The Truth About Periods

From approximately 12:00am to 1:00pm on Saturday, August 8, “London Marathon: Woman runs marathon without a tampon” was trending on Facebook. The story was about Kiran Gandhi, a feminist and Harvard Business School Graduate, who ran the London Marathon in April without a pad, tampon, or any other product, resulting in blood running down and staining her crotch and legs. In a blog post, she wrote, “If there’s one way to transcend oppression, it’s to run a marathon in whatever way you want. On the marathon course, sexism can be beaten. Where the stigma of a woman’s period is irrelevant, and we can re-write the rules as we choose.” She called running the marathon “one of the most profound experiences of my life.” She ran with two other women and they raised over $6000 for Breast Cancer Care. They didn’t stop. They completed the race in 4 hours, 49 minutes, and 11 seconds. And they felt like champions.

Unsurprisingly, this story had generated quite a few comments, most of them divided between the camps of “What a liberated, boss lady! You do you!” and “That is disgusting. Since when has period-shaming even been a thing? Feminists will make anything a cause.” So let’s address that.

When I first saw the headline, my knee-jerk reaction was curiosity mixed with distaste. I was curious to see what the headline was actually referencing and why someone would voluntarily bleed all over themself at a highly publicized event. I experienced distaste because that has almost always been my response when talking about period blood. If most people are honest, they would admit that that’s their response as well. As a society, we’ve come to understand that periods are gross, disgusting, and shameful and should never been talked about – not in polite society, not with our friends, certainly not at work, and absolutely not on an international scale.

However, this is a reaction that I’ve worked to eliminate from myself, which has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older and the taboo of talking about periods has incrementally lifted. While I still find blood distasteful and periods God-awful, it has become easier to understand that 1) periods are natural, 2) periods are nothing to be ashamed of, and 3) we need to spread more information about periods.

The fact of the matter is that most men in the US don’t know anything about periods – because they haven’t had to. In public school sex ed, it was often enough to just know that girls got their periods once a month. If your (usually male) teacher felt like elaborating, they might say that, “When a girl hits puberty, she will bleed once a month.” If you have sisters or mothers/aunts/grandmothers who are pre-menopausal, you might notice that they get sick once a month, complaining about pain and nausea and sometimes needing to be bed-ridden. If you’ve watched any straight, white, married man comedy in the past 30 years, you’ll “know” about PMS and how it makes women go crazy and you can never do anything right when they’re on their period (this despite the fact that PMS, Premenstrual Syndrome, actually occurs before you start bleeding). And that’s pretty much the extent of your knowledge about a common, widespread natural process that happens to every cisgendered woman.

Even for girls, the information isn’t much better. We’re usually told that we’ll lose “about two tablespoons of blood” once a month (which is a bald-faced lie) and that we’ll need to use a pad or a tampon. There might be some talk about cramping and nausea, which can be ameliorated with ibuprofen or Midol (unless you have a disorder or high threshold for medication); there also might be a brief discussion about how we’re “blossoming into womanhood” or some other overly flowerly language for a process that, by and large, is painful, uncomfortable, and occasionally humiliating. Then the discussion will quickly turn to getting pregnant because, as all young girls know, getting pregnant is the worst possible thing that could happen to you and getting your period means you are officially “open for business.”

Unfortunately, neither of these brief glosses is really an accurate representation of what happens when you have your period or what to expect. They conveniently omit anatomical discussion such as letting you know precisely where the tampon or pad needs to go/cover. They forget to let you know that being on your period isn’t just an easy trickle of blood that you can basically blot away – in reality, it can be a heavy flow from between 4 tablespoons to a cup of blood a day intermixed with heavy uterine lining (because that’s what a period does – it sloughs away the blood and uterine lining that was all ready for the fertilized egg that never came). They forget to let you know that being on your period can be physically dangerous and cause symptoms such as anemia/iron deficiency, debilitating cramps, rapid mood changes, uncontrollable vomiting, and weakness in your spine, hips, and knees that make walking nearly impossible. And this doesn’t even cover Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a painful condition wherein small cysts fill your ovaries that about 10% of women experience, or endometriosis, a disorder in which the tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus grows outside of it and causes extreme nausea and pain, which 6 – 10% of women experience (That’s about 15 million women in the US.).

While one could argue that age nine is not the time to be terrifying girls about the horrible, painful things their bodies might do to them, surely there is a happy medium between scaring kids and keeping them entirely ignorant. Because of poor sex education, millions of women are ignorant about what the hymen actually is (in a word: bullshit), why they’re discharging heavy, spongy gunk (a friend actually saved it and brought it to a doctor because she was worried that she was dying), why they’re in so much pain they can’t move, and why their backs go out of joint, among many other concerns. Instead, they think there’s something wrong with them. They literally think they’re dying or they self-recriminate, bullying themselves into going about their days and telling no one what’s really happening. They keep silent when boys and men mock them for either having feminine hygiene products or potentially being on their periods. They develop the idea that periods are shameful and should only be whispered about to their mothers in times of dire need. And if you don’t have a mother? Well, thank God there’s the Internet (and if you don’t have the Internet? Well, you’re just shit out of luck.).

Surprisingly, though, keeping women ignorant about their periods and their anatomy is not the greatest threat to women: it’s keeping men ignorant. Ignorant men are the ones that decree pad commercials have to show blue liquid instead of red. Ignorant men are the ones that throw a Representative out of a hearing because she dares to say the word “vagina.” Ignorant men are the ones who hypothesize that women can’t be the President because they’ll get their periods and blow up the world. Ignorant men are the ones who choose to try to defund Planned Parenthood because they can’t conceive of why women would need health clinics. Ignorant men are the ones that claim the government shouldn’t spend any money on women’s health. And these attitudes, laws, and recriminations trickle down to women, forcing them to hide their periods, to deny that they’re on them, to bring extra sweaters in case they bleed through their pants, to sit in their own blood instead of telling their fathers that they need to stop to buy a pad, to internalize the misogyny and agree that women can’t be President, and to perpetuate the idea that something that happens approximately once a month to almost every woman on the planet is wrong and shameful.

Photo property of Kiran Gandhi

Photo property of Kiran Gandhi

All of which goes to show how important Kiran Gandhi’s decision was. What she did was a very visible reminder that women can do anything when they’re on their periods. They can literally run marathons. They don’t just fall to the ground weeping or go on a rampage and start punching people. They fight through the back spasms, the nerve pinches, and the queasy, wet feeling in their crotch. And they do so with a smile.

Having this reminder is especially important now that we have a woman, Hillary Clinton, running for President. Almost since she officially announced her candidacy, people have been speculating as to whether or not her sex disqualifies her. They’ve been doing this basically her entire political career, rehashing the same old arguments of, “What’s going to happen when she goes on her period?” as though speculating about someone’s menstruation is either appropriate or applicable. Only in April did the New York Times run an op-ed piece stating that Hillary was finally ready for the Presidency because she was finally post-menopausal (A supposition that was ripped into on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, which contained a frank discussion about periods and how idiotic it is to think they disqualify someone from a job. Be warned: there is a shitty transgender joke towards the end of the segment.). Just two days ago at the GOP Presidential debate, the moderator Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump the following:

Kelly: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals’ –”

Trump: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

Kelly: “No, it wasn’t. Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”

Trump then promptly went on to blast Kelly and Fox News, saying that, “You could see blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever” – a veiled comment about her not being complimentary because she was on her period (which is a sentiment shared by Erick Erickson of Red State, who has disinvited Trump from a conference). This happened on live television. With a Presidential candidate. With the forerunner of the GOP ticket. In 2015.

Clearly, we need a frank and open discussion about menstruation and what it actually entails. We need to remember that being on your period does not mean that you can’t be professional. We need to know that dismissing someone’s legitimate concerns by claiming they’re on their period is neither valid nor acceptable. We need to be aware of what women face on a monthly basis. We need to respect women, their choices, and their bodies.

So while I don’t know if I would make the same decision as Kiran Gandhi, I nevertheless respect her decision and applaud her for it. I understand what it’s like to run, exercise, and move on the first day of your period. I understand that tampons are not as secure as commercials would have us believe and can slip and move, especially when you’re active for five hours. I understand that the first day of your period is often very heavy, necessitating that you change your tampon or pad sometimes every two hours – which would be difficult on five hour run, especially if you’re being timed. I understand that pads can chafe your ass and thighs, creating painful rashes when you’re active for too long. I know that they can get heavy and full, spilling over the sides and staining your thighs. I know that on your period your spine and hips are subtly widening, signaling that you’re about to “give birth,” which is what causes spinal dislocation, numbness, and weakness and what would make running so painful. I understand that your body is literally discharging a part of itself, creating often debilitating cramps. I understand all of that, so the mere idea of running for five hours with all of that happening (and all the other shit that runners undergo like bowel loosening, shin splints, nipple chafing, and dehydration) is impressive — and not just for Kiran but for all of the women who run on their periods. I hope other women understand that too, and I hope this signals a time when men will understand what it really means to have your period and how strong women are for enduring it, pushing through it, and thriving on it. It’s 2015. It’s time.

Note: For more information about women’s health, periods, and other women’s issues, you can access Planned Parenthood’s web site here with special information for teens here. Some feminine hygiene products like Kotex also contain decent information about periods and women’s health, which you can access here if you’re unable to go to Planned Parenthood’s site.

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3 thoughts on “The Truth About Periods

  1. Tonya says:

    Can I make correction? I just want to point out that it is indeed possible to change your pad/tampon every 2 hours on a 5 hr run. I’ve never been on a course that didn’t have port-a-potties. Most races I’ve done, place one every 1.5 mile (which is every 15-20 min for the avg runner). Port-a-potties are a must for races (Runner’s Trots, anybody?) I can see how not wanting to stop to change a tampon/pad for the sake of competition, but her time was far from competitive (but much faster than me!) Boston qualifiying times, for example, would put her finishing less than 3hr 35 min. I would agree however, that pads would not be the way to go due to chafing. But even sports bras cause chafing around the ribs and nipples (true story). Sort of the nature of beast. Another thing to consider is that the act of exercise can release endorphins that help with pain management. I’ve started many runs wanting to kill myself due to cramps, but coming out happy at the end of the run because of the endorphins.I’ve always read that exercise is recommended to deal with menstrual pain–under normal cases. And finally, you’d be surprised what the human body is capable of ignoring when you are full of adrenaline. On Race Day, it’s easy to sludge through a lot of pains that would normally stop you on your training runs, but due to the crowd support, race support, and the hype of the race itself, you can overlook quite a few things. So, to say that her free bleeding is awe inspiring because of all the other issues that she has to deal with as a woman, to me is kind of blowing it out of proportions. I would argue that almost all the other women who were in that same race has experienced something similar, and she probably wasn’t the only one that day menstruating and finished a race. However, I do get the point and agree about how liberating it is to talk of periods openly.

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    • clbutor says:

      Those are all really good points and part of why anyone that chooses to run a marathon is pretty awesome. It takes a great deal of effort and pain management to run one.

      I also think I may need to do a bit of editing. I mostly meant that any woman that voluntarily goes out and gets shit done — especially extraneous, demanding shit like running a marathon — is inspiring to me. Even with endorphins and getting pumped on Race Day, it takes a fair amount of determination to push past pain and get out there. When you’re cramping badly or have a waterfall gushing between your legs, it can be really difficult to do anything other than curl up in a fetal position. So I applaud any of the likely thousands of women that powered through it to run that race, and I applaud her for choosing comfort over compliance. I also just think it’s cool that she would be comfortable enough with herself to open that kind of dialogue. I’m certainly not.

      But I’ll look back at that last paragraph. See if I can tone it down a bit. Thanks!

      (Side note: I’ve also read that exercise can help in pain management, and that’s why I always insist on exercising on my period, even if I’m feely wobbly and weak. It really does seem to help and has the added bonus of usually shortening and regulating my periods. But it does make me feel mentally stronger that I convinced myself to get off the couch and do something.)

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