Reclaiming Our Periods and Erasing the Taboo Associated with Menstruation

Over the last few months, I have noticed something: periods are disappearing! 

Not with anyone in particular, but just in general. Periods are disappearing from popular culture and have returned to the outer fringes as if they were once again an embarrassing taboo. The only time you hear them being mentioned these days is in politics, as a punchline to put down women and by confused men.

After a few decades where around the world women reclaimed their periods and femininity in art, articles and as stand up comedians it is sad to see this backward slide.

For some reason, women became embarrassed about the “monthly problem” again and many mainstream female comics, bar Amy Schumer, said they have begun to feel “less than” when talking about it. How did this happen? A few decades ago women embraced their periods to the point of worship. Why has it become shocking and embarrassing once again to talk about something so natural?

With everything going on in the world, is this really important? You might wonder.

Well yes, it is: mainly because more and more high profile men seem to be oblivious to how periods work and this makes it harder for them to understand women. The strange views they have (even if they are great guys) hold women back in many ways.

You see, it isn’t just Donald Trump who doesn’t get it. Recently in the UK a teenage “Meninist” went viral when he discussed the “tampon tax” – (UK women pay VAT on sanitary products because they are deemed luxury, non-essential items.) He believed women’s menstrual hygiene products were “luxury items”, saying:

“I saw a post about ending the tampon tax and I was so annoyed I had to have my say. People are saying tampons shouldn’t be taxed because they are a necessity but why can’t those women just learn to control their bladders? If they are going to bleed then they should wait until they get to the toilet. It’s all about self-control. If you can’t control your bladder then that’s not the taxpayers’ problem. I don’t urinate everywhere and expect free nappies.”

Even after an outpouring of negativity, his girlfriend publicly dumping him and forced to take biology classes he claimed to be in the right:

“feminists should be taxed if they are going to keep being incontinent”.

He also said that this was his crusade and he’d received a wave of support from other “meninists”.

The sad thing is: he is right, he is not alone in either his view or his stupidity. If you do a search on the internet you can find a lot of sites where men rage against menstruation and female hygiene products. Some even think women menstruate on purpose or that periods are a “feminist conspiracy”. Some bosses think that the hormones involved in menstruation are a reason not to give women responsibilities or promotions.

Meanwhile, to some people and cultures menstruation is still scary and taboo. In their eyes, women should preferably be locked away for the duration of their period. Oddly this is a POV a lot of otherwise open-minded folk seem to share these days.

Then there are the ones who think everything a woman does or says that is “out of character” is related to her period. You can never be sure if they are joking or if they mean it, or both.

A friend of mine who works at a high ranking firm recently revealed she had to educate her boss on how periods work. During a meeting, she asked to be excused. When he asked why she had to admit it was because she felt that her period had started. The boss told her to either “turn it off” or wait. She asked him if he’d really wanted it to stain his chairs. He was astounded and asked her why she didn’t just turn it off again. He had always been confused and downright phobic about menstruation, to the point of having the tampon dispenser machine removed because he didn’t want women to “turn on their periods” during working hours. Finding out periods are really just natural and not in a women’s control changed his views (a bit).

Isn’t it astounding: thousands of years and menstruation is still this confusing, scary mystery.

And this is why menstruation should come out of its little taboo corner and back into the mainstream, especially in comedy. Women ignoring it and seeming downright embarrassed or scared about the subject makes it look like it’s something bad, a weakness and not a natural occurrence. If women are not afraid to show themselves taking a wee or pooing on TV and in movies or to talk about these bodily functions publicly why ignore this? It’s part of the body and Werther you like it or not, it will happen every month.

If women are not afraid to show themselves taking a wee or pooing on TV and in movies or to talk about these bodily functions publicly why ignore this? It’s part of the body and whether you like it or not, it will happen every month.

In the case of female stand-up comedians, I am told that the silence is because of a stigma attached to female comedy. The myth that all female comics “talk about is their periods”. Not true, hardly any female comic does, especially these days. As per male comics talking about their bowel movements or penises: yes. 95% of the time …

In TV shows periods are even more nonexistent, except weird “young girl gets first period” episodes that make it seem as if she’s either going to die or suffers demonic possession. Then there are shows that include weak crude jokes at the “oh so weird” phenomena. A lot of TV shows still portray pre-menstrual women as “monsters” or attribute any mood-swing to it whether she is starting a period or not. This, of course, carries over into the real world as what women are like.
And don’t forget the net pictures of girls showing period marks are erased from the internet in mass hysteria.

The most surprising thing might be that in a lot of progressive female shows menstruation is often excluded all together. This feels odd: seeing these women walk around glamorously, week in week out without so much as a cramp is sometimes odd. You can’t feel happy or perky every week of the month. Now I’m not advocating the old-fashioned weepy, “am I bloated” archetype, no way. Progressive shows and movies with a strong female lead should show us that women can be strong, decisive and even cheery during the “time of the month”. But imagine someone like Lorelei Gilmore exclaiming at one of the Friday night dinners that she had the week from hell, (problems at the inn, a fight with Luke, Taylor acting up) but resolved all of it, despite suffering from excruciating monthly cramps. It would be a shout out to woman everywhere and showing the world it is normal, not taboo and not a sign of weakness. Ignoring it completely makes it seem as if it isn’t there or something that should be hidden.

Take for example some of those road movies or films where girls walk through a jungle for weeks on end. Now color us odd, but the first thing my mum and I always ask is: “What if she had her period?” The heroine proudly stating she fabricated her own towels or tampons from certain leaves and herbs would make her even more bad-ass to me.

Addressing the natural monthly cycle in this way would also help women who suffer from difficult periods. Knowing your heroine also suffers every month can be comforting.

You see, as I said menstruation is a “natural” thing for most women, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy to all of us.
The first time it happens, no matter how prepared you are, it’s usually a shock or at least a surprise to suddenly find blood in your underwear or on your toilet paper. After this it becomes a staple in your life: one week a month for the next foreseeable years you will be feeling slightly out of sorts, suffer cramps and bleed.

This is how it’s supposed to be: a bit annoying and uncomfortable, but usually not enough to disrupt whatever you had planned completely.

Sadly, for me and many other women around the world things did (and do) not go this easily.
All my life I have had a troubled relationship with my periods. It was expected that I would start menstruating fairly early in life, as my body developed at a faster pace than most of my peers. Breasts developed and I had some fluid secretion. But to every-ones surprise my periods only started when I was twelve, and they remained unreliable ever since. (And difficult, very difficult.)

Over the years that followed I would suffer depression, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts in the days leading up to it. I would either be lethargic or hyper-active and impulsive during those times.
It wasn’t just mental symptoms that were heightened: physical symptoms too. I would suffer aches in my body and random red cysts appeared out of no-where. Allergies worsened and of course there was the bloating.
Then when my period finally arrived there would be excruciating pain and nausea.
IF it arrived at all: sometimes my period would not come, meaning the PMS lasted longer than it had any right to or suddenly stop and return again right before my period would finally come.

It was problematic: I couldn’t really do anything during these weeks: I didn’t know if and when the period would come. I was scared to make appointments: I couldn’t function in the first two days and usually when it took it’s sweet time to come the first two days were even worse.

For a long time my period actually ruled my life: I would dread it’s arrival weeks in advance and would be of kilter in the ten days leading up to it. It didn’t help if I told myself that the only reason I felt the way I did was because my period was coming: the fear and emotions were too real to ignore.

The sad thing is that because of the “taboo” that seems to be surrounding menstruation I could never tell this to other people. I couldn’t say: “Sorry I’m not sure if I can come. My period might be starting and mine’s rather problematic.”” I should be able to say that, we all should!

I would have given anything to have a beloved high rated TV show where a female character discussed this. A Full House episode where Becky explains to DJ that some girls can experience very difficult periods. I wanted to be told this was normal. I wanted to feel validated.

In the underground world of stand up and internet comedy, there are some women who do address these issues, especially in the UK ever since the “Tampon Tax” became an issue. The sketches are often hilarious and will hopefully go mainstream one day. If we ever want full equality this is much needed. A lot of girls still seem embarrassed to talk about their cycles, even online. This is so wrong, we should be able to discuss our problems openly. Humour opens the door and normalizes everything and that’s what is needed.

How can you ever feel fully equal if one week every month you can’t be yourself?

Photo Credit: 欠我兩千塊 Flickr via Compfight cc


Dr. Dannii Cohen

Dannii Cohen is a former stand-up comedian and comedy writer turned author, psychologist, professional counselor, life coach and self-help expert. She is specialized in LGBT issues, anxiety, women’s issues, female empowerment, and bullying. Dannii is an agony aunt for The Gay UK. Her books; When Clouds Hide The Sun, Christopher The Lonely Bear and 50 Things To Know To Have A Better Life, are all on Amazon.

  1. Drew Sheldon

    I have women apologize to me all the time for talking about their periods. I have no issue with it, but I do know many fragile men who can’t handle it. I just don’t understand.

  2. Avatar

    This is great, Danni. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking how breastfeeding has also suffered the same sort of thing as menstruation. When my kids were babies (they were born in 1999 and 2001), I was able to breastfeed them just about anywhere–even on the beach–and nobody seemed to take any offense if part or most of my breast was exposed. I felt as though breastfeeding–another completely natural bodily function–was finally becoming normalized in American society. But nowadays, I hardly ever see women nursing in public, and when they do, they use these elaborate contraptions to cover themselves all up, as if what they’re doing is shameful. I really wish we, as a society, could get past these hangups. Thank you for writing this.

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