You carefully check that no-one is looking, pop your hand into your bag and slip a tampon into your pocket, or pad under the waistband of your skirt. Then you sneak off to the toilet and hope that no-one guesses the reason why.
From the way we act you’d think periods were a sign that we’d committed a terrible crime, rather than a natural bodily function experienced by half the population.
WHAT'S WITH THE SNEAKING AND HIDING?
According to Dr Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne and author of Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, there are a couple of reasons.
“The first is we primarily think of periods as bathroom business… as a hygiene issue that needs to be tended to privately,” she says.
But where everyone uses the bathroom, only girls and women menstruate which “makes girls different from boys, and too often the things that make us different make someone be perceived – and perceive themselves – as wrong or shameful,” Dr Lauren says.
It doesn’t help that for a long time, advertisers of period-related products have contributed to the shameful vibe by refusing to say outright what they’re actually advertising. Words like ‘freshness’, ’protection’ and ‘fit’ are used, but they never say what’s being protected, why it needs to be fresh and what fits where.
It’s hard to blame them though, because when advertisers do get specific, there’s often a public backlash.
The two most complained about ads in Australia in 2014 were part of Carefree’s “Be Real” campaign, which featured women talking about embarrassing moments like realising your pad is showing through your tights.
Viewers called the ads “degrading”, “demeaning” and “perverted”, as though it’s offensive to talk openly about something that billions of people experience.
If even tampon companies get shamed for talking about periods, it’s no surprise when some girls end up wanting to hide them. It sucks though, because those feelings can stop us living life to the fullest.
NOT JUST A PAIN
Missing out on fun is bad enough, but for some girls getting your period leads to serious problems. According to children’s rights organisation UNICEF more than 500 million girls lack adequate facilities to manage their periods. Because of this they can’t work or go to school while menstruating, because there’s nowhere to change or dispose of their pads or tampons (assuming they even have them).
Girls’s rights charity Plan UK reports that only 12 per cent of girls around the world have regular access to sanitary products – the rest are forced to use rags or other unclean materials.
Homeless women here in Australia face similar issues, having no regular access to private bathrooms or washing facilities, and sometimes having to choose between buying a box of tampons or something to eat.
In these situations the idea that periods are ‘shameful’ makes things even worse, because girls don’t feel able to speak up about their needs.
Luckily there are some great organisations trying to change things.
In Australia, sharethedignity.com.au distributes free sanitary supplies to homeless women, while internationally, organisations like zanaafrica.org and begirl.org are doing amazing work to make sure periods don’t interrupt girls’ schooling and lives.
You can help these organisations by donating, getting your school to hold a fundraiser, or just sharing their message on social media.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
There are also plenty of people fighting back against the idea that periods need to be hidden.
Last year, feminist poet Rupi Kaur uploaded a picture to Instagram featuring herself curled up in bed with a bloodstain on the crotch of her tracksuit pants. Instagram removed the picture – twice – for breaching its community guidelines.
In a Facebook post, Kaur pointed out that Instagram is happy to allow pictures of women’s near naked bodies, but refuses to show any evidence of the natural processes of those bodies. (Instagram later reinstated the photo and apologised for deleting it. Win!)
A couple of months later, musician Kiran Gandhi was preparing to run the London Marathon when she realised her period had started. “I thought through my options. Running 26.2 miles (42.1 kilometres) with a wad of cotton material wedged between my legs just seemed so absurd,” she wrote afterwards. Photos of her crossing the finish line show blood on her pants and a huge smile on her face.
Changing societal attitudes, don’t feel you have to choose between walking around with bloodstained pants or hiding under the covers.
“It’s OK to want to keep things private,” Dr Lauren says. “Equally, it’s OK not to love your period – for some women the whole menstruation thing hurts, makes them emotional and makes doing certain physical things more difficult. That’s reality and pretending that a period is the greatest thing in the world is unnecessary.”
Talking about the downsides can make periods easier to deal with. If you’re currently suffering in silence, Dr Lauren recommends reaching out to the women around you: “Mums and aunties and grandmothers and older cousins are all going to have their own stories and advice. If you have a question, ask it – we all like to feel like an expert in something!”
After all, as Kiran Gandhi wrote, we’ve been “socialised to pretend periods don’t exist…” and this “prevents us bonding over an experience that 50 per cent of the world’s population share monthly.”
So let’s stop the pretence and follow the example of The Hunger Games goddess Jennifer Lawrence. When she was asked about the glam red dress she wore to the Golden Globe Awards this year she explained, without embarrassment, she picked it because she had her period and since the dress “was loose at the front… I didn’t have to worry about sucking anything in.”
We hear you Jen. Loose dresses (and no more embarrassment) for us all!