After years of euphemistically portraying menstrual blood as blue water and delicately avoiding any actual portrayal of menstruation, a major pad manufacturer has finally acknowledged that women in fact do bleed red fluid onto bunches of cotton we stick in our underpants.
The notice that this otherwise unremarkable ad has garnered highlights how uncomfortable we are as a society discussing menstruation. Just think about how many euphemisms there are for menstruation! We collectively skirt the subject, talk about it in hushed tones (if at all) among mixed company, and generally don’t acknowledge that it’s a normal biological function that a very large portion of the population experiences regularly. It’s a Culturally Big Deal, even to adults who’ve been menstruating for years or decades.
It’s an even bigger deal for teenagers: everything about their bodies are shifting and changing, and there’s little helpful guidance to grab on to to try to make sense of it all. Our mothers generally give us the basics of what’s going on, how to use pads or tampons, and give us Advil and heating pads, but there’s a whole social minefield to navigate, and adults are often of little help with that. That minefield is squarely centered around ensuring that no one around you knew that you were menstruating, from the worries about leaks to keeping pads hidden away to explaining away discomfort. Menstruating was a very alien experience to me as an early teenager, and I was deeply worried that my discomfort (both emotional and physical) that was so palpable to me was similarly as plain as day to everyone around me. At that age, I would’ve been mortified if that were actually true, though as I’ve aged and grown many orders of magnitude more comfortable in my skin, I am more or less unfazed by anyone else knowing what’s going on in my underpants/abdomen. Not that it’s any of their beeswax, though.
Also in the news is a school in northern Toronto that allows Muslim students to leave class to attend a prayer service at the school. Almost all the discussion of this is either about the (public) school’s decision to make prayer services available to its overwhelmingly Muslim student body, or about how the prayer sessions are gender-segregated (boys at the front, girls behind separated by benches).* But a Toronto Star columnist pointed out that not only are the girls separated, but girls who are menstruating are further segregated and not allowed to pray. These are girls typically in grade 7 or 8, so around 12 or 13 years old.
Now. I was ill at ease with pretty much every aspect of menstruation initially, and having talked to friends of mine, this is not an uncommon experience. Having my menstrual status, as it were, made public knowledge would’ve been mortifying. It was bad enough having to tell my very matter-of-fact Mom about it, but more or less telling everyone in the room? Did none of the adults think about how deeply uncomfortable this would probably make the girls feel? Even if the organizers were all male, wouldn’t they at least have the sense to talk to some women about it, since they don’t have a tangible understanding of that experience?** And wouldn’t those women remember what it was like to feel like a stranger in your own suddenly-morphing body and how deeply uncomfortable and unsettling it was when that body and those changes were publicly announced without you having any power over the situation?
Obviously, my first reaction to this was “I bet most of them are lying about it – I know I would,” and honestly, I hope they are. No one has any right to know whether or not a girl or woman is menstruating at any given time, and it shouldn’t affect how that girl or woman moves the world. That their menstrual status is not only made public but sidelines them in such a tangible and obvious way just adds insult to injury. It reinforces the shame often associated with menstruation and paradoxically shoves any frank and non-judgmental discussion of it further into the closet to be buried under heaps of embarrassment. How are these girls going to come to mentally and emotionally healthy terms with menstruation if this is what they have to navigate?
If anything, the combination of these two totally unrelated things underscores how important it is for us, as a society, to take menstruation from the overwhelmingly private (and thus mysterious and embarrassing) and learn how to talk about menstruation in public without resorting to euphemisms, hedging around, or flat-out avoidance. If we can’t do it as adults, there’s little hope for us helping our teenagers navigate those bewildering years. And while we’re doing that, we need to make sure teenagers have the privacy to come to grips with their bodies away from the judgment of adults (though of course with support and guidance available, should they feel comfortable asking). We’ve just gotten to the point where a major pad manufacturer is putting a red dot on a pad. We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re at least headed in the right direction.
* For the record, I’ve no issue with a public school putting in place a way for students to observe their faith without missing class. I do have a big issue with the students being segregated, and I hope that due to the public discussion about this in the news, that gets changed.
** I’m assuming that none of the men involved in this are trans* men.