I was watching an episode of Line of Duty and in it Thandi Newton steals some evidence to hide a murder she has committed. She looks over her shoulder nervously, scanning to make sure no one is in sight. She moves quickly, the atmosphere is tense. Again, she checks over her shoulder making sure no one is nearby. Her hands shake as she moves the guilt-ridden evidence from the police storage fridge into her bag, closing the door JUST in time before someone enters the room.
THAT is what I am like when I buy Tampons.
My uncle Ken gave me a lift to a hospital appointment once (nothing major but thank you for your concern), and five minutes into the hour-long journey he started talking to me about periods. Out of the blue. Talking about how they affect my aunt and cousins (all female). How he goes to buy “ladies products” for them. The conversation gnawed away at the first fifteen minutes of the journey. I was mortified. I sat in silence wondering how on earth did we got to this point and how much damage I would do if I chucked myself out the passenger door onto the M41 at 63mph. I mean, I was headed to the hospital anyway. But the child locks were on. (I’m 30 and as far as I’m aware there wasn’t a kid in the car, unless something more sinister was happening). But then I had an epiphany; maybe those child locks were reflecting my childish attitudes towards one of the most natural bodily functions that happens to half of the entire global population. In my revelation I realised that it’s my problem that I’m so uncomfortable talking about periods, not my uncle’s.
Why is my 60-year-old, roughed-up, Northern uncle more comfortable than me at talking about something I’ve experienced once a month for the past 16 years? Why does going to the shop to buy essentials STILL give me anxiety days leading up to it? Honestly, it fills me with dread.
I’ve never asked my parents, or anyone for that matter, to buy me “ladies products”. So every single time, without fail, I will go to the shop and look at what else I can buy to help hide sanitary products in my basket – a trashy magazine, fifteen bottles of Fairy Washing Up Liquid, a hoover (all solid cover-up products by the way; bad cover ups include a single croissant or a second box of Tampons). I have to buy extra stuff anyway because I couldn’t POSSIBLY look like I’d gone shopping for sanitary products and sanitary products alone. I need to make it look like an after-thought, not the sole purpose of a trip. I don’t want people thinking I’m walking around like an upside volcano, ready to blow at any minute. Buying some Müller Fruit Corners and a Chomp helps to erase that perception, although it might be best to swap the Chomp out for something that doesn’t exacerbate the ‘period stereotype’ of chocolate cravings.
Like a carrot. My lowest point has seen me walk in, desperately needing to buy sanitary products, realising I don’t have enough money to buy anything else as well, then leaving the shop.
Why am I like this? I even named this article ‘Line of Duty’ intially to keep it subtle even though NO ONE ELSE WILL SEE IT ON MY LAPTOP. I do my head in when it comes to my own period. No doubt it doesn’t help living on a tiny island where I open my front door and I am immediately met with Gladys, the neighbour opposite, intrusively asking where I’m going while holding a dog-poo bag, even though she doesn’t own a dog. ‘Dashing’ to Tesco to get something (not Tampons. I SWEAR) is something us islanders can only dream of. You are guaranteed to know AT LEAST two people to a varying extent everywhere you go. So that definitely makes me feel more self conscious about the whole ordeal. I don’t want to bump into a fit guy from basketball in the line in Tesco with Tampons on show in my basket. There’s a scene in the TV show Fleabag (the brilliant Fleabag), where Pheobe Waller-Bridge is in a store contemplating whether to buy regular flow Tampons, or heavy flow. Sheepishly glancing at the camera, she goes to pick up the heavy flow ones but switches to regular when a guy she’s casually sleeping with spots her and comes over to say hello. After he leaves, she swaps back to the heavy flow ones, again, giving the camera a quick, slighty guilty glance. This is my inner monologue brought to life on the screen. Buying Tampons is a traumatic experience in itself for me but buying HEAVY FLOW Tampons. That’s unthinkable. Even though sometimes I would physically benefit from getting the latter. I have so many pairs of ruined underwear because of it.
Seeing periods on TV and films is rare. I can’t think of any off the top of my head that address female menstruation in depth, let alone visually show it happening. I mean, even in adverts FOR sanitary products, they show how absorbant the pads or tampons are using BLUE liquid. As though the red is too much. Too shameful. In fact, the colour red didn’t make it into adverts for menstruation products until 2017. That’s just FOUR years ago. (showing off my C+ in GCSE maths there). And it was met with both critical acclaim and massive backlash. Some people don’t want to be sat eating their tea, watching Making A Murderer, to be put off their food by an ad for tampons during the break that involves the colour red. Seeping head wound? Fine. Punctured stomach spraying blood all over everything within a 10-metre radius? No problem. Vagina blood? Don’t even bother with the remote. Just pelt the TV straight out the window. Then burn it. If you have a shotgun, fire a couple rounds into it too. Just to be sure.
I can’t help feeling that the more negative the reaction, the more these ‘graphic’ images need to be seen. People often knee-jerk react when they’re not used to seeing something that is deemed to be a taboo; lashing out is a natural reaction to feeling uncomfortable. I get it. But it’s why we need to show these images more. Don’t take them down. Blow them up, (not with TNT), expose them until they are no longer seen as graphic. In fact, keep showing them until people are bored of it. Until these adverts become the equivalent of a beige wall. Or a stapler. Something you don’t really notice because you’re so at ease around it. So instead of making us avert our gaze/talk loudly over it/offer to make a round of tea, we instead go ‘Oh, what’s that? Blood in an advert for Tampons. Standard. Next.’
There are a decent amount of films, usually ‘chick flicks’ that mention periods, where the female character is curled up on the sofa, pressing a hot water bottle to her stomach, eating a chocolate gateau the size of the one Bruce Bogtrotter had to force down in Matilda, and having nowhere near as much of a struggle eating the whole thing as Bruce (pff, lightweight). But when it comes to films that are more explicit about periods, be that visually or through dialogue, only a few come to mind. And they mainly came to mind because I had to Google them because none were coming to mind.
Carrie: Stephen King’s obsession with blood doesn’t discriminate against any kind of the red stuff. In the opening scenes of Carrie (1976), Carrie is in the school shower after PE and gets her first period. Chaos ensues. Holding her shaking, blood covered hand in front her face, she starts screeching, confused about what’s going on. All the other girls in the changing room, (most of whom are casually wandering round starkers. Hey, it’s the 70s) all start pointing and laughing at her, shoving her back into the shower and pelting her with pads and Tampons. The PE teacher ends up slapping Carrie across the face to calm her down, shouting at the other girls to leave her alone. Period = shame and punishment. And slap in the face.
Superbad: In a scene in the 2007 comedy Superbad, one of the main characters Seth (played by Jonah Hill) is dancing with a random girl at a party. It’s like dirty dancing though. Beginners dirty dancing, not Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey levels. The song finishes, she says ‘thanks’ for the dance and leaves. But she leaves something else too. A red mark on Seth’s leg where she had been dancing. Other guys at the party notice it and point it out. When the lightbulb dings for Seth about how he would have gotten blood on his leg, he immediately gags. saying “I’m going to fucking throw up. Some girl perioded on my pants.” While the others literally point and laugh at him in disgust trying to keep the blood away from them. Period = gag inducingly gross and something to point and laugh at.
The Runaways: 2010 film ‘The Runaways’ is about the band The Runaways. I was surprised too. The first shot is of blood hitting the pavement, followed by a wider shot of blood running down the inside of Cherie’s (played by Dakota Fanning) leg. She and her sister dash to a public bathroom where Cherie stuffs her underwear with toilet paper as a makeshift pad. We’ve all been there. What’s fabulous about this is that there isn’t negativity that accompanies it. Sure there’s a tinge of annoyance but that’s a justified reaction. It is annoying when that happens. Then they carry on with their daily business being rad, 70s teenagers with awesome hair and a love of rock’n’roll. Period = potential to be a bit annoying but not a day ruiner.
The best of the bunch is a scene from the 2016 film 20th Century Woman. I hadn’t seen this but it came up when I was researching films. It doesn’t visually show menstrutaion but what it lacks in graphicness it makes up for dialogue. So, about ten people are sitting around the table for dinner. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) has her arms crossed on the table and is leaning her head on them. You know, like you’d do when you finish a GCSE exam or are hungover in work. Dorethea (played by Annette Bening) tells her to sit up. When met with no response, Dorethea asks Jamie (who looks about 17) to ‘wake up Abbie’. He gives her a little shake and asks if she’s okay; “urgh, stop it. I’m menstruating”, is her response. I watched this scene normally with sound and then with the sound off and, even though you can’t see her face, you can immediately point out when she’s said that line because Jamie’s eyes flash with embarassment and Charlie’s (the middle-aged-man sat on the other side of her) head goes down in awkwardness. Both males looking to Dorethea for an indication of what to do next. Dorethea is annoyed. “Alright, you’re menstruating but do you really have to SAY it?” Julian, the young man sat by Dorethea, has his hands under the table, eyes wide, looking the epitome of a confused young child. None of them know how to react to this, their mixed-gender sex-ed basic training only covered banana-covered condoms and male orgasms. Abbie, non-plussed, turns to young Jamie (who looks adorably terrified but ready to listen) then says in a perfectly calm, slightly bored way; “If you ever want to have a relationship with an adult woman, like if you want to have sex with a woman’s vagina, you need to be comfortable with the fact that the vagina menstruates. Just say menstruation, it’s not a big deal.” She then gets each male round the table to say the word menstruation until they can say it in a normal way, which is both hilarious and heart-warming to see these disarmed men getting on board. But the same can’t be said for the other women in the room. Dorethea sits rigidly, looking like sheep’s caught a whiff of rotten cabbage, while Julie scrunches up her nose and says “that’s gross.” Period = For men: Terrifying and embarrassing. For women: Embarrassing, gross, something to hide, even if you’re not the one who’s on.
TV wise, the ground-breaking 2020 series ‘I May Destroy You’ by Michaela Coel, takes periods to the next level. She writes and stars in the most graphic period scene I have ever seen. I found it bold, brave, and absolutely essential to normalising the topic and shaking off the Superbad reactions of ‘gross’ or ‘I’m going to throw up’. In the scene, Arabella has brought Biagio back to her flat after a night out. They start kissing. Sexy kissing. Until she stops saying “fuck”, “what is it?” Biagio so sincerely asks. After a slight pause Arabella says “I’m on my period”. Biagio says “it’s okay” and looks like he means it, to which she tells him she’s never had sex on her period before with someone who knew she was on, and that she wants him to know that she’s quite a heavy bleeder. The awkwardness and embarrassment of the Charlies, Jamies, and Julians, of 20th Century Women isn’t found in Biagio. He asks her ‘do you wanna try?’ The next scene, the two are in the bedroom, there’s a towel on the bed. Biagio takes off Arabella’s underwear and then takes out her bloodied tampon and puts it on the side table. Nonplussed. He then says ‘woah, what’s that?’ ‘Oh, it’s a blood clot’, Arabella says as Biagio then moves the blood through his fingers with an interested expression saying he’s never seen anything like that before. It kills the mood for Arabella but doesn’t deter him. It was a hard scene to watch but bravo to Michaela Coel. That takes guts. And blood. Blood and guts.
There is nothing sexier than a guy who 1: Admires strong women openly and doesnt ask them to compromise their strength and 2: Doesn’t get awkward about periods and never, and I mean, never, say ‘maybe you’re feeling this way because you’re hormonal’. If you say that to me, you are openly volunteering your balls for me to boot. ‘Yes, Kevin. I probably am. But I don’t need you to mansplain my own bodily functions to me, especially when you react the same way when United loses and your body isn’t even bleeding’.
Don’t get me wrong, the ‘lady’s problems’ excuse is as powerful as the Wild Card in Uno. Can’t be bothered with work? Lady’s problems. Want to back out of a date? Lady’s problems. Want to skip a wake? Lady’s problems. But in recent years my ‘type of man’ has gone from anyone that has the eyes of Riz Ahmed and the hilarity of Ryan Reynolds, to a person who reacts like an adult to menstruation. And yet, I can’t really expect that from men if I have trouble with it myself. I recently saw a trend on Instagram that involved girlfriends showing their boyfriends how a Tampon worked by dipping one (an unused one) into a glass of water. The boys reactions vary from curiosity to shock, with some shouting ‘that fits inside of you?!’ after watching it expand in the water. I liked these videos. It made me smile to see these girls, many of whom were at the height of the age of awkwardness in teenage years, being comfortable enough with a ‘taboo’ topic to show and explain to their boyfriends the ins and outs of how sanitary products worked. I remembered in my early 20s, me and my housemates were on a night out, it was still early though, about 10pm, and a random guy walked past asking if we knew where he could buy Tampons for his girlfriend. I was immediately embarrassed. And I could feel embarassment radiating from the group too. ‘No sorry mate’ one of us said before he walked off to continue his search. Now I think the guy is a hero. What a gentleman of a boyfriend to go out boldly and do that for his girlfriend when I struggle to do it for myself.
The taboo reaches far beyond our stiff-upper-lip-sweep-it-under-the-carpet British realms, to places where women and girls are forced to put up with period shaming that is much more severe than an awkward conversation. In Malawi, some girls are told they can’t cook with salt while on their period or their teeth will fall out, and in Nepal, some practice an ancient tradition called Chhaupadi. It involves banishing women and girls who are menstruating to live in mud huts for the duration of their period because people think bad things will happen to them if they’re around. Obviously overlooking the fact that they wouldn’t be walking this Earth without our periods. But there are some places that celebrate when a girl gets her first period. In some communities in Fiji, the girl’s family will throw a feast to celebrate the milestone. In Japan, some celebrate the transition into womanhood with a traditional meal called sekihan, made of sticky rice and adzuki beans, which are a red colour and symbolise happiness and celebration. And in North America, some tribes pay tribute to girls reaching puberty by gifting them with The Sunrise Ceremony, where girls get to dress up in symbolic outfits and get given a load of gifts. The thought of being the centre of attention because of my period, dressed up as a symbolic Tampon fills me with a sense of dread after years of conditioning to feel that way, but I can at least admire and respect that these cultures are starting things off on a positive note. A mooncup half full approach, if you will, showing immediately, that menstruation is something to be proud of, to celebrate. Not to hide or speak in whispers about, like me and millions of other women around the world have experienced. Even the commonly used term ‘lady’s problems’, previously mentioned above, implies negative connotations. Our body is being problematic. And as a lady, we deal with problematic things discreetly and don’t kick up a fuss. I got my first period when I was 12 and cried. The feast fancy dress party would have been way better.
A change of public perception is needed. I am tired of going to the shop for Tampons and feeling like Cersei in that episode of Game of Thrones when she’s shadow marched by that bell-weilding-Nun shouting ‘SHAME. SHAME. SHAME.’ on her every step. The sense of shame grows with the knowledge that period poverty across the world is rife. In parts of Pakistan, girls who can’t afford sanitry products have to improvise and use cloth instead, in Uganda some women wear goatskin skirts when on their period, and cow patties wrapped in material are even used by some women in Zambia because they can’t afford pads. Even though some don’t mind these innovative methods, others would much rather use tampons or pads, because it would allow them to carry on going to school, playing sports or going about their daily routines, unhindered, while on their period – facts which make it feel all the more insulting that I have to pretend to look at make up while I wait for any boys to leave the aisle before turning to grab a box of pads and shoving them under a Tesco brand place mat set.
Good things are happening, though, to try and undo the many years of conditioning I’ve been exposed to. The work of people like Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge help. We just need more of it. More representation. More opportunity to see ourselves in true form until we are no longer cringing at something so natural. Off screen, England, France, and New Zealand have made period products free for all school students. Another solid step towards easy access to tampons and pads, that will hopefully reduce awkwardness and embrassment at a grassroots level. Unfortunately, these girls and women still have to pay for products just like the rest of us as soon as they hit 18; something I find to be the epitome of exploitation. I firmly believe women and girls everywhere should have access to free sanitary products. Why should half the global population have to pay for something that eases a monthly process and is essential to the continuation of the human race. Luckily, the Scottish legend (not William Wallace) Nicola Sturgeon must have thought the same. Last year, she made sanitary products free for EVERYONE in Scotland. The first country to do so. I used my C+ GCSE math to get a rough calculation of how much money I’ve spent on sanitry products since I became old enough to buy them myself until now; I’ve spent around £7000. Do you know what I could do with £7000? Me neither, because I was spending it on Tampons. I know for a fact that I would be able to afford at least twelve very nice hats though. And a trip to Macclesfield.
I’m not going to say periods aren’t bloody annoying (pun intended), or that I haven’t inwardly uttered ‘men have no idea how much easier they have some things’. My hormones vary from month to month. One cycle I might think ‘how amazing are periods? I am so powerful! I have the gift to produce LIFE! I am a goddess! I could one day produce the next Kamala Harris, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg or Jennifer Lawrence!’. The next month, I’ll be fuming for no reason, slathering mayoniase on my laptop and trying to eat it. My emotions fluctuate like a bouncy ball on the steps of the Great Wall of China. At my worst, I could punch my 94-year-old Nan in the back of the head because I’m waiting for her to wipe her feet on the mat outside the front door before going in, and wiping her feet AGAIN on the inside mat. At my best, I barely notice a change. At my most cliched, I eat.. everything. I ate an entire fruit and nut loaf from the Bakery section of Tesco in ten minutes once. Went in, bought it, then just sat in my car and worked away at it like the raptors chewing up that poor cow in Juassic Park. Didn’t even put the radio on. Just devoured it in silence as people walked past. And at my most pathetic, I’ve had an existential crisis and cried because a hand-dryer in a public bathroom wasn’t powerful enough. But I love all that. It’s funny, and messy, and essential, and something to be proud of, not ashamed of. (Turning a blind eye to the bread part). This taboo is long past its sell-by date. All those years of conditioning through subtle media messages to not talk openly about menstruation need to be undone. Gently but definitely. Too long have both women and men been lead to believe one of the most natural things in the world is something to be embarrassed by. And I get it. Periods are, of course, a very personal, private thing. And it’s for the individual to decide to react in whatever way feels most comfortable to them. We don’t need to go complete Abbie from 20th Century Women or Arabella from I Can Make You Hate. So long as we at least feel comfortable going to buy sanitary products for yourself without it causing stress and a need to hide them under a miniature piano. (Only available in certain outlets).
But that’s just me. There are, of course, those women who don’t bat an eyelid at buying sanitary products. Idris Elba could be stood right next to the Tampons, checking them out, and they’d reach right on over to the heavy flow pads, maintaining seductive eye-contact the entire time and not even think twice about it. I strive to be like those women. Or like my Uncle Ken. But he’s in prison now. Turns out there was a kid in his car. In the boot.