We try to avoid period shame by controlling our menstrual cycle, but maybe the answer is facing up to it, writes Chloe Gray.
Let’s face it, no one enjoys coming on their period. Even if you celebrate when you see blood, thankful for an explanation for your weird mood and bloating, they are still annoying. And for the 29% of us who live with dysmenorrhea, they’re debilitatingly painful.
But however inconvenient they may be, periods tell us more about our bodies than just whether or not we are pregnant. In fact, the more we learn about women’s health, the more obvious it is that our period cycle is a huge signifier of what is going on hormonally, mentally, emotionally and physiologically.
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And yet… wouldn’t you get rid of them if you could? Given that we now have the medical advancements to do so, many women and people who menstruate are. Contraceptives that halt our cycles, such as the mini pill and the coil, are not new, but it’s only been in the past few years that going back-to-back to stop withdrawal bleeding has been deemed medically safe. ‘Holiday delay pills’ are now standard too, with Boots launching one without a prescription so you can head to the beach without worrying about bleeding.
For many people, these things give a huge sense of bodily autonomy. It’s important to be able to use medicine to our advantage, to not feel restrained by our biology and to make decisions about what we do. The increased interest in period control right now is hardly a surprise – abortion rights have been overruled, the gender health gap means reporting painful symptoms oftern feels like you’re shouting into a void and there is still a huge stigma around periods.
But are we missing a trick by trying to avoid our cycles? “Fundamentally, a period is a barometer of health for females,” says women’s health expert Renee McGregor. “It shows that there’s enough energy in the body to allow for pregnancy to happen.”
To be clear, this isn’t a suggestion that our bodies should just be healthy for the purposes of having a child (we are absolutely not playing into that archaic stereotype, thank you). “But your body being in a place where it could sustain a pregnancy and give life is a really good marker of health,” says McGregor.
Your periods changing or disappearing are a huge sign that something is going on. It can include problems with the reproductive organs themselves, like endometriosis. But it can also be influenced by hormonal changes stemming from our hypothalamus (the hormone centre in the brain), external and mental stress, thyroid issues or a combination of all of these things.
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I have always had a weird relationship with periods. Going to an all-girls’ school, we could walk into a classroom and loudly ask the whole room for a pad, but I can still feel the hot flush of embarrassment when I think about the time a tampon fell out of my bag in front of a group of teenage boys in town after school.
When I was 18 and went on my first girls’ holiday, most of my friends automatically went to their GP to ask for the ‘holiday pill’ because they shuddered at the thought of bleeding while away. Even I took it, despite not actually caring much about the prospect of wearing a tampon while out in Magaluf. I had secondhand embarrassment – if everyone else was ashamed of their period, maybe I should be too?
Really, I was more embarrassed about my lack of bleeding when, a few years later, I landed myself with hypothalamic amenorrhea. Like many women, doctors told me it was PCOS, but after reading up on amenorrhea, I realised that my lack of bleed was actually a sign that something bad was up with my lifestyle. To this day, periods of extreme stress can be enough to throw my periods off slightly; I use them asa sign of where my mental and physical health are at.
If you aren’t on contraception and aren’t menopausal, “it’s never OK to not have a period”, says McGregor. “The reason women want to control them, delay them or modify them is because many people face severe pain that’s not taken seriously, and we live in a society that has made us believe that a period is inconvenient or impacts our ability to have fun or do things that we want to do.
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“I’m not saying we shouldn’t be able to take charge of our bodies in this way, but I would question what is the purpose of it. The solution isn’t to avoid our periods, but to talk more about them. The more we understand our bodies and how we can live our lives with them, the more likely we are to accept them,” she adds.
It is, of course, the people who dismiss period pain or turn their nose up at the sight or thought of menstrual products or blood that need to change. Until that re-education is done, perhaps we should begin by simply paying attention to what your cycle is trying to tell you.
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