In the Blog

Farewell, Aunt Flo

May 29th, 2015     by Denise Reich     Comments

I first got my period when I was 11 years old. It was a surprise to everyone, including me. I’d always been one of the shortest and smallest girls in my class; I hadn’t reached visible puberty early. Almost overnight, though, it seemed that I’d been visited by the Breast Fairy, and she’d dragged along my period as a little bit of extra pixie dust.

I wasn’t happy. I didn’t tell my mother for a while, and I didn’t discuss it with most of my friends. When I was asked if I’d started menstruating, I usually lied and said no. Books like Judy Blume’s classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, where the girls were eager to get their periods, confused me. Who the hell would want to go through that voluntarily?

I dreaded my period because I knew that it would bring 48 to 72 hours in which my midsection would feel as though it were being roasted on an open fire. Who was it that claimed that menstrual cramps were “mildly uncomfortable”? They must have been joking. My periods were mercifully short, but they were hell. I spent many hours lying on the floor, sobbing and praying for the agony to stop. Nothing helped – not exercise, not yoga poses, not hot water bottles, not over-the-counter painkillers. By the time I was 14 I had asked my mother if I could possibly have a hysterectomy. I wasn’t kidding. When I was older, I alternated between two different over-the-counter pain killers every two hours and took herbal supplements in a desperate attempt to take the edge off the misery.

When my cycle became very irregular, I didn’t initially bring it up with a doctor, because frankly, I was glad it wasn’t coming around as often. I developed some chronic conditions that affected my hormone levels, and while I wanted those treated, I didn’t want the treatment to result in more regular periods. The intense pain never went away, and it escalated to the point where even prescription medicine like Percocet didn’t make a dent. Even laparoscopic surgery failed to explain exactly why my period was so agonizing.

Going on the Pill was the only thing that helped even slightly. And when I discovered that there was a way to take active pills continuously, and thus avoid dealing with my period altogether, I jumped, cheered and thanked the Universe for the wonders of modern medicine. Today, I don’t get a period at all. I’ve opted to remain on continuous birth control that completely prevents it. I’m aware that it has risks; any medication does. However, it’s allowed me to preserve my quality of life instead of living at the mercy of my reproductive organs.

And that’s my right.

Some individuals, both feminists and non, have decried tactics to eliminate menstruation as unnatural. When Anya (known as Lybrel in the USA), the first year-round continuous contraceptive pill, appeared on the scene, it was criticized heavily from all angles as nothing more than Big Pharma profiteering and social engineering. Sociologist Jean Elson commented, for instance: “Menstrual manipulation appears to be another in a long line of attempts to medicalize women’s natural biological life events”. Conservatives hated it, too: representatives from a major abstinence organization claimed the pill was a “war on women and children”. Some speculated on the possible dangers of suspending menstruation, but the risks and debilitation faced by the significant percentage of women with dysmenorrheaendometriosis alone is said to affect 10% – were minimized, and sometimes completely invalidated, by pundits on both sides of the aisle.

There’s a lot of truth to the assertion that society is squicked out by menstruation. Having a period might be “natural and normal,” but we’re still not supposed to talk about it in polite company. Advertisements for “feminine hygiene” products often discuss just how well you can hide your period from the world. On television and in films, it’s only acceptable to depict menstruation if a) it’s a coming of age story; b) it’s a joke; c) it’s a stereotypical vehicle to explain a female character’s moodiness. Otherwise? Merciful heavens, no. Toronto photographer Rupi Kaur’s “Period.” image of a woman with menstrual blood stains was recently pulled – and then restored – by Instagram. VICE’s “There Will Be Blood” photo essay faced derision. People have run screaming from other artistic projects which have dared to show menstruation in all its sanguine glory.

A photo posted by Rupi Kaur (@rupikaur_) on

Ironically, bloody scenes in TV shows, movies and video games are commonplace. Blood plays a major role in some religious traditions. Some rock stars use fake blood onstage. Others sing about it. Media about vampires depicts blood as an aphrodisiac. Numerous candies and drinks on the market resemble blood. Some artists paint with blood; as long as it’s from a vein, it’s considered edgy and cool. Friendly A+ mascots walk around at donation drives. You can even buy a cuddly plush model of a blood cell. Basically, Western society is completely fine with blood, provided there’s no hint that it originated in a uterus.

Are some contraceptive and feminine hygiene marketers banking on taboos and societal constructs when they cheerfully tell women that they can make their periods disappear? Do many women grow up feeling ashamed of their own bodily functions? It would be naïve to assume otherwise.

Women and girls are bombarded with mixed messages: they’re told that it’s icky to menstruate, but wrong to stop it. My own mother was horrified when I mentioned that the contraceptive I take stops menstruation completely. “Healthy and normal women have periods!” she said, aghast.

Of course, this view is short-sighted. It’s absolutely true that an involuntarily irregular or absent period may signify illness, starvation or other medical concerns. However, equating periods with one’s status as a woman or “normalcy” doesn’t get you far at the end of the day. Some women weren’t born with uteri. Some women have hormonal conditions. Some have had their reproductive organs removed. Sometimes menstruation stops temporarily or permanently for physiological reasons, such as pregnancy or menopause. Menstruation does not define womanhood.

Not everyone is on board with this. Whenever you see a doctor, if you’re female, there’s always a line on the admission form where they want to know the exact date of your last period, as though it is a banner day that you should remember off the top of your head. Once, when seeing a new practitioner, the nurses were so upset by my inability to answer that question that they showed me a calendar and forced me to make something up, just so they’d have a date on the form. I didn’t see the point, but I played along.

The thing is, we just can’t assume that if a woman wants her period to disappear, she’s acting on social conditioning. Yes, menstruation is natural, but the fact that something is a naturally occurring physiological phenomenon does not mean that it’s positive for every single individual who experiences it. Some women have aversions to menstruation and want it to go away because, in their case, it fucking hurts and interferes with their health and well-being. Some women have other personal reasons, which also should be respected.

We wouldn’t expect someone to refrain from seeking relief from chronic headaches simply because blood vessel constriction is a natural process and “part of being human.” Why should anyone suffer agonizing pain from another part of their body, simply because a third party thinks it’s “part of being a woman?”

Regardless of what society might say about it, getting my period to go away has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Tags: art, body politics

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