Menstruation Education is Fundamental and Must Become Cyclical: An Essay by a Person with a Period

I got my period for the first time on a Saturday morning in late December. It was the initial day of my grade seven winter holiday. I woke up to brightness. My room felt clean, relaxed, calm and truly like my happy place. 

The inside of my room was as clear as the sunny, winter morning awakening outside. Like something after a snowfall. My periwinkle walls were glowing in the light sneaking in from between my blinds, through my colourful curtains. 

It felt as though I was taking a walk outside and could feel the cold air tickle my nasal cavity and put pressure on my bare forehead. That morning felt like any pre-holiday morning should feel. Things were in place and excitement was tenfold. 

As with any other Saturday, I rushed to the bathroom in an attempt to beat my brother to the shower. Soon, I found a red, darker than suspected, surprise on my underwear. As someone who had a hard time fitting in at school, seeing my period right there, staining my cotton underpants, brought a moment of excitement to this now unusual start to the holidays. I had one more check under my, “Things That Make Me Like Other Girls,” column. 

However, I then began to calculate how I would discreetly get my mom’s attention. She was still sleeping and was in the same room as my dad. I needed a pad and I needed her to show me how to put it on. I knew where she kept them, but I also knew that if I opened their bedroom door and took that first step into their space, my foot would likely find that one creaky floor-board and wake them up. 

Their first question would be, “What’s wrong?” And then, because I was the worst liar, I’d have to explain what I needed. I’d have to tell my mom, in the presence of my dad, that I had gotten my period; that there was blood flowing out of my vagina and onto my clothes. 

I want to add that my dad never once said anything to make me feel uncomfortable about periods, but somewhere deep inside me, I knew that this new chapter was something I was expected to hide and of which I should feel ashamed, especially when in the presence of someone who identifies as a man.

That morning, I sat on my bed until my mom woke up. I knew that if I left my door slightly ajar she would peek her head into my room before making her way downstairs to prepare breakfast. She did just that. When I told her what had happened, she immediately ran to get me a liner. I heard her whisper something to my dad and quickly felt like I had been exposed. I was scared to even show my face at the table, as if eating my breakfast while experiencing menstruation was a bad omen. 

Later that day, while en route to my brother’s hockey game, my mom and I stopped in at a drugstore to buy thicker material, because of course, the liner was not working in my favour. 

I started crying in the car because I didn’t understand how my flow could be so heavy. I knew nothing about what styles of flow meant, nor the variety of products available, but I did know that the liner my mom had was not for me, which made me feel like I, once again, did not fit in. 

In a moment of hysteria, as I considered how terrible my winter holiday would be now that my insides were leaking, I sought advice from my mom and said, “Once this finishes, I’ll be good and never have to go through it again.” 

That was when, for the first time, I learned, or perhaps acknowledged, that menstruation occurred monthly for most people and could last for up to seven days at a time. The tears grew larger and I could feel the insides of my obliques crinkle and cramp with every breath. 

I initially learned about periods in grade five. My teacher told us a story about how she grew up on an Ontario tomato farm. She said that she ate so many tomatoes one day, that when she noticed a blood stain on her underwear, she thought she was leaking tomato juice. 

I am every tomato’s number one fan, so I proudly recited this story shortly thereafter, thinking it would serve as a funny segue into learning more about what was about to happen to me, and I noticed immediate discomfort from my adult audience. This was the first time I learned that talking about periods made people feel uncomfortable. 

The lessons only continued.

Kids in my elementary school called one student, “Bloody Panties,” after they spotted a leak between her legs. They would yell it out the school bus window as she walked home. Other people in my class would tie sweaters around their waists when they were menstruating to prevent this name-call-exposé horror from happening to them. 

There was also a common fear that our teachers would blame us for having to use the bathroom so frequently, so many of my classmates refrained from asking and would wait until it was too late to change. 

There too were hushed whispers from young girls in the classroom, either asking for product or hoping a friend would check backsides to ensure no blood had escaped onto their gym pants. 

And of course, there were plenty of pads-up-the-sleeve moments when walking to the toilet, hoping the yellow wrapper did not poke out and announce to all who saw: I’m bleeding and today’s a heavy day.

As my luck would continue to have it, I always receive my period just as I’m about to do something fun. Most recently, I walked down the aisle at my friend’s wedding in a tight, peach coloured dress, with a pad stuck to my fake spanx. 

Throughout my preteen and teenage years, I was always that friend who sat at the side of the pool with her feet in the water because her period was so heavy, she couldn’t risk jumping in. I even worked at a summer camp, where the last activity of each day was swimming, and every three to four weeks, I had to request to be on slide duty, standing and yawning outside of the pool as children belly flopped into the deep end: an unspoken symbol of menses. 

Well before I got my period on that bright winter day, I had a complicated, emotional relationship with food. Menstruating every month had me reach a new level of stress eating and bloating. I become a bottomless pit, literally salivating for every snack imaginable, but preferably snacks of a salty or doughy nature. 

With every evening bloat still comes morning tooth pain and headaches. I know my period is on her way when the left side of my upper jaw hurts to touch. 

My dentist, a man, tells me it’s only coincidental that my teeth hurt and my gums bleed more when menstruating. My hygienist, a woman, tells me she can relate. 

During my last year of university, I was experiencing so much anxiety because of school and work, that my period stopped for seven months. Doctors tested me, poked me and kept calling me back in for check ups. 

Despite months of examining every inch of my skin, they couldn’t tell me what was stopping my period, clogging or drying me up. Instead, they prescribed me hormones to kickstart it again and sent me on my way. 

While there was an extensive amount of period pain, I also quickly learned how to use my privilege and regular heavy periods as a way out of slimy situations. 

For example, my grade 10 science teacher was extremely creepy and inappropriate. He frequently gave girls in my class detention and soon, it became apparent that this was so he could spend more time with us. 

I was late for his class once and was given detention for my tardiness. I blamed my late arrival on my period’s presence. I was period protected from his abuse of power, and eventually, this teacher would be transferred to a different school. 

I recognize that this experience is not one that all people have and I was able to use my cisgendered whiteness and regular period experience as a way out. 

I had to teach myself how to become empowered by my body and it’s day to day functions. I wasn’t taught about what happens to my body when its eggs aren’t fertilized or how I might feel differently on day two versus day five of my cycle. 

I didn’t know how to wear a pad or protect myself from leaks. I didn’t understand the relationship between menstruation and hunger, exhaustion and pain. I couldn’t explain why my back hurt so much that I had to lie down for hours. 

However, before I put that first liner on, I knew that periods were something that didn’t warrant positive attention, so I was never compelled to ask.

Once, I was told I had to enter the side door of a family member’s house because going through the garage, where homemade wine was fermenting, while on my period was a sure sign that the grapes would wickedly turn into vinegar. I therefore also knew that many people thought and still think that periods are evil, unclean and forms of witchcraft. 

Despite these anecdotes, all of which are incidents I’ve experienced while being able to afford period products with privilege, we still aren’t teaching students and their families about the importance of period positivity and menstrual equity, as well as we could be. 

We could be highlighting gaps in menstrual equity and educating pubescent pre-teens about what is about to happen to their bodies and the bodies of their friends, and carry the conversation into teenage and young adult years.

Instead, we are continuing to give these young people bare bones and uncomfortably avoid discussions about reproductive health, because it’s somewhat awkward and often unpleasant. 

I was in the public school system from 1994 to 2008. It didn’t teach me what I needed to know and I entered it two and a half decades ago. 

Yet, helping people who menstruate understand the things their bodies can do and why they can do them will shift conversations, allowing more audiences to feel comfortable with period talk and physical period flows. 

A step forward has been made by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), taking effect in the fall of 2019. 

Throughout the week of August 26, all TDSB trustees voted to provide free menstrual products in secondary and elementary schools throughout Toronto. Moving forward, the board will be partnering with the Ontario sector of Physical Health and Education Canada, a national organization that has strong business relationships with pad and tampon suppliers. 

Period products will be dispensed in Toronto secondary and elementary schools at no cost to the board, at no cost to parents and at no cost to the students. 

This action not only helps provide equal access to period products to every Toronto student in secondary and elementary systems, but it also helps to normalize conversations around menstruation in a positive way. By placing period products in school bathrooms, we are reminding everyone that periods exist and that period products are a basic need, just as toilet paper and hand dryers are a routine part of every bathroom visit. 

Even with the available resources in Toronto, we must continue to refrain from restricting young learners from accessing unbiased information about their bodies, foregoing them the opportunity to acquire knowledge and develop an understanding of their bodies’ power and functions.

This has to happen, everywhere. 

Preventing access to updated teachings about reproductive health not only continues to fuel myths and misunderstandings about menstruation, but also encourages people who menstruate to distance themselves from their bodies, building walls that block out self-love and self-esteem, because of associations made between periods and discomfort.

This, of course, contrary to the walls of cells and safety built along uterine lining, preparing for a new life or new cycle.

Inclusive representations and the accurate delivery of facts in reproductive health education will encourage respect for natural bodily functions, across all genders, and empower people who menstruate to make informed decisions about period products and resources. 

It too will reduce comments like, “Why are you crying so much? Are you on your period?,” suggesting feelings are unwarranted due to timely exaggeration and increased anxiety, all of which may be tied into a person’s menstruation experience. 

Or maybe, they won’t be linked, because every single person who gets their period has a different story. 

We need to provoke discussions about the importance of respecting and appreciating our own bodies and the bodies of those around us. 

Yes, give free products to meet the basic needs of humanity. Give ALL the products.

We just can’t forget to teach what’s happening and why, in addition to providing education around product variety and subjectivity. 

For more information about positive period learning experiences and how you can bring them to a school near you, check out The Period Purse, Canada’s first registered charity committed to reducing the stigma that surrounds menstruation and increasing equal access to period products.

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