PART OF THE Dwell ISSUE
‘We are for menstrual equity: a society in which the simple biological fact of bleeding doesn’t hold anyone back from participating fully in society, or in life.’
‘blood is back’ by Rachel Grocott is taken from So Hormonal
Edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson
Published by Monstrous Regiment
blood is back
how my knowledge and experience of periods were revolutionised while i wasn’t having them
by Rachel Grocott
I started freelancing for Bloody Good Period (BGP), the charity which provides period products to refugees, asylum seekers, and those who can’t afford them, when I was six months pregnant – so I had already been period-free for half a year. My periods returned when my son was just over a year old, meaning that for a good 18 months, while I was busily scheduling menstrual-themed art, writing period-related captions and reading every bleeding-related news piece around, I wasn’t actually having them myself. And when they did come back, they found me a rather different person to the one who had tentatively started writing about all things bloody, all those months before.
Like many people, I used to see periods as a complete pain, practically and literally. I certainly never thought much about the products I used, only whether I had enough (and how much chocolate to buy alongside my ‘feminine hygiene’ supplies – more on that naming convention later). I only had a vague concept of the problem of period poverty. Now I understand more of its reality, its prevalence, and its impact, particularly on refugees and asylum seekers – people who’ve already suffered indescribable trauma. It affects others too, of course: schoolgirls, the homeless, people affected by austerity – basically, anyone who can’t afford or access period supplies in this crazy world which allows big companies to make big money out of a biological function. Now I understand that to not have to worry about my period means that I have a very particular kind of privilege.
Research by Plan UK has shown that one in ten girls in the UK have been unable to afford period supplies. The issue of affordability is amplified for people living in any kind of vulnerable situation, including asylum seekers, who receive just £37.75 per week to live on, and (contrary to what many mainstream media outlets would have you believe) are generally not allowed to work. A heavy period can cost a quarter of that allowance, and the trauma of displacement (and possibly far more) means that this group is even more likely to suffer from irregular and heavy bleeding. As Marie, an asylum-seeking woman based in Birmingham, told BGP: ‘The stress of destitution changed my menstruation cycle. I was so worried about where we would eat, what would happen, I began bleeding more often’.
Gabby Edlin, BGP’s founder and CEO, started Bloody Good Period when she realised that drop-in centres (organisations offering a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment for refugees and asylum seekers, and practical support including food and other supplies) had simply not factored in menstruation. Most were not routinely giving out supplies, either at the frequency required or at all – that is, every single bloody month. So she set about collecting pads, and the rest is history. We are now partnered with 50 drop-ins across the country, giving out over 1,500 products per month. We estimate to have taken care of 60,000 periods.
This is a bittersweet set of figures. Whilst it is amazing that we can offer this support to people who would otherwise be unlikely to access these most basic of products, we shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to rely on an act of charity for people to be able to manage their bleeding. We shouldn’t have to encourage people to donate products by describing how other humans would otherwise have to use socks, newspaper, loo roll, or nothing at all.
We also passionately believe that this isn’t just about giving out free products. For the past year, we have been piloting our education programme, getting vital menstrual and reproductive health information to the people we work with who, again, would otherwise be unlikely to access it. This is the kind of information we should all have access to, but most people have never had a comprehensive education about periods. Instead, we’ve had advertising campaigns aimed at making bleeding feel dirty. ‘Freshen up with our pads’, says this big corporation, ‘use our rustle-free wrapper’, shouts another. No wonder most societies have an impressive number of euphemisms for periods, everything from ‘shark week’ to ‘Aunt Flo’, and probably a load more you’ve never heard of. Many people struggle to say the word itself.
At BGP we set out to tackle this head on as well. We call the pads we collect ‘period products’, or ‘period supplies’. Or how about just ‘pads’? They are not, and never will be in our book, ‘sanitary’ or ‘feminine hygiene’ products. These delightful terms co-opted by those classic marketing campaigns are just another of the many layers of shame and embarrassment over periods. As Jane Garvey brilliantly put it on the Woman’s Hour podcast recently, you don’t find a ‘masculine hygiene’ aisle in Boots, do you? I’ve now started to understand how these layers have been present in my life and nearly everyone else’s, whether they have periods or not. Whether it’s the boys being sent out of the room for ‘the talk’ at school, or comments on social media about why women can’t just ‘hold it in’ (yes, really). The level of ignorance and stigma surrounding periods is astounding. But I just hadn’t thought about it before. I was, albeit unwillingly, complicit in it before.
Now I display my BGP sticker-adorned laptop on the train with pride, and talk to my friends about it – it turns out they’re quite happy to chat periods, too, because periods are actually pretty normal, and a widely shared experience. Having a baby, as I have recently done, is another shared experience: celebrated and rewarded, the details discussed over coffee or wine (okay, often wine), chatted about with other people in the playground, yet having periods is hushed up, seen as something disgusting, cloaked in euphemism. But the more we talk about it, the weaker the taboo becomes (to paraphrase Sally King’s ‘weak taboo’ description of menstruation). It’s my hope and intention that my five-year-old daughter is never embarrassed by her body functioning healthily, yet I also know that it’s easier said than done. Years of conditioning (i.e. a lifetime, and on top of that a few more generations’ influence through older relatives) don’t disappear overnight, and I recently had to challenge myself not to brush away my daughter’s questions about why I was bleeding. She didn’t overly care, as she wanted to get back to playing – always her priority – but I know my answers now will add up to important feelings about this later on.
My awareness has changed in other ways too. Whilst I knew the biological basics of what a period was before, now I realise my knowledge was pretty one-dimensional: it didn’t include any understanding or questioning of how it might affect my skills, sociability, energy levels, mood, and, well, my whole life each month. Or that it’s not just about the blood bit, but what happens during the rest of a menstrual cycle too. Thanks to learning about writers such as Maisie Hill through BGP, I now have a far better knowledge of what the hell is actually going on each month. I was even excited to start tracking my periods and symptoms and for once, it didn’t come as one of those ‘ohhhh’ moments when my period started. I understood how to listen to my body. Moreover, I understand that periods are a reflection of your health – indeed, many writers (including Chris Bobel and Maisie Hill) now describe how the menstrual cycle should be considered our fifth vital sign, an indicator of an individual’s health and wellbeing as much as temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Understanding all of this can help you live a more informed and empowered life – something which is both fundamental and powerful. I will still be buying loads of chocolate (always), but I’ll be doing other things too, like supplementing with magnesium (for cramps – it seemed to help for the first one back, which can be notoriously tricky post-baby) and actually giving myself permission to rest (shocking).
But why isn’t this knowledge more readily available to everyone? Why aren’t we all taught about this at school? Everyone who has periods should be able to understand what is happening, and how to work with it each month. Everyone who cares about anyone who has a period should be able to do the same, so they can understand, empathise and support. Instead, we have a society that brushes periods under our collective and metaphorical rug and worse, marginalises people who have them, and then makes money out of them on top. It’s time to turn that craziness on its bloody head. My personal experience also shows that it’s not just period knowledge we need. Like many people who experience pregnancy, I rode a complete hormonal rollercoaster when my baby started reducing the amount he was breastfeeding, and my periods returned. Also, like many, I experienced anxiety and low mood, yet found that this topic is little talked about, under-researched, and too often dismissed. And that, of course, is all part and parcel of the much bigger problem of ‘women’s issues’ being side-lined, ignored, only seen as outliers. I was just as horrified to learn that some (not all, but some) doctors still dismiss sickness in pregnancy – yet pregnancy and having children is so revered and celebrated (it’s just all the messy stuff that comes with it that needs to be hidden away). Our society uses the term ‘hormonal’ as an apology and often as an insult too, and that’s another heap of craziness that needs to be turned around.
I fully recognise, of course, that I write all of this from a place of incredible privilege. I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to a whole load of inspiring and empowering information through my work; but before that, despite having a privileged upbringing, I had nowhere near enough information or support, something which is true of a vast majority of menstruating people in the UK. After all, nearly half of people in the UK don’t know what’s happening to them when they get their first period.3 That issue is writ large for the people with whom BGP works, and for anyone vulnerable in a society which has marginalised menstruation and the people who experience it. That urgently needs to change. The panic-buying of period products during the COVID-19 outbreak only underlines how essential period products are – but vulnerable people, including asylum seekers receiving £37.75 per week, can’t bulk buy anything. Neither can they routinely access the kind of information I’ve described here.
That’s why Bloody Good Period is not just about ending period poverty, and not just about giving out pads (as vital as that service is). We are for menstrual equity: a society in which the simple biological fact of bleeding doesn’t hold anyone back from participating fully in society, or in life. Or, more simply, a society where everyone has a bloody good period.
So Hormonal, edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson is published by Monstrous Regiment, priced £11.99
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