My period was the first time I kept something from my mother.
I was 10, and didn’t know what was happening to my body or why. What I knew was that there was blood, and that I felt scared and ashamed. But I wasn’t hurt. So for the first week or so, I tore off long strips of toilet paper and wrapped them around my underwear like gauze.
But we lived in a small house, and it wasn’t long before my mother discovered my secret. My faced turned red at the sight of a trash bin of blood-soaked waste.
I was introduced to inch-thick diaper-like pads with wings and non-stop leak protection. I clung on to the words of the announcers on TV selling period products, trying to find whichever technology would help me hide it best. When all else failed, I’d wear two pads at a time if I had to. Anything to make sure no one knew.
I don’t know where I learned to be ashamed. I just knew, like how we know what hunger is before we learn the word to describe it.
Of course, I’m not the first woman to have felt shame about her body, and her period especially. Why all the stigma surrounding periods and how is this changing?
How American woman manage and approach menstruation is called the “modern period,” according to historian Lara Freidenfelds. She explains the concept in her 2009 book, “The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America.”
“It’s the idea that your body does not undermine your ability to be productive at school or at work,” Freidenfelds said in an interview. “It’s a body that doesn’t smell or have cramps.”
At the turn of the 20th Century, women wore cloth diapers to manage their flow. By the 1920s, women entering the burgeoning pink-collar job market felt pressure to be discreet and presentable.
“Women were often the first in their families to do this kind of work,” Freidenfelds said. “They needed to have this presentation of not being a laboring person.”
You can still spot representations of “the modern period” in TV commercials. She is the woman on her period twirling on a beach or swinging a tennis racket (you know, the kind of things every woman can’t wait to do when menstruating). She’s not defined by her period, she’s totally in control and free — with these Maxi pads with wings, she’ll learn to fly.
Ads played a large part in shaping the “modern period.” As part Freidenfelds’ research, she delved into archives of Kotex advertising campaigns. To develop a brand that is trustworthy to women and girls, Kotex hired professional nurses to create educational materials about menstruation.
While Kotex had financial motivations for developing those resources, in the end, they helped start a conversation between mother and daughter, Freidenfelds said. As part of her research, she interviewed 75 men and women about menstruation, and those pamphlets played an important role.
“The oldest women I interviewed said they were very proud of giving their daughters that pamphlet,” Freidenfelds said. “While over time people became more interested in educating their daughters, it took a long time for that to settle in.”
Freidenfelds sought to interview people of various ages and races, though she primarily focused on white women, African American women and Chinese American women.
“African American mothers were quite concerned about their daughters handling their bodies, Freidenfelds said. “It comes from racist attitudes that black women are stigmatized over their bodies. Black mothers were very careful about helping their daughters do this in a way that would mark them as middle class.”
Chinese American immigrant families, meanwhile, had different experiences.
“With women who were immigrants, their understanding of menstruation was different,” Freidenfelds said. “Those mothers were concerned about daughters using tampons.”
As a daughter of immigrants myself, I know I was discouraged from using tampons growing up. My grandmother, who immigrated to South Florida from Honduras in the 1960s, refused to let me even know what tampons were when I asked about them as a curious teen.
“Are you a virgin?” she asked me when I inquired. I don’t think she realized this, but I was a very unpopular teen and a boy had not so much as held my hand at that point — so yes, I definitely was a virgin.
“Tampons aren’t for virgins,” she said, and that was the last I ever heard from her on the subject.
Though a lot of families struggle in talking with their girls about periods, the biggest resource for girls menstruating for the first time is their mothers, according to Margaret L. Stubbs, a professor at Chatham University who has studied girls’ development for over 30 years.
Part of that discomfort is because when talking about menstruation that strikes uncomfortably close to another topic parents tend to want to avoid: sex.
Despite the awkwardness, talking about periods is a vital part of a development.
“We know that girls who have more positive attitudes about periods tend to do better,” Stubbs said. “What we hope for girls is that they see having periods as sign of health.”
While the “modern period” defined women’s relationships with their bodies in the last century, in the last decade “free bleeding” advocates have promoted an entirely different approach: let it flow.
Free bleeding is what it sounds like, undergoing your period without the intervention of pads, tampons, a menstrual cup or any other device.
You may remember one of the most prominent free-bleeders from a 2015 viral photo. She’s crossing the finish line of the London Marathon, hands raised with blood visible on her workout pants.
The woman behind the viral photo is Kiran Gandhi, a musician, artist and activist who also goes by her stage name “Madame Gandhi.”
She trained for the 26-mile race for a year and only discovered that she had gotten her period when she was on the starting line.
“I suppose I could have tried to find a tampon but I felt like it wouldn’t be comfortable for me,” Gandhi said. “In prioritizing my own comfort over the eyes of the viewers, I decided to take a bit of Midol and bleed freely and just run.”
She admits that the timing of the incident was ripe for virality. This was around the time when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made that infamous comment about Megyn Kelly and that “blood was coming out of her wherever.”
So people were talking about their periods. And thousands retweeted her photo.
She said that the ensuing articles about her experience resulted in helping break the stigma regarding periods and period blood.
“We are told from the moment we hit puberty that we aren’t good enough,” Gandhi said. “We’re told that our menstruation is disgusting. We aren’t taught to feel joy and gratitude. I found so much joy in my body that day.”
Gandhi said that she never remembers feeling at ease talking about her period, even as a child attending an all-girls school in New York City.
“I remember thinking it was weird, but I figured I would be a part of this culture of quietness,” Gandhi said.
That culture was marked by little things, like when girls learn to hide their tampon if they are going to the bathroom.
“I think it’s problematic that we as women don’t talk about it with each other,” Gandhi said. “Because women suffer in silence every day people assume it’s a non-issue.”
Freidenfelds is skeptical as to whether free bleeding will catch on beyond as a political statement.
“People who are not middle class or not deriving resources from the middle class aren’t going to be comfortable taking that risk of not doing the modern period with their bodies,” Freidenfelds said.