Broadcaster, journalist and author Emma Barnett says it’s high time we all talk about our period blood. She’ll go first…
All women remember their first period. Where it happened; who they were with; what raced through their mind and what they did about it. Or didn’t. The sight of blood anywhere is frightening. In your pants, it’s terrifying.
I started my period just shy of my 11th birthday in a cold toilet cubicle in House of Fraser. As I was an only child with a devoted mother, who delighted in my every milestone, I shouted out to her from the cubicle that there was something browny-red in my knickers. She told me, breathlessly, that I had indeed ‘become a woman’ and started my period. I’d just started reading Judy Blume books and had a vague idea this was a good but major thing. And then she left. In a panic. Off she ran around the whole shop floor telling anyone and everyone that her little girl was having her first bleed and asking around for a spare pad. Subtle. A few minutes later, I opened the door and watched as she gently stuck a large pad down into my stained pants. Her excitement was infectious.
“I recall bashfully taking in the smiling faces of the female shop floor staff, as if I’d just won gold in the Woman Olympics.”
All grown up
I remember feeling like I’d done something positive and exceedingly grown up. And when we walked out of the loo, I recall bashfully taking in the smiling faces of the female shop floor staff, as if I’d just won gold in the Woman Olympics. I now know my lovely mum was trying to make up for how her own mother had reacted to her first period. My mother was told, in the swinging sixties no less, that she was ill and put to bed. No explanation was given, but it became clear that it was a subject that was off-limits for discussion – the final irony being that her father was a doctor! It was a terribly confusing, scary and negative experience for her.
Mine couldn’t have been more different. On the day of my first period – over a celebratory steaming hot chocolate – as my mum delivered a basic explanation of what had just occurred (something along the lines of ‘this will happen every month and welcome to the woman club’), she was beaming and almost crying with pride. I was excited, but I also remember asking her not to tell my father. I’m not sure why I wanted to keep it from him but it was probably because it concerned something dirty in my pants to do with my vagina and he didn’t have one.
Without even realising it, I was already hard-wired to protect the man in my life from potential female grossness.
When we got home, Mum swiftly reneged on our agreement. In fact, we hadn’t even taken our coats off before she proudly told him that I had Become a Woman. Any feelings of anger I had at her big mouth were swiftly cancelled out by his understated but lovely response. Probably a touch confused as to what to say, he sweetly wished me mazel tov (like you do as a northern Jewish father who doesn’t speak that much), and swiftly went back to reading his paper. And that was that.
Except it wasn’t. Life had changed and my first period lasted for nearly three weeks. I don’t remember the pain with that one — that was to come later and to define my whole experience of periods. But the discomfort of large nappy style pads in those long first three weeks still looms large in the mind.
I dimly recall telling a few friends at school ‘I had started’, but I was one of the first to get my flow, so it was only a small number of girls who knew what I was talking about. It was to take one of my closest friends a further four years to get her period so she was oddly quite jealous. Consequently, it didn’t feel right to complain to her about my need to shift my heavy knickers about in a distinctly unladylike way in class, trying to get my new massive nappy into a comfy position and stop the adhesive underside from sticking to my legs. Mum hadn’t really catered for small knickers in her choice of sani pad.
“Periods were made to feel like a new inconvenience, but one I could totally handle. Yet so many girls suffer in ignorance and silence during their first period, establishing an embarrassment they carry for the rest of their lives.”
My main period chat was with my mum during this first flow, as she inspected my pad and asked how I had felt before and after school every day of my biblically long bleed. And because of this regular checking in (during which my doctor grandfather was also consulted on the phone as I entered my third week, and I was breezily assured all was well), my first experience, unlike so many women’s, felt OK. Cool even. Mum and I made some daft jokes and I definitely got some extra chocolate. Periods were made to feel like a new inconvenience, but one I could totally handle. Yet so many girls suffer in ignorance and silence during their first period, establishing an embarrassment they carry for the rest of their lives.
My period was also on the conversational menu at school if I wanted it to be. My girls-only school may not have given any of us the full biological low down until we were a bit older, but the largely female staff were always receptive to chats about the red stuff. (Especially the sceptical swimming teachers who listened to our tales of gore, fake and real, as we soon learned the quickest way to dodge the icy school pool was by saying we ‘had a really heavy period’. Finally, a benefit!)
Soon, though, this was a reality for me. After my relatively pain-free maiden bleed, my period quickly became a much darker experience. Clots and crippling cramps were my new norm and I found myself wincing in pain for the first two days of every cycle. My mum, who I soon learned also suffered painful heavy bleeds and was upset that history was repeating itself, was swiftly on the case.
“I felt I could openly confide my fears to my mum but I didn’t feel I could, or should, talk about it with most of my friends.”
Interestingly, I felt I could openly confide my fears to my mum but I didn’t feel I could, or should, talk about it with most of my friends – and not just because some girls were jealous, I now realise. Whilst I was prescribed contact lenses at a similar age, it felt like something I could openly bitch and moan about, no matter how insecure I felt. My period, not so much. Even when I rushed to the school loos in crippling pain, and tried to explain why to my peers, their blushing cheeks meant that I was already being socialised to keep quiet about my period. If this is what it’s like in a girls-only environment, is it any wonder that we’ve all stayed silent for so long? And I didn’t even get teased by horny pre-pubescent boys about smelling or being frigid because I was ‘on the blob’ – unlike the experiences of so many girls I know who had brothers or went to mixed schools.
Around my 12th birthday, when the monthly pains really set in, I spoke up again to my mum, refusing to believe my debilitating experience was normal and was swiftly taken to the GP who prescribed strong period-specific painkillers called mefenamic acid. I have vivid memories of both parents soothing me, as I writhed around in my bed and found myself with the runs, hobbling to the loo (yet another side-effect of periods that remains a taboo subject).
The point is, I had the period confidence to do this and suffer openly (at home at least).
I was made to feel proud on the day I bled for the first time, rather than dirty and ashamed.
Periods weren’t taboo with the few adults in my immediate daily life. I realise now, in my early thirties, how enlightened and important that reaction was. Another friend’s parents broke out into a congratulatory song in front of her brother and his pal, when she started. While she was mortified, just as I would be (not because of the subject but actually because I loathe spontaneous group singing) it also instilled within her a sense of happiness and achievement on her first period day.
I was always encouraged to talk about my feelings. But that doesn’t mean my friends and I fully understood our periods, as evidenced by our rather disastrous attempt to help a girl insert her first tampon aged 16 on a school trip.
However, the open attitudes both at home and in my schooling, and being encouraged from an early age to challenge boys at every opportunity – especially on the school bus when ‘banter’ was at the girls’ expense and was often regarding matters of puberty – led to me possessing something so few women and girls have: period pride.
Extracted from Period by Emma Barnett (HQ by HarperCollins, approx €15), out now.
Illustration by Hannah Monaghan
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