Menstruation was a very confusing experience for me when I was growing up. The reason I term it ‘confusing’ is because just after my menarche, my mother had an open discussion with me about it. She sat me down and responded to my queries patiently. Her affectionate and caring attitude had sort of equipped me, from a very young age, to deal with any anatomical issues I could face later in life. She reassured that everything was under control and that menstruation itself was a part of growing up. In fact, it could even be seen as a very empowering phenomenon in a woman’s life! However, the overall atmosphere in my family was that of shame, since menstruation was regarded a‘taboo’ topic, never to be talked about. My grandmother used to try to separate my sister and me from the rest of the household when we were on our periods. Sometimes, a lot of these rules made sense, while on other occasions they just seemed silly, annoying and extremely confusing.
For example, washing our hair for the first two days of the menstruation cycle was frowned upon, but we were also asked to take extra care about our grooming and sanitation. There was also strict control over the mobility and overall behaviour of the two sisters during ‘that time of the month’. Then came many food related restrictions which made no sense at all! We were supposed to avoid sour or spicy food and never touch pickles. Not just that, we were also discouraged from entering the kitchen and the house temple. When asked the reason behind this, we were heavily reprimanded for apparently disrespecting elders in the house.
All that these restrictions did was creating resentment in us, towards our own bodily processes, as well as what seemed like unnecessary regulations on women’s bodies.
The overall silence in the society around these menstruation myths made matters worse. Menstruation itself is regarded as a ‘dirty’ event in a woman’s life and becomes the ‘worst kept secret’. I distinctly remember one particular incident during my teenage years – our school had organised a ‘health class’ talk for the seventh standard girls (which happened to be my class). We were asked to go to the auditorium and were shown a video on how to ‘manage’ our periods with the use of sanitary napkins and information on pain relief medicines. I, however, was actually more interested in the Q and A round that would eventually follow the video. In fact, I ended up asking quite a lot of questions to the doctor who was conducting the talk. The queries ranged from basic anatomy to common menstruation related myths I had encountered in my family. Interestingly, the doctor seemed to answer the anatomy related questions in a very scientific and objective manner, but was very hesitant in addressing the myths. She kept pointing out that she is not qualified enough to respond to socio cultural practices relating to menstruation! Hugely disappointed by the session, I then turned to medical encyclopaedias in the school library and the internet. Again, they all seemed to talk about the scientific aspect of it all but I could not find proper sections dedicated to the myth busting that I was looking for. The results of my efforts to look for accurate information frustrated me deeply.
Now when I think back, it is interesting to see how these myths affected popular culture. As I was growing up, the advertisements on television were always about selling ‘hygiene’ products. Even the sanitary napkin advertisements inevitably use blue ink for illustrative purposes, which sort of signifies people’s hesitation with menstrual blood, which is seen as ‘dirty and impure’.
I somehow knew that these myths create an environment where misinformation and an unsympathetic attitude towards women’s bodies is encouraged. Superstitions that are not just physically taxing but also create a lot of confusion, fear and anxiety for many who do not have proper resources to turn to from an early age. And this only refers to the experience of cisgender women (refers to people who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth; for instance, in this case, a person who was born with female genitalia and also identifies as a woman). It is even harder to imagine what teenagers, who identify as transgender, go through because there is a lack of sensitivity around the unique issues faced by them.
Nowadays, we find a lot of media engagement that is targeting such myths head on and hence, can be empowering for young women. For example, the ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign by a well-known sanitary napkin brand. This needs to be applauded. But it would be much better if instead of one or two disjointed efforts here and there, something as concrete as a uniform sexuality education curriculum in schools could address these issues in a systematic manner. A concerted effort needs to be taken such that sexuality education given in schools should provide accurate and scientific details about the menstruation phenomenon, among other issues related to sexuality, along with debunking harmful myths that restrict young girls and women.