Four conversations I wish I’d had about my period and one I’m glad I didn’t miss

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I joined SafeHands just as we started our Period Positive campaign – It’s a Menstrual Cup which means that from day one of my time here, we have been talking about periods and period stigma almost constantly. All this period talk got me thinking about all the conversations I haven’t had about my period over the years and probably should have. So, here are four conversations I wish I had about my period and the one I’m grateful I didn’t miss.

“Mate, why are you scared by a pad? …”: At secondary school my friendship group was pretty much 50:50 girl/boy. But, even as a den of early 00s equilibrium, periods were very much an area of unease for all parties involved. (Maybe a fear that we would attract bears to the playground?) Always looking for an opportunity to cause embarrassment, the girls leaned into this unease by sneaking (clean) sanitary pads into our male friends’ schoolbooks between classes, so when opened, the pad would fly across the floor. Red faced and horrified, the boys had momentary public discomfort, and yet it was a slight relief from our week-long private discomfort. But wouldn’t it have been better if we’d had a more open conversations between menstruators and non-menstruators? It would have saved both sides a lot of embarrassment (and more than a few unused pads).      

“I’ve just started my period and need to take the day…” Magicians have nothing on most people’s ability to hide a tampon or menstruation product as they walk to the toilet. A skill that probably doesn’t make it onto most CVs. Yet, the menstruating workforce is too often just like that tampon – hidden. I have rarely acknowledged my period in the workplace even when it has caused me to lose concentration, leave early or take a sick day, usually opting for an alternative excuse about my absence. My period affects my body and can affect my work. Yet for my whole career, I’ve tried to act as though it’s wasn’t happening. I wish I had been more open about the potential impact of my period on my efficiency and effectiveness at certain moments in the month and pushed for organisations to think about their duty of care to menstruators. In an era that has welcomed discussions of wellbeing and mental health awareness in the workplace, the lack of discussion on menstruation in many organisations is a glaring omission.   

 “Periods are not a luxury. Stop taxing them like they are…”: Research in 2015 suggested that over the course of a lifetime someone menstruating in the UK may spend a whopping £18,450 on sanitary products and period-related purchases. Sanitary products, unlike your favourite marshmallow teacakes, still carry a 5% VAT rate. A zero% VAT rate for these essential products is needed urgently but so is further investment by the government to reduce period poverty. Every year more than 135,000 girls miss out on school in the UK because of period poverty, no girl should miss out on education because of a lack of sanitary products.        

“My cramps are so bad today…” Let’s be straight, periods are not a leveller across age, social class, or gender. Everyone experiences and responds to their period differently. Over the years, numerous women have helpfully told me to throw a couple of paracetamols at the issue and ‘woman up’. Having propped up Boots’ share prices for the last two decades, I can confirm that sometimes taking a painkiller is the equivalent of using a fire blanket on an erupting volcano. More than that, this sentiment [even when done with the best intention] can suggest that to acknowledge, and potentially give in to, the physical and mental discomfort of periods is a sign of weakness.  

I’m happy for anyone who isn’t bowled over by period pain each month, but just because you “woman up” doesn’t mean that I should feel I have to. Perhaps we can be a little more compassionate to our fellow menstruators and acknowledge each other’s feelings – both physical and mental – and avoid language that belittles this bloody awful time of the month.       

“Sit down, we need to talk about something”: In 1996 my Mum gave me the low-down on periods and what I could expect. At a time when 1 in 4 girls don’t know what to do when they start their period, my Mum gave me the information and skills to be able to manage it without being afraid of it. And then continued to support me through every period-related moan and pain ever since. Thanks Mum, your advice and support has been invaluable!   

…the thing is, it’s not too late. I can still have these conversations and contribute to the reduction of period stigma and spread a little positivity, or at least compassion. You can too.

Nancy Durell Mckenna