My mom is the one who told me about periods, when I was about 11 or 12. It came out of nowhere, in the midst of our respective morning routines. While I was brushing my teeth to get ready for the school, and she was, no guesses involved, busy in the kitchen. It was so sudden yet so brief, that it baffled me and left me with a lot of questions. Maybe, it was intentional of her to choose that particular time in order to keep the already one-sided conversation as concise as possible. I still don’t know.
Yet, that teeny-tiny bit of the information was all I had even when I got my period at the age of 12 – until Class 8, when the chapters on reproduction and adolescence were introduced, I finally enlightened myself.
I got so intrigued by how magical my body seemed to be that I researched every bit of related information on all the relevant sites possible and consumed whatever I could comprehend. Perhaps, I would have appreciated some advice from my parents, especially my mom, but the internet was all I had. Even school bestowed very indirect, limited knowledge on the subject, courtesy our old-school Indian education system.
Despite gaining all the worldly knowledge about my body and its ‘newly-found’ functions, one thing which I couldn’t understand for the longest time was the social turmoils around menstruation. The hullabaloo around women’s bodies, especially periods, seemed so intangible yet so visible that even I adopted certain mannerisms to conform to such social ‘norms’.
From taking the sanitary napkin to the school washroom with utmost secrecy as if it was a weapon, to always talking about periods in a hush-hush tone and absolutely not conversing about it in front of boys and men, the shame around it became a normal, everyday part of my life.
Over the growing years, I realised, almost all the time, the patriarchal narrative of controlling women’s bodies was inculcated by another woman. And half of it was experienced by me within the four walls of my home.
From hiding a sanitary napkin in my pocket, to making sure any period stains were always cleaned by me while no one could see. From wildly crying during menstrual cramps and disguising it as ‘tabiyat kharab hai’ or ‘pet dard hai’ every time my dad or brother asked me ‘what happened’, to never ever talking about periods or the fact that I am menstruating in front of them. I have done and experienced it all.
Although my dad has always been considerate enough to bring me a hot water bottle and something to eat as soon as I start complaining about cramps, my 18-year-old brother always seems lost – thus, being the least helpful of the lot. Meanwhile, I still try to talk about it with both of them, but, especially with my ‘not so’ baby brother, I always seem to fail. It feels as if the lack of courage and deep-rooted shame puts me at loss of words whenever I try – and not to forget, my Mom’s discomfort around it.
Almost every hiding ‘technique’ I mentioned above, I have learnt them from her. But I won’t blame her. While we all are patriarchal in some or the other way, including me, she’s no different. I mean, what’s patriarchy without doubly affecting anyone who identifies as a woman, right?
More than for me, the whole regressive period culture has made my mom’s life complicated and tough and I refuse to believe it is any different for others alike. While my mom, being the most ‘sanskari’ kind she has always been, has made herself comfortable around not addressing her pain at all and diligently handling all the household chores and her work simultaneously. It’s only I, among the four of us, who could see her discomfort as soon as she starts menstruating, while she refuses to acknowledge it completely. While it’s easier to romanticise the pain by fooling ourselves using the ‘women are born with pain built in them’ narrative, it’s much more complicated.
While women make themselves aware about such a concept, sooner or later, for obvious reasons, it is the boys and men around who seem very oblivious. Yes, the social conditioning factor exists – but there’s nothing you cannot learn and make yourself consciously aware about. While I hardly think I would be able to communicate effectively with men anytime soon on such a closeted topic, here’s a guide (without any scientific innuendos) on how boys and men could become good ‘period allies’ with simply understanding the basics.
Listen and understand
While men aren’t ever going to get periods, the least anyone start with is by listening to women more. Even though you can’t resonate with the pain and discomfort we go through every month, being considerate and empathetic does help. Even if the cues aren’t verbal, try to comprehend the narrative through visual and non-verbal cues instead. As a partner or a family member, take the responsibility of understanding ever-changing moods, mental health state and the pain of your partner menstruating member and never dismiss their pain as something as just being ‘in their heads’.
To the male members of my family, whenever I indicate that my stomach is aching, it’s always menstrual cramps. Until told otherwise.
I know, it should be the parents, especially our moms who should have taught us about this even before our teens, it’s never too late. As a woman, it’s always going to be tough initiating conversation on such a sensitive topic, that doesn’t mean men can’t try. If a face-to-face conversation isn’t viable, there’s always the option of texting. Also, the conversation doesn’t need to be on periods as a societal issue, but could also be just a decent feeler by asking us how we are feeling.
Help, help, help
… As much as possible. While the domestic load is hardly shared among men and women, even if it is, it’s never equal. Men really need to start learning some basic stuff. It might seem easier to remain a ‘man-child’ forever, but it only adds onto our never ending load. While some of us do take pride in managing both the home and work situations well, we still wouldn’t mind a helping hand which is genuinely of some help and doesn’t get away by just laying the table or cleaning the kitchen. I mean, who would not want to rest and instead do the dishes you left in the sink or wash the unkempt laundry? Literally, no one! Also yes, bringing us sanitary napkins, necessary medicines and chocolates (duh!), is also included.
Explain, not mansplain
Explain the concept to other men, your child, even elders or anyone around you as soon as you make yourself aware of it and try to dismantle the shame around it. But don’t mansplain, EVER. No ‘experienced’ woman needs to hear about how she should handle herself during her PMS, periods and menopause, at least not from a man. Unless, someone is from a medical background, ofcourse. That too, not in a dismissive way at all.
Dismantle male gaze
While the awry situation might still remain, it’s necessary to not make it worse with your discomforting male gaze. From our sudden trips to the washroom to taking out the sanitary product in public, from talking about period stuff with other people to getting the red stain on our clothes. Nothing calls for some unwanted stares, whispers and weird smirks. Even if you cannot be a helper or a healer in such situations, do not make it worse than already it is.
Use your privileges
While it could take ages to dismantle the patriarchy, the most powerful and privileged of the lot are still men and probably going to be for years to come. It’s imperative that you look beyond the capitalist system and start making conscious decisions surrounding yourself and others. There’s so much you could do other than the points mentioned above. Starting an open dialogue around women and their needs, making formal and informal sectors more women friendly, making sanitary products economical and more accessible, addressing women’s needs more urgently and with utmost care, making comprehensive sex education compulsory, to name a few.
– Don’t fall for any myths or taboos. The achaar doesn’t get ruined if a menstruating woman touches it nor is it a sin to enter temples and kitchens while menstruating.
– Periods aren’t equal to sex or masturbation. Not at all. While sex and masturbation are optional and according to our needs, there’s no getting away from periods, unless we have PCOD/PCOS or any other medical condition which could stall our period cycle. These medical conditions aren’t any sort of fairy tale either.
– If you think getting kicked in the balls is the same as having PMS and periods literally every month, then ask yourself this question, ‘what is it that you are doing every month in order to get kicked in the balls?’
Neha Kapoor is a Journalism and Mass Communication graduate, currently on a path of introspection and exploration (read: career break).
Featured image credit: Annika Gordon/Unsplash