Words and Art by Zoe Elektra
Why does the thought of telling my male unit coordinator that I need an extension on an assignment due to period pain fill me with terror? Why does admitting to being caught in the throes of menstruation feel like such a cop-out when I, a light sleeper at the best of times, went back to sleep for two and a half hours this morning because I was so fatigued? Why does my excuse feel so weak when I’m hobbling around the house with a hot water bottle stuffed down my pants?
If it were a cold that had rendered me so, I wouldn’t think twice. In fact, I’d probably play it up a little bit:
Dear Dr Unit Coordinator,
Would it be possible for me to have a two-day extension on assignment 2? I have been ill and bed-ridden for five days with a horrific cold. Additionally, my constant sneezing has given me a shocking headache, and I am unable to concentrate on recreational activities, let alone actual productive work.
Thanks for your understanding, hope to hear from you soon.
The only reason I play up having a cold is to make my ailment feel valid. The truth is, I don’t grant myself enough slack when I need it. I procrastinate for hours every day when I’m completely well and I don’t give myself a hard time for it. But when I’m sick (or suffering from… p-p-period pain), I am so acutely aware of every minute I’m spending (wasting) resting and feeling sorry for myself. Yet, I do what I did today and sleep and then watch YouTube and then write about my womb woes.
So what is it about bleeding out of my vagina that makes me embarrassed?
When I first got my period, I had just turned twelve. Conveniently, I had worn white underwear to bed, and when I woke up in the morning, there was a big red stain. I called my mum into the bathroom and she came and sat with me. She was beaming.
“Wow, Zo. Congratulations! You’re a woman now.”
But I didn’t feel like a woman. I felt disgusting. I was scared, embarrassed; I thought everyone would notice straight away. I cried a lot and took the day off school. My mum cancelled all her clients, which was nice of her, except she told them about my period. Now, on top of being scared and embarrassed, I had been exposed.
My mum went out straight away and bought me a pack of pads and a pack of tampons with applicators. When my first pack of pads ran out, she asked me if I wanted her to continue to buy pads for me.
“No, thanks. I can sort it out.”
Eleven years later, I can’t help but be baffled at this. You have to understand at this point that I wasn’t allowed to go to the shops by myself. I didn’t really have my own money for spending on everyday items. I think my savings account had about $400 in it, but that was reserved for something special and I had no means of actually spending it. In truth, I had no idea how I would “sort it out” on my own, and I couldn’t exactly double back on my decision; I had dignity to uphold.
So, what did I do? I stole my step-mum’s pads and tampons. One by one, always making sure to cover my tracks by ensuring I left the designated bathroom drawer precisely the same as how I’d found it. And when I wasn’t at my dad’s place, I would stuff toilet paper into my underwear. When I went to gymnastics training, I would either fumble around with a tampon, only managing to stick it up halfway so I could very much feel it, or I would repurpose sports tape and make my own version of a toilet paper pad. I’ll give it to myself, I was remarkably resourceful, but it seems silly to go to such lengths when I had a supermarket full of legitimate “sanitary” products just down the road, and a willing and able mother to buy them for me. Eventually I would start accompanying my mum on supermarket trips and I would sneak a pack of pads into my basket, making sure to bury it under other unassuming items so that no one else would know that I was a woman. But this courage took a couple of years to develop.
In high school, I tried my best to conceal Aunt Flo for the first couple of years. Pads were always transported from the locker to the bathroom either stuffed up my sleeve or in my pocket. Even when I was in the bathroom, I opened them as quietly as I could. I made sure to put the sanitary bin lid down slowly. If I’d left a streak of blood in the toilet bowl, I would put toilet paper over it so that it looked natural, but also so that it concealed my womanhood. We did not have toilet brushes at school.
It wasn’t until year 9 that we had sex education. By this time, the majority of those with uteruses inflicted upon them would have already started to menstruate. So the question must be asked, shouldn’t we be giving kids comprehensive period education before they start menstruating? By the time I was in year 9, I was already three years into my period. Before sex education, I had no idea why I menstruated. Sure, I could have looked it up myself, but I was too embarrassed to even type the words out. If we had learned about periods in primary school, I would have felt comfortable talking about them with my mum. Likewise, if we’d learnt about menstruation earlier in high school, I wouldn’t have felt like I had to conceal all evidence of menstruation, which was an alienating and shameful experience, one that young teens should not have to go through.
Have you ever been ashamed to tell your parents, friends or teachers that you have a cold? Although the average adult only gets two to four colds a year, no one bats an eyelid when it comes to taking sick leave, or getting an extension on an assignment so they can focus on getting better. Menstruation happens every month, and it can cause severe pain and discomfort. Symptoms include stomach cramps, lower back pain, diarrhoea, fatigue, weakness; the list is extensive. Menstruator or not, if you’ve experienced these symptoms before, you’ll know how awful they can make you feel.
So I must return to my initial question: why do I hesitate to give the real reason for my extension request to my male unit coordinator? I messaged my group of close female friends to ask them if they thought this was an appropriate opportunity to break down the (uterine) walls of the period stigma. One of them told me to just say I was feeling “sick and fatigued”, which another one agreed with, pointing out that period pain is often “undermined” and that whether or not the extension was granted would depend on how compassionate the coordinator is. This in itself is sad. To think that perhaps a heartless coordinator would dismiss period pain as an insufficient excuse for needing an extension is angering, simply because they haven’t been educated on how awful period pain can be. This hasn’t happened to me personally because, frankly, I don’t want to risk it. Isn’t it high time that we educate everyone on periods from an early age? None of this “waiting until they’re mature enough” bullshit like we’re seeing nowadays. The problem isn’t that kids are immature, it’s that our education has made us associate reproductive organs with awkwardness and shame. Periods are natural – as are the formation of scabs when we graze our knee – and should be treated as such. They’re not disgusting, they’re not freaky, and they’re certainly not something that anyone should be ashamed of. But they’re part of having a uterus, and many uterus-havers must live with them.
Anyway, my extension was granted.