Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Men don't know much about periods so women need to lead the conversation'

Periods are a fact of life for girls and women from their early teens to their early 50s.
Periods are a fact of life for girls and women from their early teens to their early 50s.

Ciara Kelly

We've been hearing a lot about periods lately - and by a lot, I mean a tiny amount but that's still a lot in period terms where usually we have an omerta on mentioning it at all.

I feel sorry for young girls starting out with their menstrual periods because not only does it sound pretty bleak when you describe it to them, "Well, you see, you bleed from your vagina every month for around three to seven days and it can be painful". Cue wide-eyed terrified stare.  But also they're joining a gang where the rules around talking about it, are stricter than fight clubs.

Periods, or shark week, as a pal of mine describes it, are a fact of life for girls and women from their early teens until their early 50s, generally speaking. There's a pretty wide array of experiences that people have from a couple of days of light and painless bleeding, all the way up to people who are laid low in their beds, in severe pain, passing clots. Personally, I have always refused to use terms like 'Having your friend' or the hideous 'Aunt Flo is visiting' as I dislike the idea that we should pretend that it's not happening and sweep our bodily functions under the carpet. But all these euphemisms exist because there is a major societal taboo about talking about it. Even women in all-female groups will rarely mention periods - and if they do, it's often awkward.

And it is a strange thing. Bodily functions that affect both men and women - for example, urinating - are quite widely discussed. Albeit more by men than by women, generally speaking. But women-specific bodily functions are wiped from the slate of socially acceptable conversation. It's an actual taboo. Why is that?

Well, for my money, it's part of a general social constraint around women's bodies. Where basically any aspect of them that isn't perceived as sexy, is made invisible. So periods, along with stuff like breast-feeding, become things we don't talk about. It's part of the global narrative about women, which, like all global narratives, is male led.

In most cultures, men decide what acceptable conversation is. Men set the tone. Men set the agenda. But we cannot simply blame men for the absence of any mention of periods. Men don't know much about periods so if they're ever going to become something that it's okay to talk about, women need to lead the conversation.

I remember being a 14-year-old girl in a mixed school and being literally terrified in class that my period would come and I wouldn't be allowed go to the toilet. Or it would come and I wouldn't have protection at the time. I was petrified someone would know I had it. My guess is that's a universal experience, but I can't be sure because I never told anyone at the time, and I haven't talked about it since.

Women are currently discussing in the English media whether or not it's okay to tell a boss they need to miss work due to menstrual problems or whether they should pretend it's something else. Kiran Gandhi made a statement recently when she ran the London marathon on the first day of her period without using protection so she bled down her legs.

I'm not sure I'd like that myself - although I've no objection to her doing it, but I do know that women need to stop being ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, themselves. Women need to be unafraid to say why they're missing a day off work. Need to be unafraid to say if they're upset, down or tearful because they're due their period - without that being a joke. Need to be able to speak about their experiences. Need to express their own needs.


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