Recently, my period started while I was on an out of town work trip with a male colleague. Because I hadn’t carried any pads with me, and I wasn’t familiar with the place, I asked my colleague, who was more familiar with the place to direct me to a supermarket.
He innocently asked me what I was going to buy, and rather than say that I was going to buy pads, I beat around the bush trying to look for a suitable response; one that would not make either one of us uncomfortable.
After the incident, I wondered why I couldn’t just say that I needed pads. Had I been in need of lotion, a pair of sandals, painkillers or anything else that I might have forgotten to carry for the trip, I would have easily said it, but not pads.
The incident puzzled me quite a bit because I am generally quite open to talking about sex and sexuality issues without a sense of discomfort, yet it was difficult for me to tell a male colleague that I needed to find a shop to buy pads.
I couldn’t understand why I was so afraid of creating an uncomfortable situation, but upon deeper introspection, I realised that it wasn’t my discomfort that I was afraid of, but that of my colleague. I wondered why I was so concerned about not making my colleague uncomfortable about something as natural as a period, and noticed that we have actually been socialised to avoid making the male folk uncomfortable with what oozes from inside the female body every month.
As girls, we were taught to avoid making boys uncomfortable about our periods. We were required to hide pads from boys, not talk about periods around them and woe unto you if you stained your dress and the boys noticed it. I remembered how we often stained our dresses, because we could not easily take out pads from our bags, and go for a change. Instead of being met with empathy when we stained our dresses, we were made to feel dirty and careless for exposing the ‘filth’ that came from inside of us.
I realised the discretion around periods did not exist in the absence of boys, when I went to a girls only high school. We talked about our periods, and the accompanying physical and emotional discomfort with ease. We comfortably flushed pads out of our bags as we were going for a change, and openly asked our desk-mates if they had extras when we forgot to carry our own. We rarely stained our dresses, because we had the freedom to just walk up and go for a change, but even when we did stain, there was never a fuss made about it.
I confirmed that indeed the discretion around periods only applied to male presence when I started working. In work places we are required to be discreet about our periods because if you happen to be in a foul mood, or make mistakes as a female leader, that may be attributed to periods and hormones. We learn to be discreet about our periods because we don’t want to be considered incompetent, irrational and ill-tempered co-workers or leaders.
As the world marked the International day of menstrual hygiene on 28th of May, I thought of the discretion around periods and what that means to girls and women. While we have rightly focused on ensuring that girls do not miss school due to lack of sanitary towels, we need to question the discretion around menstruation, and the negative meanings given to a process that is only so natural. How did menstruation come to be attached to being dirty, incompetence, irrationality and poor leadership? Why can’t we talk about pads the same way we talk about lotion, painkillers and sandals?
Image Credits: Image 2