You check 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. Casually, you announce you’re off to the toilet and hope that no one guesses the real reason why.
From the way we act, you’d think periods were a sign that we’ve committed a terrible crime and need to be shunned from society 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.’
But whereas everyone poops and pees, 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.’
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, using words like ‘freshness’, ’protection’ and ‘fit’ but never saying what’s being protected, why it needs to be fresh and what needs to fit where!
It’s hard to blame them though; 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 ‘Get Real’ campaign, which featured women talking about embarrassing moments like realising your pad is showing through your leotard. 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 some girls end up wanting to hide them. It sucks though, because those feelings can stop us living to the full - as anyone who’s ever turned down an invitation because they’re worried someone will notice a leak, smell or other ‘evidence’ knows.
Not just a pain
Missing out is bad enough, but for some girls getting your period leads to more serious problems. According to UNICEF more than 500 million girls and women lack adequate facilities to manage their periods. One consequences of this is that they can’t work or go to school while menstruating because there’s nowhere to change or dispose of their pads or tampons. That’s assuming they even have such things. PLAN UK reports that only 12 percent of girls and women around the world have regular access to sanitary products; the others are forced to use rags or other unclean materials which can cause infections.
Homeless women right 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 all these situations, the idea that periods are shameful makes things worse, because girls and women 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 all of 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 their own periods need to be hidden. Last year, poet Rupi Kaur uploaded a pic to Instagram of herself curled up in bed with a blood-stain on the crotch of her tracksuit pants. Instagram removed the pic - 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. Win!)
A couple of months later, 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 with a wad of cotton material wedged between my legs just seemed so absurd,’ she wrote afterwards, explaining her decision to ‘bleed freely and just run.’ Photos of her crossing the finish line show blood on her pants and a huge smile on her face.
While actions like these are important in changing societal attitudes, you shouldn’t feel you have to choose between walking around with blood-stained pants or hiding under the cover. ‘It's okay to want to keep things private,’ Dr Rosewarne says. ‘Equally, it's okay 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.’
Indeed, it’s talking about the downsides that can make them easier to deal with. If you’re currently suffering in silence, Dr Rosewarne 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% of us in the human population share monthly.’
So let’s stop the pretence and follow the example of Hunger Games goddess Jennifer Lawrence who, when asked about her glam red dress at the Golden Globe Awards explained, calmly and without embarrassment, that she’d 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!