Hey, World. Periods Still Suck
Periods are really en vogue right now. There’s chic, absorbent underwear you bleed all over on purpose! Fancy subscription services that deliver 100% organic tampons to your front porch! Sleek phone apps that track your cycle via colorful flowcharts! It’s as if menstruation is the new It Girl and we’ve filled her dressing room floor-to-ceiling with elaborate tokens of our affection. Those with cycles are part of her posse. So, by association, women are having a moment too. Though I’d love to simply bask in the glow of my lady parts’ newfound fame, one thing cannot be denied: periods are terrible. At best, they’re a messy monthly phenomena with minimal side effects. At worse, they’re an emotional and physical hurricane. There’s nothing glamorous or easy breezy about hemorrhaging every 30 days and the reality of this is never as fresh as the day you get The Talk.
My mom was the one who dropped the P Bomb on me at age ten. Most girls have some exposure to the idea of periods prior to being cornered by their parents; older sisters or hifalutin friends who softened the blow and fielded subsequent questions like a wise sage. I, however, was sheltered to the point of knowing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Mom had even signed me out of the sex ed portion of fifth grade health. As a result, my working theory on childbirth involved a woman’s navel stretching till it was big enough for a baby to pass through.
Up until The Talk, I hadn’t thought much about the anatomical differences between boys and girls either. Sure, we might look different, but our organs served the same purpose. The idea that a handful of mine had been lying dormant and would soon pull me into an involuntary fertility rite felt like a betrayal. I didn’t want my insides to suddenly be consumed with prepping for a non-existent baby. I wanted to remain free! The pubescent fate that awaited me was inevitable and open-ended. Aunt Flo could arrive next week or months from now. She lurked in the shadows of my fallopian tubes, daintily snacking on Fig Newtons and waiting for the day I wore white shorts in public.
The idea that a handful of mine had been lying dormant and would soon pull me into an involuntary fertility rite felt like a betrayal.
I was one of the unlucky few whose period arrived in elementary school. I blame it on my hometown being a superfund site. The polluted soil from ancient automotive factories made for great mud pies, one of which must have splattered across my torso, revving my ovaries like a Ford motor on an assembly line. Getting my period early meant not having anyone to commiserate with. It also didn’t seem normal to carry a purse between classes because none of the other girls had one. Instead, I shoved mine in my backpack, sneaking it to the bathroom whenever I needed a change. Although, the bathroom wasn’t a safe space either. The thought of someone hearing a wrapper crinkle or a sanitary bin creak open was akin to social suicide. Then, there would be no hiding. Everyone — classmates, teachers, bus safeties, janitors — would know I was on the rag.
Deciding on a protection of choice filled me with equal angst. Hoping to offset further period questions, Mom gave me a book published by American Girl called The Care and Keeping of You. American Girl’s transition from writing about historical dolls to puberty was a seemingly rough one. The book contained vague diagrams of female anatomy, breast development and a tampon tutorial, all of which were done by a shaky-handed illustrator. The tampon tutorial proved to be the most baffling. Propping the book against the toilet tank, I studied the instructions, mystified as to how an American Girl like me could successfully pack my musket.
Besides sheer logistics, tampons were also scarier than pads due to Toxic Shock Syndrome. TSS is super rare, but you’d never know that from the amount of fear that was instilled in me about the infection. In the decade that followed, I saw tampons as ticking time bombs. The moment one went in, I started my stopwatch, quickly jumping into the ocean or rushing through tennis practice, then sprinting to the nearest toilet to rip it out before I turned septic. One summer, I went on a trip to Dorney Park with my Grandma while on my period. Not wanting to have to worry about TSS on top of a roller coaster dubbed Steel Force, I opted for pads. What I had forgotten about were the water rides. Stepping off the log flume, I felt as if my sopping wet pad had absorbed half the murky river. I pigeon-toed off to the bathroom to change it and immediately weighed two pounds lighter. Wanting to play it cool, I pretended my emergency exit was due to drinking too much Gatorade. Not missing a beat, Grandma casually replied, “Oh. I thought it was because your tampon was falling out.”
In the decade that followed, I saw tampons as ticking time bombs. The moment one went in, I started my stopwatch, quickly jumping into the ocean or rushing through tennis practice, then sprinting to nearest toilet to rip it out before I turned septic.
I’d be remiss not to mention the painful side of periods as well: cramps. Bad cramps started to be a thing for me in middle school. One morning, I was twisting the dial of my locker when a dull ache started to balloon in my abdomen. By lunchtime, the pain had spread to the tops of my thighs and lower back. I went to the nurse and laid in a fetal position on a cot while she called my parents. At home, I was handed a bottle of Advil. The pain meds made the cramps manageable, but their effectiveness hinged on my ability to remember to take them before and during my period. I’d start popping pills in the days leading up to it to coat my system and continue taking them every four hours till it ended. Occasionally, I’d forget to pack the bottle. I’d feel a telltale throb and instinctively reach inside my bag, dread building as I fumbled to find nonexistent relief. Whenever a movie hero accidentally ingests poison, he must move quickly in order to subvert a slow death. In those Advil-bereft crises, I needed to find an antidote just as fast or suffer the consequences. If a drugstore wasn’t within reach, I’d barter, beg or limp for miles till I found my gel cap fix.
As I’ve gotten older, the cramps have subsided. I attribute it to the built-in exercise New York City provides as well as a stint on the pill that put my eggs in time out. The one period symptom I still regularly deal with are mood swings. PMS puts my existing neurotic, introspective tendencies into overdrive. Everything becomes dire, stress-inducing or hopelessly sad. During my period, I wander teary-eyed into bodegas and use dried salami logs to knock down tampon boxes from shelves I can’t reach. I mentally sort my friends into two buckets: people who would visit me in the hospital versus people who would just send cards. I daydream about apologizing to an ex by way of an elaborate ribbon dance routine set to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”
During my period, I wander teary-eyed into bodegas and use dried salami logs to knock down tampon boxes from shelves I can’t reach.
Though I often feel loopy while on my period, I’m not quick to clue others in. Similar to Fight Club, the first rule of period problems is not to talk about period problems. Women tend to stay tight-lipped because of sexist individuals like our President. You know, the ones who claim the “blood coming out of [our] wherever” makes us crazy. If women actually became unhinged during their periods, it would have led to the collapse of civilized society. For centuries, we’ve been tilling fields, dancing elaborate jigs, migrating by land and sea, earning degrees, breaking records, raising kids, growing companies — all while feeling the slow, steady drip of blood stalactites in our collective uterin caves. Our biology forced us to learn multitasking before to-do lists were even a thing. We’ve become pros at assessing our internal state and rising above it. Why not laud us for the steely badasses we are versus peg us as hormonal?
For centuries, we’ve been tilling fields, dancing elaborate jigs, migrating by land and sea, earning degrees, breaking records, raising kids, growing companies — all while feeling the slow, steady drip of blood stalactites in our collective uterin caves.
If my own saga is any indication, periods are far from chill. I had ten blissful years without a period and if I finish menopause by sixty, I’ll have at least ten more before I die. Does all this sound like a depressing forecast? It totally is. So, in lieu of more fancy period products or another ad comparing my vagina to a pomegranate, I’d like to propose something else. How about we as women all agree to stop downplaying the true suckiness of periods? When Todd from Accounting asks why you’re dragging at work, don’t make up a vague excuse. Tell him you’re woozy because you’re currently a Red Cross blood donation from the waist down. Maybe not in those exact words, but you get my point. If Todd is a decent dude, he might even use your brutal honesty as an opportunity to develop period empathy, since he himself is #blessed enough to not have a uterus.
Women can’t banish their periods to hell, but we should be able to raise hell about them. We’ve been surfing the crimson wave with a smile on our faces for far too long.