No matter what you think about it, periods are still having their moment. After many hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of years of silence and stigma, we are finally starting to find our tongues to talk about this most taboo of subjects.
Whilst the conversation started a while ago with events like Kiran Gandi and her free bleeding London marathon and Ruki Kaur and her banned Instagram post adventures, more recently it’s been period poverty that has really hit the headlines. Realising that lack of access to period products is affecting girls close to home and many here are missing school too because they can’t afford the necessary supplies has made us, collectively, sit up and pay attention. Yet whilst all this increased attention can only be a good thing, we still have a long way to go. Girls are still being denied access to toilets during lessons and many still start their periods not knowing what’s going on.
Menstrual leave and the tampon tax are other big headlines, both causing outrage and argument on both sides. And finally, due no doubt to the increased coverage and attention in general that periods are receiving, people suffering from conditions like endometriosis and premenstrual dysmorphic disorder are finally, but slowly, getting the diagnoses and treatment they need.
So far so good, periods are on the agenda, conversation is opening up and discussion, long restricted to hushed euphemisms, is slowly starting to happen, even if just at a media and -reluctantly – policy level so far. But even so there is a worrying – and understandable – trend developing.
It goes like this: “Hurray! At last we can talk about horrendous periods are!’
Whether or not this is your experience, it’s a dangerous narrative. In a climate where the menstrual cycle is often pathologised and hormonal contraception is the first line (and sometimes only) treatment for menstrual distress, demonising periods and celebrating our ability to do so is not going to help anyone feel any better.
Let me stop here and be perfectly clear. The experience of having periods is and has been most often an inconvenient, messy, often painful and sometimes downright distressing experience. In a culture where the whole topic has long been surrounded in secrecy and shame, most people who have periods started them as an adolescent without any support and with insufficient education.
But periods are only one part of the menstrual cycle, the most visible part perhaps, but at only 3 to 7 days out of a 25 to 35 day cycle, they’re just a small part of the story. Put in context of the whole cycle, with understanding of how and why they happen and how the body changes the rest of the time they do make more sense. But who actually knows about this in detail? Even now the only statutory requirement in England’s schools relating to period education is to teach about them in science, without reference to hormones. Given that our current understanding of the menstrual cycle is almost entirely reliant on how hormones affect and drive the menstrual cycle, it’s not surprising very few people even know it exists.
So if you’re one of those people, perhaps with a hazy memory of hearing this term at some point and knowing it relates to conception and pregnancy in some way, here’s a very brief summary:
The menstrual cycle is a stress-sensitive repeating cycle of events that centres around the female reproductive organs (principally the uterus and ovaries) that also affects the whole body. Our current understanding is that it is driven by hormonal changes, the main players being oestrogen and progesterone (along with follicle stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone) and that it is a four phase repeating process whereby eggs develop in the ovaries, one of these eggs is released, the womb lining builds up and then is shed as a period. This whole process normally lasts between 25 and 35 days and starts happening around menarche (first period) and carries on cycling around (unless pregnancy or other causes make it temporarily stop*) until it ends with menopause (periods stop). Conception is possible within 12 hours of the egg being released, and if no conception occurs the period follows approximately 14 days after this event. The first day of the period is day 1 of the cycle.
So far so medical. If you’re lucky enough to remember your biology lessons this may be familiar to you. What is rarely – if ever – taught is the lived experience of the menstrual cycle. As in, how it feels for all these changes to be happening inside you. Anyone with a menstrual cycle is likely all too familiar with how having a period affects us personally when it rolls around each time, but how many of these same people have ever considered how the rest of their cycle might be affecting them? Because if you have a menstrual cycle (and aren’t taking hormonal contraception which temporarily suppresses this cycle) then the more you pay attention, the more you will notice how your cycle affects you physically, mentally and emotionally. Ultimately, everyone is different – there are no rules or rigid expectations (although there are tendencies), just like there’s no one way to experience a period. But there is no doubt that the more you pay attention the more you will start to see patterns emerge. Just like any other natural cycle (think: annual seasons cycle, day/night cycle, breath cycle, etc) the menstrual cycle comes with its own inbuilt times of activity and rest. Mental acuity, energy levels, how sociable we feel, confidence levels, physical experiences like sensation, vaginal discharge, experience of pain, ability to deal with stress, our immune system – all of these and many more are affected and change throughout the cycle.
Ultimately, despite our cultural expectations to be able to function at our best every single day, the reality is it’s normal to have times when we feel more or less confident, more or less energised, and more or less able to do our work in the world (whatever that may be). The more we dive into the subtleties of the menstrual cycle, the more we can see that each phase comes with its own unique gifts, as well as challenges. True, in the whirlwind that most of us live in, it’s hard enough sometimes to just get the basics done each day, let alone start tracking something as hitherto mysterious as our menstrual cycle, especially if our only experience of it so far has been period-related trauma.
But I’d like to propose that the potential gain this little bit of attention and insight can bring, could just pay off a hundred fold.
Instead of focusing on how awful periods are and celebrating being able to finally talk about that fact, we could start gaining some long overdue body awareness, building not only increased trust in ourselves and our bodies, but increased resilience to the challenges regularly coming our way too. The better we know ourselves, the easier it is for us to seek out the support we need, when we need it.
That, in my opinion, really would be something worth celebrating.
Coming up next: Charting your cycle – How To!
*Events or factors that affect the menstrual cycle, either changing its length or stopping it temporarily, include: pregnancy, breastfeeding, peri-menopause, hormonal contraception, extreme weight loss or gain, stress, some drug use, some thyroid or hormonal conditions, long distance travel and no doubt anything that disturbs the status quo of our lives.
Photo 2: Pablo Varela
Photo 3: Tim Marshall