Of all the health topics pertaining to women, menstruation has to be the most commonly swept under the rug. Which is ironic, considering nearly every person with female reproductive organs will experience it. Not only do we not openly discuss the normal, regular occurrence of menstruating itself, we are taught not to talk about anything regarding periods—products, effects on daily life, or serious health concerns. There is a huge cloud of shame that follows a woman’s period almost everywhere in the world that leaves women feeling even more negative towards what can be an already unpleasant experience. Society expects us to hide tampons on our way to the bathroom, keep quiet about painful physical symptoms, and blame normal emotions on PMS.
One of the many detrimental side effects of silence around periods is the lack of knowledge it creates. When there is a stigma attached to a part of your body, some go to extreme efforts to avoid it at all costs. There are so many women who have never even looked at their own vagina, let alone explored and learned about their body during menstruation. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where looking at and understanding your body was encouraged, which I found to be vital to my wellbeing—especially my reproductive health. The female reproductive system is intensely complicated, and remaining in the dark by not exploring can be dangerous and cause women to feel uncomfortable about speaking up when something is wrong.
The best way to take care of your body is to listen to it and know how to tell when something is wrong. Periods can be confusing, and it seems like no one really takes the time to sit down and teach young girls what is really happening to their bodies. Here is a brief run-down of what’s going on during menstruation:
- Menstruating: If after ovulation, the egg that was released is not fertilized, levels of female sex hormone (estrogen and progesterone) begin to decrease, signaling to the uterus to shed its lining. This shedding is accompanied by bleeding.
- Cramping: A hormone-like substance, prostaglandins, related to pain and inflammation, cause the uterus to contract in order to shed its lining. This contraction can cause lower abdominal or lower back pain. If cramping is severe, it could be related to other conditions such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Mood Swings: The sudden drop in estrogen after ovulation can often have an effect on serotonin, and cause it to drop as well. This change in brain chemistry before a woman’s period can cause shifts in mood and unusual bouts of sadness or anger.
- Premenstrual Syndrome: The rapid adjustment in hormones during and after ovulation can cause changes in brain chemistry and other areas of the body relying on hormones. These changes can lead to acne, bloating, drowsiness, change in appetite, trouble concentrating and more before a woman gets her period. Speaking of taking care of yourself, it is important to know what products work best for you. There are so many options out there aside from the standard pads and tampons. I know a few women who swear by the menstrual cup. It can be worn for up to 12 hours without risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome like tampons, and is environmentally friendly. I have also seen a lot about a new product called Thinx (read more from the Women’s Center), which are period-specific underwear designed to keep you protected and dry. Although it can feel like a big step to make a change in the menstruation products you use, you could find yourself much happier and feeling more positive about your period.
Eliminating the negative stigma around menstruation has to start with the women who are living with it. We can’t let society silence us about our bodies and what we are experiencing. We need to be able to carry a tampon through a crowded room, tell our boss about the debilitating cramps, eat an extra piece of pizza, or see a health care provider when something feels different, without shame. Always remember to listen to your body and trust yourself when you think there’s an issue.
Another common outcome of period shaming is lack of self-care. It is all too common that -women endure severe pain, live with alarming blood loss, or ignore unusual changes to their bodies because of the stigma behind menstruation and messages from society telling us these things aren’t that big of a deal, or that we are using periods as an excuse. Menstruation should be a time to take even better care of yourself than your normal routine. Your body is working harder than usual and experiencing change, and it’s normal to need a break. Taking care of your body during your period is crucial, and can help you create a more positive relationship with menstruating. Getting extra rest, wearing loose clothing, listening to your appetite, and talking about your emotions are all things that should be encouraged and celebrated during a woman’s period, not frowned upon.