by Tina Wu
For me, the cramps start one week prior to period proper. A slight spasm felt in my uterus, sometimes accompanied by a ripple of pain running through my nether regions. I think to myself: ‘Ah. It begins.’
Alert now, I count the days down until I think my period will eventually make its appearance. Sometimes I’m right. Other times I’m wrong. If I remember to, I wear a pad on the day that I think that it’ll finally begin, hoping to protect myself against the oncoming tide.
Other times I don’t and, boy, do I regret it.
Most of the time, I really don’t get to choose at all. Neither does my mattress cover. I can never truly pinpoint or calculate the specific date my period is going to come each month and the moon charts and smartphone apps that promise to show me the rise and fall of my hormone levels don’t apply to me nor my body it seems.
Estrogen. Progesterone. It never fails to amaze me that these little hormones are the forces behind our monstrous menstruating experiences each month. And the one that we can blame for all the pain? Prostaglandin. I learnt that from the information manual in my Naprogesic packaging.
For those of you who don’t know what cramps feel like, listen closely. Listen hard. Imagine a fist reaching down into your lower abdomen and mercilessly squeezing the internal organs that live down there (including your uterus, your kidneys and your intestines both small and large). Your uterus is trying to push back at the same time, causing an immense tension that can be described as the worst pain a woman can feel short of childbirth. These cramps, more often than not, are supplemented with bloating, back pain, nausea, and the occasional irregular bowel movement. Is it really any wonder that us women have our ‘moods’?
Really, my menstruation experience has been defined by a series of moments.
The moment that you want to exercise to help alleviate the cramps but your craving for donuts is too strong.
The moment when you sneeze and feel blobs of coagulated blood erupt from your vagina and you gag at the sudden gooey warmth collecting between your legs.
The moment when you know you’ve been using the same pad or tampon for too long and try, surreptitiously, to feel your butt every few seconds for any sign of leakage.
The moment when you definitely do feel the leakage through the fabric of your pants and, depending on whether you’ve brought a jacket to tie around your hips or not, resign to the fact that today is not your day.
The moment when you try your hardest to rip open your pad or tampon silently in a public bathroom, but fail, letting everybody know that you’re on ‘that time of the month’.
The moment when the time comes to replace your pad after hours of sitting in a pool of your own blood, doing the classic cowboy strut to the closest bathroom, only to find the sanitary bins filled to the brim, red-stained pads poking out of the lid. So what do you do? Proceed to stuff some more filthy cotton into the microcosmic landfill site, of course.
The moment when you’re cramping so badly in class but you don’t want to ask anyone for painkillers because you’re embarrassed by your own bodily functions.
And finally, the moment when you’re posed with that inexplicable question.
‘Is it – is it that time of the month again?’ asks your brother, your father, or your boyfriend, with an infuriating mixture of bewilderment, and hesitation, and condescension. You’re so mad at the question that you start to think that he might be right. It would be so easy to blame everything on this thing that you can’t control.
Aside from this monthly onslaught of unavoidable blood (and uterus lining) and tears, the world of menstrual products, etiquette, and best practice is a minefield of confusion in itself.
Pads or tampons? Maybe neither? Word on the street is that disposable cotton is out, moon cups and period panties are in. I, too, have made efforts to climb aboard the noble bandwagon of eco-friendly sanitary hygiene – but I’ve yet to actually open my own blood-absorbent underwear from the packaging I bought it in about three moons ago. Oops.
At this point, another important question pops into my mind: if an energy drink can give you wings, why can’t all pads?
How about sex on your period? Been there, done that. It may feel icky to some but there’s really no shame in a little blood and extra lubrication is never a bad thing. Just remember to use a towel – a dark one at that.
Thankfully I’m able to give a shout-out to the feminine hygiene industry that previously posed a significant dilemma for those of us who made the mistake of being born with a vagina. After a long and gruelling fight to lift the tampon tax, almost every sanitary product company has reduced prices by 9.1 per cent – a win for women with periods everywhere. That bright yellow tag I saw in the hygiene section at Woolworths announcing tax-exemption for female sanitary products felt like a trophy for our victory.
We have come so far in accepting menstruation as a topic worthy of discussion. So why am I still dreading the day my vagina spasms, hating the pain and discomfort that each month brings me?
We’re biological clocks. One period, one egg down. One egg down, one step closer to freedom.
Or so I tell myself.
I complain about my periods so much that I forget the ways that these monthly bleeds have shaped my identity as a woman. The good, the bad, the funny, and the downright embarrassing – who would I be without the trials my body has brought me each month? Who would I be without my fellow menstruating sisters who have given me tampons and painkillers, who have shared their own excruciating and bloody stories?
My first period came on my first day of high school. I had been waiting for this moment for months – all of my closest friends had started menstruating and they had been sharing their experiences with each other like it was an elite, secret cult. I remember feeling relief, and pride, at finally being included.
That feeling began to subside when I realised that nobody actually talked about whether they used pads or tampons to each other in the open, or about how much they were cramping and how they dealt with the pain.
Once, in Japanese class, at my all-girls high school, the teacher left to grab our quizzes from his office. The windows were open and girl took the opportunity to ask the class, ‘Kotex or Libra?’.
Nobody answered, save a few murmurs of confusion. No more than a few seconds later, our male teacher returned, storming, and demanded to know who had spoken.
‘Do you know how embarrassing it is for other people walking outside to hear my students talking about pads?’, he asked.
The culture of silence surrounding women and their periods while having lifted somewhat in recent times, is still suffocating. We don’t know whether our own experiences are right or wrong, good or bad. We don’t know if there are better ways to get rid of our cramps or which sanitary products are available to help us deal with the gunk and the environment.
Periods, for those of us who have them, will stick with us for the best part of our lives. It has defined the female experience like nothing else. Getting your period is bloody, excruciatingly painful (for most), embarrassing, confusing, stigmatised, hilarious, healthy, yours. Celebrate your body and all the fluids that it discharges because periods have formed, and will continue to form, a fundamental aspect of your identity as a woman.
Tina is a third-year Media/Law student and loves to talk about her bodily functions. She enjoys reading fantasy and has a soft spot for Australian fiction too. She is also a firm believer of taking painkillers when you’re cramping. Don’t be a hero.
Stephanie Dalzell, “Tampon tax boosting companies’ profits despite sanitary products being exempt from GST,” ABC, 29 March, 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-29/some-businesses-still-using-tampon-tax-to-improve-profit-margins/10952624.