and at the same moment she is grasped by others as a thing: on the street, eyes follow her, her body is subject to comments; she would like to become invisible; she is afraid of becoming flesh and afraid to show her flesh.

I don’t pretend this is the experience of all, or even most, girls—but it reflects my own. My earliest memories of friendship involve a boy at preschool. Our game was called Never Never Land. For much of my life, I’ve identified as someone you might find in Never Never Land: a sexless fey creature who could opt out of growing up. I didn’t want to bleed, because it reminded me of my body, which had become messy, changeful, cumbersome.

There are books girls read at this age, which offer comfort, even camaraderie, as we step into puberty and our soup of hormones. That book, for me, was Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne started menstruating at the same age I did, but she described her flow more tenderly. “Whenever I get my period,” she writes, admitting it had only been three times, “I have the feeling that in spite of all the pain, discomfort and mess, I’m coming around a sweet secret. So even though it’s a nuisance, in a certain way I’m always looking forward to the time when I’ll feel that secret inside me once again.” Trapped in a hidden annex for twenty-five months, Anne’s period symbolized one of the few events she could lay claim over: her period was wholly and intimately her own.

I did not have such perspective. By the time I was seventeen, my period remained irregular, arriving every three or four months. But the threat remained omnipresent, as demonstrated by our family trip to Cuba. A brackish stain in my underwear greeted me from the plane bathroom. “Now?” I remember thinking. I felt betrayed. As if my period should check in with me before it compromised my travel plans and the hours I’d planned to be submerged in the ocean off Varadero. (I hadn’t gotten the hang of tampons yet.) In that moment, I felt like I was doing time for someone else. For other women. There were baby-making bodies, and there was my own body, without a fleck of maternal longing or instinct. My period had nothing to do with me, I believed. Back then, I identified with virgin goddesses like Athena, who funnelled her energy into mental and creative progeny—not children. As I rammed another wad of paper in my pants, I thought: “Go away. I don’t want you.” The blood dried up the next day. That was the first time I identified my body as separate from my mind—controllable. No light bulbs burst, but it felt like a superpower.

Today, I’m thirty and can count the number of monthly periods I’ve had on one hand. I didn’t bleed during the first half of my twenties, largely due to “stupid eating,” as my doctor phrased it. (I became vegetarian, badly, and lost a lot of weight.) My cycle did not regularize until I entered a serious relationship at age twenty-five. Like an accountant in tax season who feels suddenly relevant, my reproductive system rang to say, “Remember me?” Child bearing could not have been further from my agenda, but my hormones were more romantic than my mind, it turned out. After a few better-safe-than-sorry encounters with the morning-after pill, I got an intrauterine system (IUS)—a hormonal device, which can delete periods altogether.

My rejection of my cycle has been, for me, a rejection of embodiment: a disowning of “womanhood” and all that attends it. More than fifteen years after my first period, I’m only beginning to untangle that.

Like many who grew up in the nineties, the bulk of my education around menstruation was informed by popular culture and advertisements. My favourite sections of YM and Seventeen magazines were the “Say Anything” and “Trauma-rama” columns, respectively: stories of bodies out of control, farting, burping, and bleeding in public. Accounts of other leaky bodies reminded me it could always be worse: no one, for instance, had mistaken my tampon string for a loose bikini thread and yanked it. Twenty years later, it seems most magazines have revisited how they approach such discussions—many choose to advocate body positivity, rather than shame or embarrassment. But I’m not sure we’re out of the woods.

It’s true that, over the past five years, ads for menstruation products have become more period positive—reflecting a shift in collective consciousness around bodies and our ease with sharing on social media. Thinx, a brand of underwear designed to absorb menstrual flow, deserves some credit. Ad copy such as, “patriarchy-proof underwear” or “Period (and I’m feelin’ myself because my boobs are swoll AF)-proof underwear” are unrecognizable from the frilly euphemisms and promises to make our periods “invisible” that still exist even today. These developments are important, and a long time coming, but the negative culture around menstruation sprawls further than the decisions of a few savvy ad execs. For one, Thinx ads are still described as risqué: a vulval grapefruit image was scrutinized by the New York MTA in 2015 for being “inappropriate.” And how many women discuss their periods with men? I don’t even have a period, and I’m still capable of killing a conversation by saying the word menstruate.

The language we have inherited for menstruation is also worth pausing on. The metaphors we choose influence, subtly, our expectations, and the language we use to consider our periods may shape our attitudes toward them. In Emil Novak’s The Woman Asks the Doctor, written in 1935, he quotes someone who describes menstruation as “an expression of disappointment on the part of the endometrium at the failure of pregnancy to occur.” Clearly, the dialogue around menstruation has come a long way, but books like Novak’s were written less than 100 years ago, and these ideas still permeate the public consciousness. As Emily Martin notes in her 1987 book The Woman in the Body, the language of scientific medicine at the time revolved around “the central metaphor of failed production of a baby.” As Karen Houppert writes in The Curse, Martin also criticized the negative language often used to describe menstruation, such as “decay,” “disintegration,” “shrinking,” “dribbling,” “sloughing.” Martin contrasts these words with the more active, empowering lexicon used to describe male ejaculation: boys “manufacture,” “harden,” “flood,” “swim,” “race,” “spurt.”

Even the biological explanations of menstruation feel deficient. School sex education generally relies upon diagrams rather than photos. The scientific terms for our reproductive system help, but they provide only one angle: an objective one. Growing up, terms like cervix and fallopian tube meant as much to me as Golgi body or ribosome. I understood them cerebrally, but I did not identify with them. In striving for objectivity, scientific language also objectifies: presenting our bodies (all bodies—not simply menstrual or premenstrual bodies) as parts labelled from a doctor’s perspective, rather than our own. Though preferable to obscuring phrases like privates or down there, scientific language lacks the warmer and more recognizable context of lived experience. Perhaps curriculum should empower students to explore their bodies for themselves and encourage young people to communicate about their experiences rather than receive passive information and drawings. Puberty is messier than the naming of parts, and our conversations around it should reflect that complexity.

In many cultures, puberty for women is seen as a sacred threshold into adulthood. Some link the word ritual to the Sanskrit word for menses, rtu. Traditionally, women in certain parts of the world retreated to a shared tent when they menstruated. Though this separation emerged from belief that period blood should be isolated from daily affairs, I imagine the gathering of bleeding women under one roof provided community. Friends and family would have attended their loved ones, offering food, water, massage, laughter. Women bled in companionship with other women. My first Talk in grade five offered no such rebranding. The teacher shepherded boys into one room, girls to another. A nurse folded and unfolded an industrial-sized pad. I can’t help but think that if someone had described periods as ritual to me—as magic or power or strength—an occasion to celebrate, not simply endure, I may not have so curtly discarded mine.

Instead, we’re more often taught to see our periods as burdens. As Houppert describes in The Curse, PMS has become a catch-all explanation for female complaint: a way to dismiss or pathologize our emotions by attributing dissatisfaction to unwieldy hormones. PMS also provides an excuse for women to disown their anger: “Sorry,” we say. “That time of the month.” When men get depressed, or feel sensitive or bloated, we examine these issues in isolation. “PMS” indicates a particularly feminine and unpleasant condition—for men and women alike. I’ve never heard a woman say, “I feel fantastic today: PMS.”

As someone who avoids the brunt of PMS, I have the luxury to ask, What are premenstrual bodies trying to tell us? Houppert includes testimonies from mothers who break down because the dishes haven’t been washed. I can easily imagine women who are too fatigued to work and grocery shop and clean and cook and play with their children all in one day. But perhaps feeling moody or angry or depressed is a reasonable response to some women’s circumstances and the system we live in. What if heightened sensitivity around the paramenstruum simply exposes the grief or grievances we so diligently muffle during the rest of the month? What if even-keel unflappable cheer isn’t a healthy or “normal” reaction to our lived experiences? Maybe women don’t need medication to treat their PMS, as is so often prescribed to them, but emotional support, rest, and someone to hear them.

I’m not the only woman who has seized contraception as a means to relieve my period. I’ve seen plenty of articles extolling the benefits of using the pill or an IUS to stop or reduce menstruation, such as a 2016 article in Women’s Health that asks, “Is there anything hormonal contraception can’t do?” But not everyone views hormonal contraception as mostly benign. In her 2015 essay “Why It’s Time for Women to Question the Pill,” Rachel Krantz consults Jerilynn Prior, the scientific director at the Centre for Menstruation and Ovulation Research and professor of endrocrinology and metabolism at the University of British Columbia. Prior acknowledges that the pill gave women control over their reproductive systems but suggests we move beyond this landmark. “We now not only have the power to control our reproduction,” Prior tells Krantz, “but also to affirm our own natural physiology. Once you realize the menstrual cycle serves not just a reproductive purpose, but also an extremely important physiologic purpose, then you start looking at controlling reproduction in a less cavalier way.”

To illustrate those other purposes, Prior points to the variables that fluctuate throughout our cycles, which we subdue when we take continuous hormones. For example, writes Prior, awareness of colour, creativity, emotions, and interactions with others is accentuated at times during a normal cycle. We may feel heightened sensitivity, emotional engagement, and imagination. On the pill, adds Prior, these senses may be suppressed. Personally, I’d like to know more about the gift-giving aspects of menstruation.

Maybe if fewer women stopped or reduced menstruation, more of us would explore inventive responses to bleeding, like artist Jen Lewis, who appears to be one woman creatively attuned to her cycle, does. Her macrophotography project “Beauty in Blood” captures the light and movement of her own menstrual fluid, which she pours into a vessel. The photographs are vital and startling—the blood appearing as bolts of cloth or lake weed or the mineral inclusion inside rubies. Of course, we don’t have to make period art to experience the potential for heightened creativity around the paramenstruum. For myself, I wonder if I would write differently. It bothers me that I don’t know.

It’s for these reasons and more that I’ve spent a great amount of time considering whether I’m ready to bleed again. I moved closer to yes after I stumbled on an online guide to using blood magic in spells and ritual. While some of the suggestions could be off-putting, such as baking blood wafers à la Aleister Crowley (“cake of light”) or practicing blood divination (think tea leaves but from, say, your Mooncup), the overwhelming message is mindfulness and self-empowerment. The first directive is rest: sleep early. Snooze when you want. “Yes, the material world will still have its demands and expectations,” the author writes. “But you work to different rhythms right now. Welcome and explore these urges when you can.” Let’s face it: the logistics of bleeding remain a pain the ass (or uterus). Yet I feel called to redefine my relationship to this pain. Could “my time of the month” be an invitation to rest or be still in a society that demands we work nonstop? Could it help me take a break from a buzzing device most of us sleep beside? So many humans menstruate: how revolutionary if we saw this as a manifestation of power rather than as an inconvenience. For me, relinquishing control over my menstrual cycle is a form of reclaiming my body.

Another shift in my thinking happened in January 2018, after five friends and I spent a week together in Texas. I had met most of these women only two months before, at an astrology retreat in Colorado. There was something wordless and chemical about how we bonded—and committed to seeing each other again as soon as possible. (More than ever, I feel inspired by and grateful for my friendships with other women at this time in my life.) In Texas, we spoke about power. We danced ecstatically. We soaked in a hot tub and imbibed Dionysian levels of wine. Four of them bled together on the new moon, and one had received her period two weeks earlier. Suddenly, bleeding once a month didn’t feel like frailty or inconvenience. It felt like strength—and connection. A few of these friends will not have kids: they’ve made the decision or even surgically ensured it. But they all identify with their cycles—indeed, they treasure those days of the month. When I mentioned I didn’t bleed because of my IUS device, one of them asked, “When are you going to rip that thing out of you?”

Realistically, I won’t make an appointment to remove my IUS prematurely. It expires on its own in five months. But I won’t insert another one either. I want to give my cycle a chance to regularize. To watch how bleeding impacts my creative work, my relationships, my feeling life.

In deciding this, my mind returns to Anne Frank—how compassionately she described her body, as if she recognized how precious it was. How what is precious is often also precarious. I know how to stop my period. But I no longer think it reflects my ability to master my body, as I once told myself. Rather, I’ve started to think of my cycle as a fifth vital sign. Our period goes away if we “eat stupid.” Bleeding once a month protects our bones and our hearts. Many feel more creative when they menstruate. Some feel more intuitive. Sexual. Empowered.

Since moving to Montreal in 2017, I’ve been trying to understand the French word for period: les règles, the rules. Always plural. Related to the Latin regere, “to rule, straighten, guide.” I like the implication of this—our flow might guide us and offer rules to live by, though never just one.

Eliza Robertson is the author of Demi-Gods and Wallflowers, published by Hamish Hamilton. She lives in Montreal.




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