Going with the flow: My period and me

To mark Menstrual Hygiene Day BCU Research Fellow, Gemma Williams, writes about the stigma of menstruation and her own experiences with the concept of “period poverty”.

Gemma Williams
Research Fellow

“Time of the month”, “monthly gift”, “riding the crimson wave”, “shark week”, “on the blob”, “coming on”…

Whatever you want to call it, I got my period when I was 11 years old. That’s a pretty young age, and I had no idea what was going on. I’m now 43, which means I’ve had my period for over 30 years.

They’ve mostly been pretty regular, so I’ve pretty much bled for 7 days a month every year for 32 years. I can’t be bothered to do the math, but I know that’s a significant amount of time, and guess what… I’m still working things out.

My period has changed since I was 11, as have the products I use, and the ways I try and cope with the pain and the pre-menstrual stuff.

My first period hit me in the middle of the night, and I just thought I had a really bad tummy ache – I went to wake up my mum and she came to the toilet with me.  I think we both assumed I needed to be sick or something!

And then we saw my pyjama bottoms. My mum cried as I was “grown up”. I knew what it was (thanks to Judy Blume’s “Are you there God? It’s me Margaret”) but I was shocked as I was only 11 – “big girls” get their periods, after all, not 11 year old girls!

Anyway, I was cleaned up and given a flannel to put in my pants. My mum had a hysterectomy when she was younger, and hadn’t had a period in years, so no products were in the house. In the morning on the way to school we stopped by the supermarket to get me some pads, and I used pads for the first few years…

Pads in the 80s/early 90s were not the same as the (arguably) nice ones you get today. They were bulky, had no wings and were not very absorbent! Leaks were a fact of the month, and my periods were pretty heavy. This made me the attention of boys, and the hugely embarrassing comments. “So and so knows you’re wearing a pad” (how?!?), “ooh mardy – you’re on your period”. Even the (male) teachers weighed in on my period and my choice of protection.

Yes that’s right – a male teacher saw fit to ask a small group of 12 year old girls, who had a note to not do swimming that week, what was wrong with them and why we couldn’t use tampons. I’m still in shock about that one!

Fast forward a year or so and I finally worked out how to use tampons properly! What a nightmare that was. Ones with “handy applicators” always somehow ended up in the wrong place, and those without were also tricky. But I persisted and succeeded. What an achievement! I continued to use a combination of tampons and pads up to the age of 40.

I’ve recently started experimenting with alternative products, like cups, reusable pads and period pants. Partly because I do want to be more environmentally friendly, partly to try to save some cash, but mainly because of my health problems.

I have ulcerative colitis, and part of that includes crippling episodes of arthritis. It especially affects my hands and finger joints so all of a sudden using tampons became difficult again (flash back to the afternoon I spent on the toilet, age 13, determined to master the art of tampon insertion)!

Sometimes I just can’t use my hands to be able to grip them, and insert them.  I don’t mind pads, but my medication can make me extra sweaty (especially on my period!) and then they don’t stick properly to my pants…  Absolute. Pain. In. The. ****

For the record, the mooncup I tried was also an utter nightmare – arthritic hands, and cup removal, do not go well together at all… I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination but if you’ve ever watched the film ‘Carrie’, you’ll catch my drift…

What does work for me, at the moment, is a combination of reusable pads and period pants (OMG, period pants are the best thing to have ever been invented)! I still do use tampons for certain activities, arthritis permitting.

I’m very lucky, despite my seemingly “sour” relationship with my period.  I am in a privileged position where I can choose what products I want to use, and choose how much I want to spend on such “luxuries” (don’t get me started on that one!).

It’s 2021, and the concept of “period poverty” is not just related to low/middle income ‘developing’ countries. It’s happening right now, in the UK.  The pandemic has amplified not only the financial aspects of period poverty, but lead to an increase in a poverty of menstrual health and menstrual education with the repeat deprioritisation of both (e.g. school closures, access to routine healthcare).

Menstrual Hygiene Day is vital to raise awareness of such issues, and to highlight ways we can all do better to support those who have periods. It may have taken me a while to get where I am (and my period journey is far from over!), but there are many who still struggle to “go with the flow”.

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