Tackling taboo: menstruation

By Hayley White

Nobody enjoys that time of the month. Whether they call it Aunt Flo, the red sea, shark week or simply their period, everyone I know has an endless stream of complaints whenever their menses comes around. For many women, their monthly bleeding arrives hand-in-hand with excruciating pain and wild as wind hormones, and for others it comes with limiting cultural beliefs.

Menstruation continues to be taboo in the majority of cultures across the world, including the Western world. Despite it being a completely natural part of a woman’s life, it is met with disgust. Even women sometimes feel shame when it comes to having their period and try to avoid talking about it to anyone other than their closest friends.

Edit Horvath, an Auckland-based sex therapist, says that there has been a small breakthrough in the public domain around talking about periods. But it’s still very much kept at arm’s length as if people are walking on eggshells. Edit also thinks it is weird that period advertisements use the colour blue more often than the colour red, like they do not want to be, as she says: “tainted with red.” An analysis of around 200 advertisements showed they were aimed at teenage girls. They portrayed the negative idea that periods are unclean and something to be hidden, otherwise it’s dirty or shameful (Fraser, Haththotuwa & Tan, 2017). And that analysis is for women who live in relatively liberal countries.

For some women of other cultures, Bhartiya (2013) mentions that some of the most consistent religious practices require menstruating women to isolate, exclude them from religious activities and prohibit women from places of worship.

When asked how women from these religions could handle their periods in countries like New Zealand where it’s westernised and fairly liberal, Edit said they are in a ‘double bind’. Others may not even be told about their period. which concerns her. She remembers working with a young woman who didn’t know anything about the female monthly cycle until she actually got her first period: “She thought she was dying. She went to her grandmother and said: ‘I think I’m gonna die because I’m bleeding.’ And it was like ‘Oh well here’s a pad, just put it on. You aren’t dying – this is being a woman’.”

“On the one hand they [women from other cultures] live here in New Zealand – a western world, western values, western rules, regulations, legal framework. But on the other hand, culturally they are not always able to fully align with that because they have to abide by the laws of their own culture and the expectations of that,” says Edit.

There are a few cultures that praise women for their monthly bleeding (or are indifferent to it altogether). The women of the African !Kung tribe of the Kalahari Desert held positions of society equal to men, such as labourers, or decision-making roles, so their periods were not feared or taboo. Neither did the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, believing that a woman’s menstrual blood was a powerful substance; a source of feminine strength and a destructive force that could destroy enemies and was often invoked during sorcery or war (Fraser, Haththotuwa & Tan, 2017).

In Māori culture, a woman was treated as tapu (sacred) while menstruating (known as mate wahine or mate marama). They believed that their waiwhero (menstrual blood) carried their ancestors and that bleeding right into the land was their gift to Papatūānuku (Mother Earth). Islamic culture also has no prejudice towards periods and shows respect for women during their bleeding. After their bleeding they are required to perform a ghusl (spiritual bath, also required of both women and their partners after sex, and before prayer or fasting).

Some girls can start their periods as young as 8 or 9. Most young girls get their period between the ages 11-14, and at the latest, by around 16 years old – all of which is said to be totally natural. We do not know exactly why girls have their first periods at the age they do, but any of these ages are completely normal because all cycles are different. I am lucky that my mum told me about how my body worked when I was young, but girls sometimes miss out on that education and are not so lucky.

Edit says that it’s important for both girls and boys to learn about these things right from the beginning, especially as men could potentially go through life not knowing or understanding what’s going on for a woman every month. If boys are not taught about women’s bodies at a young age, this can cause issues for them later on. “[Men] need to understand how women’s bodies work from a more familial, workplace, community, and broader sense,” she tells me, and adds: “[Because] more than 50% of the population are women; and it also helps for men to understand the very fact that women need to find money once a month for tampons or pads – sometimes for pain killers.”

With the 21st century came sexual liberation and feminism that pushed for women’s bodies and their functions to become common knowledge. Edit says that the system is slowly catching up with the fact that women are now in places and spaces where “in the past they were not, and therefore they didn’t have to be acknowledged.”

“They are now changing laws – how we approach things and catching up with the obvious fact that we have both males and females and that this is something women need. To have a toilet and facilities to do these sorts of things,” says Edit.

At the end of the day, it’s important for parents of all cultures to teach their children that women’s bodies are not to be feared but to be accepted, normalized and loved. Unfortunately, Edit says that there’s no ‘magic wand’ or special way to teach children about their bodies and the natural processes of how they work but advises parents to just sit down and have honest conversations.

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