How I got over the mystery, myth and maligning of menstruation
Many years ago, I realised that sanitary napkins were not fancy diapers meant for wildly incontinent women. This exciting revelation occurred when I was nine and my sister attained menarche, or ‘matured’ as was said at home.
I was the quintessential second child, desiring everything my sister had: her clothes, her words, her friends, her shoes, and naturally I wanted her uterus now, for all the rumours of maturity circulating it. She would purchase packets of sanitary napkins imprinted with mysterious and hilarious terminology—ultra- wings, mega wings, choice wings, maxi-pads, nights only, dry-max, side-walls. Imagine what these names did to the mind of a nine year old! I started envisioning a civil war going on down there, where these napkins worked overtime trying to trap gallons of blue fluid (thank you, advertising) to prevent social embarrassment.
So drunk was I on my mission to solve the mystery of these absorbent superheroes that I slyly peeled open one of my sister’s napkins in her absence and stuck it as best I could on the inside of my tiny underwear, wings and all. See, I thought the napkin came first and then the fluid. The one with the sanitary napkin, I thought, was the locus of all power, maturity and wisdom. So there I sat, in one precious corner of the house all morning, jealously guarding the secret in my panty, knowing that something new and blue was filling it up.
I was thoroughly dismayed and disappointed when I discovered an empty, ugly, white napkin in the evening. Nada, no blue, not even a little. I put the sadly unsuccessful mission behind me and asked my sister and mother a torrent of questions about the whole maturity affair. Thankfully, they were very honest with their answers and gave me books to read—my sister and I both loved encyclopaedias and other books on biology.
This time, I deconstructed the entire event and armed myself with real wisdom: one morning in my early teens I would bleed a beautiful red, not an unnatural blue, on my panty and this exciting ritual would continue until I was 50. I shared this delicious secret with a couple of girls in my class and soon became the authority on all matters regarding sanitary napkins and big, fat, mature wombs. I invented secret codes so we could discuss them in front of the boys and laugh when their blunt minds failed to comprehend our cryptic messages.
All this while, I waited. Waited for ‘it’ to happen to me. A couple of years passed and my uterus insisted on staying dormant and woefully immature. The day came when my best friend left school in the middle of the day and was taken home, returning only a fortnight later. Girls congratulated her in low whispers and the boys behaved as if they didn’t care, but made many a distasteful joke. Everyone knew about ‘it’ now. It took girl after girl for its own.
Soon, I was invited to a ‘maturity function’ at the home of one of the girls and made to sit beside her while men and women gave her money, bangles, clothes and blessings. I felt incredibly left out and angry with my body for letting me down. My breasts were painful knobs and I had no growth spurt. Had I put on weight or developed acne, I would have hated my body even more.
Slowly and surely, I became obsessed with attaining menarche. Every time I urinated, I would wait impatiently for the mild yellow waters to turn crimson. Every time I felt something wet in my underwear, I would walk swiftly to the nearest bathroom and check for redness, only to find white, gelatinous mucus. I panicked, thinking I wasn’t woman enough and that my indolent uterus would be unable to bear children.
I looked with a kind of melancholic jealousy on girls who complained to me about their cramps. In my head, I told them to shut up because I would have taken cramps over nothing any day. I wanted those cramps. I wanted to stain my clothes and then cover up with a sweater in that oh-so-grown-up manner. I wanted to say that my legs hurt, like so many girls did, to get out of doing anything I didn’t want to; ‘I have periods’ could get any visibly healthy girl out of sports, dance, physical training, morning assembly and punishment. Being the even tempered girl I was (and still am), I yearned to create anger and frustration out of nothing and take it out on the people around me using PMS as a legitimate excuse for bad behaviour, as I had seen so many girls do.
Around that time, I was sent on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala, a hill in Kerala that women who have attained puberty are forbidden to visit. This was a further blow to my endometrium and I was sure Lord Ayyappa had further discouraged it from shedding itself any time in the near future. My conviction that menarche was a biological certainty dwindled despite my mother’s constant reassurance that some girls hit it even as late as 18. I stopped waiting for it and focused my energies on academics and more interesting things such as boys and bras.
And then one morning, when I was least expecting it, there it was! Wonderful, wet, expressionist strokes of black, red, maroon and brown were streaked across my panty. I hugged myself in joy, but now that it had happened, I was apprehensive too. For a second I felt grown up, womanly, and emotion overwhelmed me. I rubbed the red mucus between my fingers to check its authenticity, and smelt it. It had a sharp, rusty odour, but to the girl in me who had wanted this so badly, it smelled like life wrapped between the legs of a woman. I walked to the kitchen, but did not enter it. I stood by the door and told my mother shyly, ‘‘Amma, ochesindi (it came).’’
Thankfully, there was no ‘maturity function’ for me (or my sister) because neither parent saw the need to parade the fact that their 13-year-old daughter was now ready to reproduce. My aunt came over, dressed me up in an orange pattu parikhini, put flowers in my hair and fed me a tasty mixture of milk, bananas and nuvvulu (sesame seeds). I was asked to touch the feet of both my parents. My aunt said that in the unfortunate event they die before I get married, this was their one chance to see the miniature bride in me. Wondering why there was no miniature, make-believe groom, I obediently touched their feet and felt a lump in my throat at the sheer beauty of certain Hindu beliefs. I had never touched their feet before.
As I grew up, I failed to see the reason I was restricted from going to temples when my tap was on. When elders defended tradition saying that a woman is considered impure during that time, I argued, using childish and easy logic, that if purity were linked to the ability to reproduce, a woman was most ‘pure’ during her periods, because her uterus had most diligently waited for sperm! And if purity was associated with chastity—which is another concept I cannot make my peace with—wasn’t a period evidence that the girl had remained chaste?
Once, on the second day of my period, the taboo day when the river runs red, I walked into the puja room and mentally conversed with the Gods there. Durga and Saraswati seemed particularly understanding, while Ayyappa seemed a tad confused. I explained to them that if they claimed to have designed my body, they were losing credibility by distancing me from them. I don’t restrict myself from going into the puja room anymore. Nobody has the right to tell me that I am impure or contaminated.
There were other things too that disturbed me. My aunt refused to provide her daughter with proper sanitary napkins and made her use cotton cloth instead, fearing that if a used napkin were improperly disposed, a snake might lick it and curse her womanhood, rendering her barren. Why a snake would want to lick a smelly napkin beats me.
A few of my friends were not allowed to leave their rooms when they got their periods, and were given separate plates to eat out of. In some orthodox families, a girl on her period must not touch other clothes and if she does, turmeric water must be sprinkled on her and the contaminated clothes in order to cleanse them.
I'm sure all these rituals are grounded, to some extent, in some old rationale or other, but they have lost all meaning with time. The spooky snake story might have been made up to frighten and dissuade young girls from disposing of their used napkins in public. And perhaps the young girls were kept jailed in one corner of the house to prevent them from tiring themselves out, considering how painful menstrual cramps can be. But isn’t it infinitely better if reasons are given for such practices, that they are not merely shrouded in superstition? Snakes, my foot!
Why does the bleedin’ shopkeeper meticulously wrap every package of sanitary napkins in newspaper and then in a black plastic bag before handing it over to the customer? I deliberately ask shopkeepers not to misuse plastic and carry the bright orange packet in my hand. I am not proud of menstruating nor am I ashamed of it. It is just a fact of life, marginally more exciting than sneezing. Buying sanitary napkins—or condoms for that matter—is as necessary as buying diapers, which, by the way, no one hides in a black cover. Oh no. They are for cute, fat, leaking babies, aren’t they? Let’s show off that we added to the population of the world!
Why did the older advertisements on TV use a blue fluid to denote menstrual fluid? What was so disgusting about the natural colour of blood that compelled the makers of the ad to use a colour not found in the body at all? What is so ruinous about a blood stain that a girl loses all confidence and hope in life at the possibility of its occurrence, gaining it all back the moment she uses a napkin of a certain brand? It is just a blood stain; a fluid as natural as the saliva from a baby’s mouth, as common as sweat or urine, and as necessary as a man’s semen. If all the secretions of the body were lined up, menses blood would be most ostracised, with vomit a close second.
Why are there so many euphemisms for menses? What do ‘periods’, ‘chums’ and ‘down’ even mean? I would love to see an advert where a boy points out to a girl that she has a blood stain and she unabashedly goes with him to the chemist and asks for Murmur Choice Ultra Maxi wings or whatever, and they both walk off, the girl explaining to the guy what the wings are for.
It has been a good eight years since my uterus got some sense knocked into it and the ride has been pretty smooth so far, apart from a few irregular cycles. My body probably knows that I am not a malingerer and that I love physical activity, sports and dance; I have never had cramps or the kind of monstrous pain I have seen other girls writhe in. My PMS is a joke; I get no mood swings or cravings.
I wait for my periods every month, because their quality and quantity indicate the extent to which my ovaries and the rest of my procreative apparatus are well oiled. They do not make me feel womanly—that was a childish assumption. Womanhood and manhood are loaded words that cannot be defined or validated by breast size, the ability to bear children, penis size or the ability to perform sexually.
I welcome my periods with open arms—or should I say wings?—because the gush of blood warms me quite nicely on a cold day. The colour is riveting, and thanks to the fragrant sanitary napkins available now, unlike the plain ones many years ago, the odour has ceased to disgust me. I will miss them when I am 50. Period.