I menstruate, you menstruate, they menstruate. And despite all of us, and half the world like us, menstruates, it’s still horrifying to write this, to say this, let alone discuss this…
“Young lady, please leave the room.” I can’t move. The giggles and semi-hysterical laughter from a minute ago gave way to an awkward silence. Everyone looks at me, nobody looks at me. An absolutely natural, almost mechanical act, ended up triggering an interrupted class, an expulsion, a complaint. “It is a total lack of respect for me and your fellow students.” All because of a runny nose. I had a runny nose, I needed a tissue, I rummaged through my backpack and, instead of said tissue, I took off a pad. A menstrual pad. Continuous act, I put it on the table, and my colleague right next to me made some kind of joke, like those you do when you are 14 years old - because, let’s face it, what teenager would not lose his mind when confronted with such an esoteric object? The joke (which I erased from my memory) justified my distraction as vile and bad, and I was promptly asked to leave that place reserved to the pure in spirit. “What went through your mind, Ana?”, the class director asked me later. Nothing. Nothing crossed my mind. Or, on the other hand, several things crossed my mind, one of them being why the hell was I expelled from class because of a pad. I was sorry I didn’t take it out of my backpack in purpose.
The tiny universe where we, women, move, is full of stories like this. I must have about five or six, between the high school episode and the “apparition”, that is, the moment when I realized that we weren’t quite like men. I remember, still a brat, watching my mother’s desperation at the pastry shop where she drank coffee every day, when she inadvertently took a pad from her wallet and put it on the counter (it is now proven that it exists, in our family, a whole connection between said object and the act of unpacking it). “Mrs Murcho, are you feeling ok?”, asked one of the employees, trying to divert the attention from what had jus happened. She was feeling ok. She had only made a mistake, and instead of three coins, she had taken the thing-which-no-man-wants-to-see. She was so upset (we are experts in self-censorship) that I can almost swear she apologized to him and to myself, a five year-old who didn’t even know what it was to bleed every other month.
If the language seems excessive, you can stop here. Until the last final point you won’t find cute metaphors. The idea is to call things as they are. Menstruation, period, physiological discharge of blood and mucous tissue from the lining of the uterus through the vagina. Why insist on this? Because, in general, society still sees all these words as something “dirty.” There are too many cultural and religious connotations that aim to diminish women who are “at that time of the month” (another expression that is unbearable to hear) as being “less pure.” See, for instance, the policy adopted by most social media, who encourage the spread of hygiene practices - whether health standards, support for NGO’s or brands of menstrual cups - but refuse any image where a drop of blood arises near a vagina. It happened with poet Rupi Kaur, in 2015, when she saw one of her photographs erased, apparently because her leggings, and her sheets, had blood.
It bothers. It bother so much that even the period’s emoji was a hot topic of discussion. At the time of the incursion of said symbol, in 2017, the choice fell on a pair of underwear accompanied by blood (what else?), but such aberration was rejected by the Unicode Consortium - the organization that coordinates the development and the promotion of Unicode, that is, of those characters that we got used to using three out of two words in a sentence - so the final option fell on the innocent droplet of blood that we now have and which, let’s face it, could be anything, because there are all kinds of drops of blood, we just have to make a cut on a finger. And we see them by the thousands, if we think about the amount of uncensored blood that we got access to, from an early age - in action and adventure movies, in news… Uncensored blood, of course. “I have no doubt that the only thing that makes menstrual blood disgusting is that it comes out of a vagina. Men are always bleeding on television/advertising/films: either because they are heroes in a film, or because they are soldiers at war, or because they are beaten up and very strong. Let us remember that Eve not only came from Adam’s rib, she ate a red apple and that is why all women in the world have vaginal bleeding that punishes them from the sin of the first woman in the world. It still embarrasses us so much because it remains the best kept non-secret in the world. Everyone knows that it exists, but nobody talks about it, nobody sees it, it’s like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist. I menstruate, we menstruate, and we all grow in the same place: a vagina that menstruates.” The description is provided by Tota Alves, 29, one of the directors of the docuseries O Meu Sangue, which premiered March 4 at RTP Play. Over the course of three episodes of ten episode each, some of the taboos associated with what should have been a natural thing, a non-issue, and which remains a gigantic porcelain elephant in this store called planet earth, are explored. Quite active in social media in everything related to menstruation, she has very clear perspectives on what is wrong with the way we handle the problem: “What saddens me most is the comparison of menstruation with feces. It is the most evident proof of disgust there is towards a blood that is good, that is part of everyone’s life, that is natural and clean. It bothers me that there is so much repudiation and that words like ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’ are still used to describe a person who is menstruating.”
And then nothing helps. It’s the ads that continue to depict period as being a blue liquid - the situation is so serious that the first campaign in which said spot was red only appeared in 2010, courtesy of Always; the idea came from an intern who was working for the advertising agency Leo Burnett, who owned the Always account, and who was just developing his personal portfolio. His chief creative officer (God bless him) found the idea so good that he ended up publishing the work - in an act of courage, as he received a chorus of protests. It’s the exorbitant prices of feminine hygiene products - one show make the calculations on how much we spend from the moment we start menstruating. Research suggests that a women bleeds, on average, between 2.250 to 3000 days throughout her life. In Portugal, tampons, pads and menstrual cups pay a Lowe VAT rate (6%), but in the rest of the European Union there is a huge disparity, with countries in which the amount rises to 27% - in the same measure as tobacco or coffee - even though they are essential good. But let’s not go any further, because in countries like India, women are isolated when they are menstruated, more than a third of girls in South Asia do not go to school during that time, and in Sri Lanka two thirds of girls are not even aware of what menstruation is before they come across it. Is it worth remembering, at this point, that none of this is a choice? That no one wakes up one morning and decides to start bleeding every 28 days?
“Over the past few years I have been ‘collecting’ stories inside my head. My stories, stories of other women. There was one in particular that touched me a lot. About eight years ago, a co-worker went to a shopping mall and when she was in a line at a store, she was told, in her ear, that she had a blood stain in her shorts. The shorts were white. She was very ashamed and went to close herself in the bathroom. She washed her shorts in the flushing water, dried them in the hand dryer and put toilet paper in her underwear. This is the height of the shame of menstruating. It happened in England. I still think about this story regularly today. This caused me to create some sort of ‘portfolio’ in my brain with several events like this, mine and others.” Tota’s portfolio gave riste to RTP’s docuseries, where different generation of women - who had different experiences in their relationship with menstruation - are given a voice, and where some much needed questions are asked - above all, why. Why are we still ashamed to talk about it? I don’t have to search too much for an answer. My friend D. knows a thing or two about period. She is 36 years old. She started menstruating when she was 12. Think about it, she must know… 279 things, which are the times she has already felt what it’s like being “at that time of the month”. We go back in time. “Do you remember the first time I had it?”, she asks me. I do remember. “I called you in a panic. I though I was drowning myself in blood. You told me it was normal, I insisted that I was going to diem that it couldn’t possibly be normal.” Those were other times. There was no internet. These things were not talked about (not that they are today). I ask her if she thinks there is a stigma around the word ‘period’. Her answer is firm. “There is. I refuse to say things as ‘Benfica is playing’ [popular slang for I am menstruating, refering to a national soccer team] or something. I have my period, period. And with pads and tampons, how is it? “Ha, that is even worse. My husband, who is all weird, can’t see a tampon. I have to hide them. With my colleagues, and with friends with whom I am most comfortable, I have no problems. I say I'm going to change the tampon. I don’t care.” What upsets her the most? “That people assume that I am this or that this or because I am on my period. Things like 'oh, you are in a bad mood, you must have your period', or 'it is unbearable, you must be with PMS.' A few years ago, at a fair, I went into a restaurant and the employee started to lose his mind and repeatedly told me 'you can only be at that time of the month.' It is a lack of respect. ” In this case, it's not just the country we have, it's the world we have. The problem is global.
There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. And it's the size of Scotland. The Scottish parliament passed, at the end of February, a bill to make available feminine hygiene products free of charge to all women. The Government's plan, called “Period Products Bill” - with an annual implementation cost of around 29 million euros - consists of offering free tampons and pads in previously designated public places. The measure will make Scotland the first country in the world to move forward with such regulations, and aims to combat “period poverty”, a designation given to high levels of poverty, and the consequent lack of hygiene means, which affects all women who cannot support their basic needs during menstruation. In fact, despite being a country of what we have become accustomed to calling “the first world”, one in five Scottish women is unable to buy intimate hygiene products, a study released by the association Women for Independence in 2018 guaranteed. The survey also revealed that 45% of respondents will have already used “toilet paper, newspapers, socks, towels or old clothes” as an alternative to traditional hygiene products - pads, tampons or menstrual cups. In other victories, or even better, in other championships, the documentary Period. End Of Sentence was awarded the Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 2019, proving that not all taboo themes are condemned to an eternally closed Pandora box. The film, directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, tells the story of a group of Indian women who produce hygiene products - thus combating the (gigantic) stigma that exists against menstruation in their country and gaining some financial independence - and convinced the members of the Academy. Now all that remains is for us women to take the next step. And if in another life I come across that teacher and mistakenly remove a pad from my backpack - and, in an act of madness, put it on the table - I will the one who makes sure to get up and leave the classroom.
This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Freedom issue, from April 2020.
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Liberdade da Vogue Portugal.