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Rag Week: Addressing Our Problem With Periods

Artwork by Anna Jay
When I first got my period at the age of 12, I sheepishly relayed the news to my mum and made her promise she would never, ever, under any circumstances tell my father or brothers. She would know when it was my 'time of the month' because I would write “pads” on the shopping list she left on our kitchen counter. It was rarely discussed and I generally found the whole thing rather embarrassing.

20 years later and I still find myself quietly hoping I get the female assistant when I’m waiting in line at Boots to buy my monthly Tampax. My unease bothers me. But so ingrained is the secrecy and shame surrounding menstruation in our culture that I have to continually remind myself to, quite frankly, not give a fuck.

Everyone has their own relationship with their period. For every woman who would be mortified if a tampon fell out of her handbag on the bus, there is another who would proudly continue running the London marathon despite bleeding down her thighs because she doesn’t want to jeopardise her finishing time.

What we can all agree on, however, is that the conversation is changing. Or maybe that’s not quite right... maybe it’s that the conversation is finally starting. That’s why, beginning today, Refinery29 UK is running Rag Week, during which we hope to tell fascinating, funny and educational stories about women’s different experiences of menstruating around the globe.

The last year has seen an unprecedented rise in the discussion of menstruation in our society, both of the political and the personal. Women have marched on Parliament, free-bleeding, demanding an end to the so-called tampon tax, which decrees sanitary products be taxed as a luxury item.

Labour MP Stella Creasy stood up in Parliament and insisted that these products weren’t marked as luxury “by accident, [but] by design of an unequal society, in which the concerns of women are not treated as equally as the concerns of men.” Finally, after a passionate campaign that forced the government to listen, plans for the tax to be scrapped were made last month after a deal was reached with Brussels.

Period cramps officially could be 'as bad as having a heart attack'. Why had it taken until 2016 for this to be figured out?

In February, a study was released that highlighted just how much some women suffer when they are menstruating. It was official: period cramps could be “as bad as having a heart attack.” Why had it taken until 2016 for this to be figured out? Hold on, the answer may sound familiar.

“Men don’t get it and it hasn’t been given the centrality it should have,” Professor John Guillebaud of UCL told Quartz. “I do believe it’s something that should be taken care of, like anything else in medicine.” Hundreds of thousands of women collectively rolled their eyes and popped yet another Nurofen at the news.

Soon after, the first company in the UK made headlines when it announced they would be offering menstrual leave for women whose periods truly interfered with their working life.

Elsewhere, we’ve seen a renewed interest in the welfare of menstruating homeless women who can’t afford sanitary products, and the setting up of The Homeless Period, which calls for homeless shelters to provide tampons and towels for free, just as they do with condoms.

Last November, a brand of menstrual underwear, Thinx, whose planned campaign dared to use the word “period” in their advertising on the New York subway, had their designs sent back to them by the company in charge of selling the ad space. After an online outcry (is there any other kind these days?) the posters were promptly approved.

Instagram even apologised last March after it removed poet Rupi Kaur's photograph of herself lying on a bed with visible menstrual blood on her trousers, an image that she originally uploaded to tackle taboos around menstruation.

So, victories of sorts.
There’s no doubt that this reclaiming, and frank discussion of periods is in line with a renewed wave of feminism. And for a society that still prefers to see inoffensive blue liquid in sanitary towel adverts, and in which women continue to hide tampons up their sleeves like illicit drugs on their way to the loo, and whose supermarkets insist on calling such products “feminine hygiene” in the first place, this action is cheering. But most of us are also aware that issues such as tax and advertising are chiefly the menstrual concerns of the privileged.

After all, we still live in a world where one in 10 girls of school age in Africa either miss or drop out of education for reasons related to their period, according to the UN. Where women in parts of India are banished to live in huts when they bleed. Where 48% of girls in Iran believe their period is a disease.

And there are so many other unique stories to tell. How does a trans man feel about his period? And what does a mother tell her mentally disabled daughter when she begins to menstruate? And what if a woman’s period is so severe that she ends up in hospital? And how does the menopause affect a woman’s personal identity?

This week, we hope to tell some of these lesser-told experiences, alongside pieces that many women will relate to.

Because I, for one, am tired of hoping for the female assistant in Boots. And pretending I’m taking painkillers for a headache.

It's not fair that a woman might have to choose between food and sanitary protection. Or that a girl will be frightened because she doesn't know what's happening to her when she begins to bleed.

These concerns might all have differing levels of seriousness and relevance to each of us as individuals, but they do come from a shared origin: that of a cultural taboo. And we're tired of it. Period.