I’d like to take a look at periods!
Even though it’s an *extremely* common experience – there are estimates that 800 million people in the world are having a period every single day – this is one of the topics that often gets the most ‘yucks’ and discomfort in schools.
In my experience, people often have misconceptions about periods in the UK. Despite this, I find that there’s a tendency to talk about period stigma as a purely foreign problem – often only acknowledging problems in low income countries. Unicef recognises that period stigma is a global issue.
As someone who regularly talks to young people about menstruation, it seems sadly alive and well in the UK. Often, just bringing out (completely new and unopened) tampons and other period products is enough to evoke palpable – and audible – signs of discomfort in the classroom. I firmly believe that the way to tackle this is to talk to all people about periods – whether they have them or not themselves…
Firstly, let’s start with the basics – what is a period?
It’s bleeding through the vagina from the uterus, usually for a few days, most often once a menstrual cycle (more on variations and problem periods later). The bleeding is the lining of the uterus being shed. It’s made up of clots, tissue and blood – so is very different to the ‘fresh’, bright red blood you might get from veins or arteries from a cut.
Usually (but not always) people use something to manage this bleeding. Different types of period products include:
Pads: Either disposable or reusable material that is attached to underwear and soaks up blood. Disposable pads are widely available. They usually contain some sort of plastic to make them waterproof and are single use – i.e. they are thrown away after being used. Reusable pads are made from fabric and can be washed and reused. At least in the UK, they can be a bit harder to get hold of. Some brands sell them online, or independent makers sell them through websites life Etsy.com. If you are craft savvy, you might like to make them yourself.
Tampons: These are cylinders of cotton wool-like material. They are inserted into the vagina. The walls of the vagina keep them in place, where they can absorb blood. They are removed by pulling on a little ‘string’ attached to them. Concerns about tampons getting stuck, lost or causing harm seem quite common. Although people do sometimes find they can’t remove a tampon, this doesn’t seem to happen very often. Even if it does, the vagina is a closed ‘space’ and a healthcare professional should be able to remove it using special tools (I have had this job at one point). Like anything that is inserted in to the body from outside (including food) there is always going to be some risk of infection with inserting a tampon. Again, this isn’t very common, especially if tampons are removed and changed regularly and you make sure to wash your hands before removing or inserting one.
Period Cups: Shaped a bit like an egg-cup without a stand and made from a squishy but solid material. They are inserted in to the vagina, where they sit underneath the cervix (entrance to the uterus) and collect blood. They can then be emptied and washed – rinsed out in between uses and sterilised (e.g. in boiling water) in between cycles. They usually have a little ‘pull’ on the end that can be used to remove them – a bit like the string on a tampon. Along with fabric pads, they are another type of reusable period product.
Period Disks: They work in a similar way to period cups – but are shaped differently. They are a flattish ‘disk’ shape, rather than a ‘cup’ shape, but are still inserted in to the vagina, where they sit and collect blood. They don’t have the little ‘pull’ piece, and sit a bit higher up in the vagina.
Pants: These are shaped and worn like regular underwear. But the ‘gusset’ (the bit that sits underneath the vagina in people with vulvas) is made from absorbable material, to soak up period blood. As with reusable pads, these are washed and then reused.
Freebleeding: Some people don’t use any particular product when they are menstruating – bleeding ‘freely’ on to their clothes. This can be by accident, or it has been used as a political statement.
Busking it: Sometimes people use anything to hand, such as tissues or cloth, to soak up period blood. One reason for this might be period poverty – the inability to afford period products. It is thought that millions are affected by this, even if high income countries like the UK.
How do people choose which period product to use? People are different – and what is good for some, isn’t for others. Also, your needs and your cycle might change over time or in different circumstances. For example, personally I like to use a period cup during the day because it can be reused and is fine to take swimming. But at night I prefer period pants, as they feel more ‘secure’ which I’m moving about in my sleep.
Another thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is problem periods. There’s sometimes a feeling that periods are meant to be unpleasant – for example, painful. Whilst some discomfort is common, there is such a thing as as a problem period. A period might be a problem might be one that:
- Is too painful (e.g. effects your ability to do the things you would usually do), including pain just before your period.
- Is very heavy (e.g. you have to change pads or tampons very frequently or no period products seem to deal with period blood at all), including last for a very long time (i.e. longer than 8 days).
- Causes you lots of emotional distress, including just before your period.
- Is very irregular (e.g. your cycle varies by more than several days between each period).
If this or something else is bothering you about your period, it’s probably worth talking to a healthcare professional – like your GP – about it!
I cannot recommend the book Red Moon Gang by Tara Costello enough, for anyone who has periods (or who doesn’t, and wants to know more). Informed by Costello’s extensive research, as well as interviews with what seems to be a huge range of people who have periods (including people of different genders). There is also a blog and information site of the same name, which includes a really nice and short article on what a period is!
I wrote ‘The Body’ chapter in Sex Ed: An Inclusive Teenage Guide to Sex and Relationships, which is available from Walker Books now! This chapter includes loads of information about periods, and the rest of the book is full of other RSE info for young people!
This video from Amaze.org is a nice summary of the basic of a period (although briefly gets a bit reproductive focused).
Episode 23 of the Guilty Feminist is all about Periods! Nice, normalising discussion of periods. The guest on this episode is Evelyn Mok, who talks about being diagnosed with PCOS (i.e. problem periods).
This short film about getting a period for the first time might be a nice conversation starter!
Follow the Bloody Good Period campaign on social media for period education.
I am the Co-Founder of PeriodPal – an online app for tracking periods that aims to be inclusive and ethical. This is funded by donations, with no subscription fees. To sign-up for a free account to track periods and your health, go to periodpal.eu.