Conversations on Menstruation

Breaking the taboo

by Maggie O'Brien, photos courtesy of Putali Nepal

Deepa was 13 when she found blood dripping between her legs and staining her underwear. She was terrified. She didn’t know what was happening to her body.

I was also 13. I walked home from school after a field trip, went to the bathroom and discovered the symbol of womanhood on my jeans. I remember sliding down the blue wall in my kitchen, shaking, as I called my mom on the phone.

Ann was 14. Her mom had told her about the “birds and the bees” a few years prior, so she knew what was happening. But it was still an unpleasant, uncomfortable day.

Rosa was 12 years old. Like Ann, her mother had already explained to her what to do when the day came, so when it finally did she was prepared—and not too scared.

And Linda was 14. Seeking the one person she could trust, she ran to her older sister. Her sister, already experienced in handling menstruation, promptly demonstrated how to put in a tampon.

* * * 

We are the creators of a deep, bright red, made of cells, proteins, minerals, oxygen, nutrients and water. It circulates through our cardiovascular system, flowing inside our veins to our fingertips and toes and back to the pumping muscle in our chest. Most of the time, we keep it hidden underneath our skin. If we do confront it, it’s accidental—a slip of the hand, a tumble on the ground. When we see it, we gulp in air and stare at the brightness. The deepness. We crinkle our noses. In many cases, humans view blood negatively: it’s dirty, sticky, painful and violent. The way we react, in a mixture of disgust and fear, betrays a deeper anxiety. Blood represents the color of our mortality, and it’s meant to stay inside of us.

But for half the population on Earth, blood comes out of our body every month. (It’s important to recognize that not all people who identify as women menstruate, while some transgender men and people who identify as gender non-binary do). The uterus, in preparation for the fertilization of an egg, builds up a layer of blood and soft tissue around its walls. If no egg is fertilized, the uterus sheds its lining and it comes out through the vagina. The blood can contain a palette of colors—from muddy brown, to maroon, to that bright, deep red. Even though it’s the same blood that runs through our veins, the disgust and fear surrounding menstrual blood has a different tone. Over the course of history, certain myths have been attached to this natural process—myths that tell us where the blood is from, why it’s there, how we should manage itand how it contributes (mostly negatively) to our value as women. These myths about menstruation exist around the world, from the mango-sweet streets of Guatemala where Rosa lives, to the dusty and lush rice paddies of Nepal where Deepa goes to school, to the green forests in Linda’s Germany and to the rolling hills and manure-filled farms of Vermont where my grandmother, Ann, calls home.

Thousands of years ago, humans began crafting explanations for a woman’s monthly blood. According to the Q’eqchi’ Maya in Guatemala, menstruation began when the light of the full moon blinked out and the world fell into darkness. From the destruction dripped blood, which was carefully collected in 13 jars and eventually morphed into slithering snakes and poisonous insects. The Maya are not alone in speculating a connection between menstruation and the moon’s cycle—the word “menstruation” comes from the Latin menses, which means both “month” and “moon.” Some people say menstrual blood is subject to the gravitational pull of the moon, like the tides of a sea. This focus on menstruation is also present in Hindu scriptures. As the story goes, one day a god named Indra commits a terrible sin—he slays a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste. Unable to bear the guilt himself, Indra asks the earth, trees, and women to share the burden, and in doing so he passes women the monthly impurity of menstruation. In the Abrahamic religions, the Old Testament also mentions it: during the seven days when a woman bleeds, she is unclean. In turn, everyone and everything she touches becomes dirty too.

This image we have of blood, especially menstrual blood, is incomplete. There is a disconnect in our own understanding of creation. Blood is life. Without it, we could not breathe, or fight diseases or have a beating heart. Every month, women bleed for the continuance of our people. Yet despite the inherent necessity of menstruation, our society continues to stigmatize it.

*  *  * 

“During my period, I am not allowed to participate in any of the ceremonies. I am not allowed to drink cow’s milk as cow is considered as a goddess. I am not allowed to sleep in bed, cook, touch utensils, go to [the] kitchen or temple.”

Deepa is 18 years old and attends the Kopila Valley School in Surkhet, Nepal where I worked for three weeks last year. Founder Maggie Doyne is the inspirational force who has carved the way for hundreds of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds to receive an education. Kopila Valley is a beehive. Students swarm the schoolyard in their dark blue uniforms, soccer balls bang across the bamboo-fence, kids shout, cheer and sing, laughter rises from the classrooms, girls stand on stage and intrepidly declare why women deserve to be empowered citizens. Despite everything Kopila does to empower women—including workshops on menstrual hygiene and puberty—girls like Deepa still face some of the most extreme consequences of menstruation myths in the larger community. Deepa believes that many Nepalese women, due to illiteracy and a lack of education, are cautious to talk about menstruation. They feel ashamed. She explains that women in some areas of Nepal become “untouchable” while they have their period. In one practice, called chaupadi, women are banished to a hut made specifically for them to live in while they bleed. According to Deepa, women who undergo this practice become victims of “rape, snake bites and animal attacks,” which are sometimes fatal. Chaupadi is not practiced widely—in fact, it’s illegal—but the conception of menstrual impurity still pervades areas of Nepal and prevents women like Deepa from living their daily, healthy lives.

*  *  * 

My grandmother plants red flowers in her garden every summer. It’s one of her favorite colors. She takes care of her flowers, sends presents to her grandchildren on every holiday (even St. Patrick’s day), and happily agreed when I called her to reach back and remember what it was like to be a girl with her period in the 1940s, when the topic was even more taboo. “My mother was a very nice, open person, but it was just one of those things that people didn’t have much banter about,” she explains. “It was a nuisance, really, but I didn’t share it with anybody.” At the end of our conversation, she becomes more emphatic: “It’s sort of would think that something as different, as significant as [menstruation] would be an experience that nobody would shy away from.”

But 70 years later we are still shy, ashamed and uncomfortable. The legacy of menstrual myths has evolved into a culture of avoidance, both physical and verbal. The language, actions and products connected with menstruation distance women from the process and teach us to hide it. An article in The Washington Post this past year explains that euphemisms exist in almost every language to replace the word menstruation: “Period,” “Mother Nature,” “La Luna,” “La regla,” “The English are coming.” The list goes on. Women sneak tampons up their sleeves as they walk to the bathroom. Teenagers feel the sinking embarrassment of stepping up to the counter to pay for their pads. Girls rush to the bathroom between classes to make sure no blood leaked through their pants. And all of the disposable products for menstruation—pads and tampons, specifically—are created to minimize our interaction with our blood. Reusable products like menstrual cups and fabric pads require cleaning after use, but this seems to be too much confrontation to handle. Instead, tampons and pads allow us to soak blood up and throw it out.

The problem today isn’t necessarily a lack of resources. We have better sex education, innovative menstrual hygiene companies that make products with women in mind, countless informative online articles and a march where millions of women wore “pussy hats” to fight a sexist administration. But even within the “period positive” movement, there is a culture of exclusivity, and the range of difficulties is vast. It’s crucial to remember each woman experiences challenges unique to her own situation, especially in regard to her ethnicity, race, economic class, religion and gender identity. For instance, some women can’t afford menstrual hygiene products. In the United States, the government prevents women from using food stamps for menstrual items, which automatically puts an inaccessible price tag on them. 

If that’s the case, alternative products can be detrimental to a woman’s health or, if no other option exists, can prevent women from going to work or school. In Nepal, although Deepa’s school provides pads, sometimes she has to “use piece of cloth during [her] periods.” Many companies have tried to solve this problem by urging women to use reusable menstrual products, which are significantly better for the environment. Although some companies sell reusable products, they can be too expensive for women to make the investment up-front, even though the products pay off eventually. They also may not be culturally appropriate. In some regions of the world, women cannot insert a tampon or menstrual cup into their vaginas because they believe it breaks the hymen, therefore breaking their virginity. While this belief stems from menstrual myths and misogynistic values, it’s important to recognize and respect what women feel comfortable doing—something Linda took to heart when she and her friend founded a startup called Putali Nepal.

I met Linda on the black-and-white checker floorboard of a house in Kathmandu, where I moved the semester before I came to Colorado College. Linda seems to bounce into the room, with a short pixie haircut and a melodious, excited voice that switches from English to German and back again. She’s up-front in the best way possible, and not too shy to tell women about her own period or give specific details about inserting a menstrual cup.

Linda’s NGO, Putali (which means “butterfly” in Nepalese, a symbol of the potential for transformation and change) provides workshops about menstruation to women in rural areas of Nepal, teaches them about a menstrual cup called the “Ruby Cup,” and sells a colorful, culturally appropriate, scientifically correct comic book about menstruation. A team in India originally created the book, called “Menstrupedia.” Putali translates it into Nepalese, prints it in Kathmandu and gives it to local NGOs who then disperse it to schools, workshops and other organizations throughout the country. “We have to really understand the difference between tradition, religions, and myths,” Linda says. “To go [to Nepal] and talk about this topic does not have anything to do with trying to break their religion or tearing them apart from their really has to do with breaking myths, and really tell them: this is not healthy for your body, this is really dangerous.” Putali recognizes that menstrual cups might not necessarily be what all women want, whether due to cultural factors or simple necessities like access to clean water, which is necessary for rinsing off the cup. Putali’s mentality is that “you have to decide on your own… you have to decide whether or not you want to take it, because it’s your choice.”

And that’s what we’re missing: choice. The ideal situation would be that every single woman, everywhere in the world, decides how she feels about her body. An article on Menstrupedia’s website writes that women should be allowed to experience the multitude of feelings associated with menstruation. Some can hate it and groan when they see a red dot on their underwear. Maybe they shrug their shoulders and move on with their day. Some may respect it. Others can love when it pools from their body, in both its discomfort and its brightness.

But for many women, the freedom to choose does not exist. The world has already decided for them that menstruation is poisonous, shameful or disgusting. And if not that, it’s a sign of fertility and reproduction, or the reason women are moody and unable to work and study effectively. Around the world, companies, governments, schools, media and men treat women’s bodies like marionettes. They tie us up on strings and control us from afar, and we have no choice but to dance along.

We do this dance in silence. Dripping through almost every community, in every country, is the notion that menstruation is not something to be spoken of.  It’s an imposed silence.

Mothers may whisper to their daughters, or slide books underneath their doors or show them a YouTube video. But the volume is low. We tiptoe around vagina, uterus and ovaries. We call menstruation by other names. We hide our emotions and our products. When girls stare at that red stain for the very first time, their heart thumps. And sometimes, they’re terrified to ask for help.

* * *

The first time I met Rosa, in San Juan Laguna, Guatemala, she was wearing a beautiful, intricately-patterned traje, the traditional Mayan blouse. She bent down on her knees, with her long, shiny black hair tied up behind her and showed us how the weaving process begins: with cotton and colors. Rosa works in a women’s weaving cooperative called Casa Flor Ixcaco, whose mission is to grow, dye and weave traditional fabrics. It’s a group of women who took initiative to narrow the gender gap in economic opportunity within their own community, and now they’re thriving. They receive a fair price for their final products, and the money they make goes directly to their livelihoods and children’s education. They started a ripple effect: working women are empowered women, who then empower their children, who then empower theirs.

Rosa sees ideas about menstruation changing around her. Some of the older women in her community shy away from the topic. She, too, feels uncomfortable at times, but she understands the necessity for women to understand their bodies. Rosa knew what to expect the day she got her period because her mother had taken the crucial step of beginning a conversation with her about menstruation. I ask Rosa how she will raise her daughter, still a toddler, to think about her body. She says: “I will start to talk with her like my mother did it with me.”

When Linda travelled to Nepal and conducted one of the first workshops of women trying the Ruby Cup, the most important feedback she received had nothing to do with whether the women liked it or not: it had to do with conversation. The younger girls wanted to do the next workshop with their “aunts, moms and grandmas so they could feel comfortable to talk about this topic in the family.” It makes sense. Breaking the silence can be difficult. We need more space to talk about menstruation until, over time, it becomes normal.

* * *

Two years ago, Rupi Kaur, a Canadian poet and artist, posted a photograph of herself on Instagram lying on a bed with a red stain on her pants and on the sheets. Instagram flagged the photo because it violated their “community standards” and took it down. After protests on social media, Instagram finally apologized and put the photo back up. Kaur responded:

“We menstruate and they see it as dirty, attention seeking, sick, a burden. As if this process is less natural than breathing. As if it is not a bridge between this universe and the last. As if this process is not love. Labour. Life. Selfless and strikingly beautiful.”

We are the creators of a deep, bright red. We don’t choose the color, or the way it comes out of us or how it feels. But we have the choice to continue our conversation about menstruation—to make it louder and span generations. Cross the vast oceans of our world, from Deepa, to Ann, to Linda and to Rosa. We have the power to base our words, actions and beliefs on truths, instead of myth.

Part of the Red Issue