Twenty-six years ago on this date, I had my first period.
It must have been a Sunday or a Thursday (my school weekly holiday) and I had gone swimming with my father in the morning. I came home and changed into my favorite white cotton frock with a gigantic sash at the back that made me look like I actually had some curves, which I totally didn’t. And then my mother called me to the bathroom and held up my panties with streaks of red on them.
Of course, I knew what a period was by that time. My mother had given me the facts because as she put it, she had been terrified she was going to die when she had her first period and didn’t want me to go through that. My education had comprised this diagram and an instruction to keep one eye on the calendar every month for ‘those days’.
At the start of the year, my school had devoted a whole week to Sex Education. Unfortunately, I missed it because I was in Chennai attending my grandmother’s death anniversary function. I returned to one of my close friends yelling at me from across the class that I’d missed Sex. I sniffed and pretended that such things were beneath me.
My mother was extra worried about my not getting my periods. I was already in tenth standard. I think she forgot that I was a year younger than everyone else in class and that girls getting their periods as young as 9, were still considered aberrations and not the norm. I’d already seen a number of specialists, my picky eating habits, my early onset of allergies and my skinny frame discussed at length by the adults.
One of my mother’s friends believed that wearing black when I got my first period would be inauspicious (a belief system that would also later keep me out of temples, the kitchen and touching new clothes during my periods). So I didn’t own a single garment in black for three years. My paternal grandmother had advised that the clothes I was wearing when I got my first period would have to be discarded and never worn again by another person.
All these conversations stacked up in my head as I stood in the bathroom with my mother, looking at my period-streaked panties. They were not black, so the red showed up clearly. My swimming costume was a fiery orange, a colour I really liked. There were no streaks on the it but that went into the never-to-be-worn-again list. And just to be safe, the cotton dress I was wearing, my favorite one was listed in that too. I really wish I hadn’t had to give up that pretty dress.
I was made to sit in the bathroom and have oil dripped on my head with some kind of a religious ritual, presided over by my maternal grandmother who happened to be visiting. My father booked a trunk call to my extended family and after exchanging a few pleasantries said,
“One good news. Ramya became a big girl today.”
In the evening, we went out shopping. I was bought not one but two new dresses, one by my parents and one by my grandmother. Later in the night, my father told me I didn’t have to go to school the next day. I didn’t want to miss school. I couldn’t wait to tell my girlfriends that I had finally joined their ranks after the years of talking about what a period felt like. I said no, I’ll be okay tomorrow. I know a period is not sickness. But dad said, you’ll still feel tired. Take tomorrow off. And so I did.
I heard about how ‘in smaller villages’, girls were stopped from going to school after they got their periods. I was told about distant aunts and even cousins who had had elaborate functions on their first period. My father scoffed and called it ‘parading the fresh baby-making machine that’s just become available so put in your bids’ ritual. I felt relieved I hadn’t been subjected to that public spectacle. And in hindsight, I guess I’m glad I didn’t have to go to school the next day. Schoolgirls have their own hierarchy of cruelty and it hadn’t gone unnoticed that I was the last girl in class to not shuffle awkwardly or be found in the toilets crying over a stained uniform.
So many things have happened since that day, on my menstrual journey. I went from belted sanitary napkins (the latest menstrual technology at that time) to stick-ons and period panties to the slim Whisper generation. I briefly dallied with tampons but I just didn’t like the idea of shoving a dry cotton wad into my insides. And finally, the menstrual cup a few years ago and my creative work on menstrual health awareness.
I’ve now been a menstruating human longer than a non-menstruating one. I’m also closer to menopause than the start of my periods. I know getting your period is only one point in the journey of being a woman. But so many thoughts, cultural, religious and social are associated with this milestone. This day wasn’t the first time I felt the weight of my gender label nor the distance from my male peers. But it became a reference point.
I guess it would be fair to say my journey as a woman started on this day, twenty-six years ago. So, today is the one day it’s alright to wish me a Happy Period Day.
Today is World Menstrual Health Day. I wonder if they chose the 28th of this month because of the 28 days that are a cycle average. Well, there is certainly a lot to be said about menstrual health and I think I do a lot of talking (and writing) about it already. But it appears to fall to the few of us to keep it going. So, if you are a woman or if you truly care about at least one woman in your life, think about what this means and contribute to the conversations.
There are a lot of myths around menstrual health. My favorite ones (to poke holes into, that is) are:
1. Menstrual blood is dirty! Heh, Adhyayan Suman anyone? Witchcraft and evil galore. Well, no. Menstrual blood is not shit or urine. It’s not ‘dirty’ in that way. If anything, menstrual blood is the raw material that makes up a human being. It’s what would have been left of you, had your daddy’s sperm not fertilized your mummy’s egg. It’s no more dirty than you are.
2. Menstrual health is about getting your period on time. How cute. That’s like saying a movie is about the two hours that you see it on screen. The female reproductive system is intricately organised (entirely internally). It is also self-regulating and self-cleaning. And it involves a lot of hormones, their production and their dispensation. Hormones are chemical and anything chemical is complex and involves hundreds of things that could potentially have concern areas. Honour the most important system in your body, ladies and know it.
3. Gynacologists are to be visited when you’re pregnant or when you’re about to get married. Really. And you should probably see an eye specialist when you’ve completely lost your eyesight. Look at point 2 and think about whether it makes sense to assume that everything is okay until something is drastically different?
I don’t want to talk about any further myths because most of them have to do with social beliefs rather than scientific facts. I’ve also created two videos that may be of interest, while on this.
The first is the unboxing of a new menstrual cup. Reema has decided to try a different brand, given they all come in varying sizes and shapes. I’m considering a new one myself, after the somewhat decent experience I’ve had with SilkyCup. This is the She Cup and the video shows what it looks like and what else the package contains.
The second is the unboxing of a parcel from CossetBox. They’re a new service catering to women on their period days. Take a look at the magnificent box they sent me to try out. It contains a lot more than the usual suspects of sanitary napkins and chocolate.
All these are commercial products but they cater to women’s health and it is in all our interest to talk about them. It’ll be a fine day when we can discuss menstrual cups, vaginal wipes (not ‘intimate wipes’) and female condoms with the same unblinking confidence with which we speak of shoes and lipstick. Happy World Menstrual Health Day, ladies!
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —— — — — — — — — —
*Image courtesy Simon Howden on FreeDigitalPhotos.net
When I was in college, a guy leaned in and asked me,
“Why was there blood on the dance floor?”
These were the late 90s, Micheal Jackson was still alive, already white and not yet branded a pedophile. I shrugged. I had not understood the song anyway.
“Because Susie had her period!”
he guffawed as the boys around him erupted laughing. I frowned. I still don’t get it. The song and the joke.
If the idiot had any sense, he’d know that Susie would know to wear a tampon or a sanitary pad during her period. Even if by some miracle, she forgot to wear panties (no woman does that outside of porn films), the blood would not gush out of her and land on the floor in a puddle. It would cake around her groin, with a trickle or two lining the insides of her thighs. I very much doubt it would even get as far as her knee before it congealed and dried up. It’s menstrual blood after all, not red wine. But how would he know? He was a man. What did he know about menstruation, after all?
I once had an argument with a friend over this. He thought joking about things made it possible for people to not take them so seriously. I see where that might make sense in some things. But not here. Most men are terribly uncomfortable with the notion of menstruation. This discomfort is indulged by a society that makes it okay to not talk about it and silences girls and women about a natural, bodily process. Making a joke of it, especially in an information-deprived environment actually propagates wrong notions. It also increases the shame factor that keeps the silent zone in place.
I think the heavy silence that lies around menstruation is dangerous. It gives men (and women) all kinds of wrong notions. I know men who think that having sex with a menstruating woman will kill her. I know women who use iPill as a regular contraceptive and I fear that one day they will bleed to death. (iPill is an emergency contraceptive that basically induces the period. Having a period more often than normal is not normal or good for the body.) I know men and women who think that painkillers can ‘solve’ the period. And I know men and women who think that contraceptives will ruin a woman’s child-bearing capacity.
Periods suck. They’re awful. I hate having them. Why should I not be allowed to rant about them? Why must I not be able to expect sympathy for strong nausea, blinding headaches, backache, stomach cramps and aching joints (on account of weakness due to blood loss, the doctor says)? Everyone gets sympathy when they face any one of these, don’t they? Why, when I have to have all of these together am I not accorded the same, just because it’s on account of my period? Never mind getting a day off to rest. The only people who will grant me that will also treat me as an untouchable, not allow me to pass by places of worship and create a huge hullabaloo if I reach for a bottle of pickles. Yes, this happens, even in 2014 Mumbai. It happens to me.
You know what talking about the above gets me? PMS jokes (which are period jokes in douchebag clothing, pun entirely unintended). I think PMS jokes are even more offensive. They don’t just spread ignorance like period jokes do. They also actively propogate demeaning women for natural body functions. They reaffirm the idea of women as shrieking banshees incapable of logic, sense or responsibility.
I have no problem with humour. But humour is only really funny when everyone (and not just the the person who makes the joke) gets that it is not serious. In the Susie joke, I think a lot of my classmates actually believed that a woman dancing during her period might leave puddles of blood behind on the floor. Think about what their attitudes would be towards the women in their life undertaking physical exertion during their periods?
So yes, we need to be able to talk about periods. What about period jokes? I’ll say they are okay the day it is permissible to sit around talking about menstruation as normally as we discuss Arnab Goswami and the next Salman Khan movie.
Update: I challenge every man reading this post, to go through this list. It’s creatively designed as a humour/horror quiz but is closer to the truth than most factual articles I’ve read. Go on, I dare you to read it through to the end.
Earlier in the month, I was invited to an event at the Taj Mahal hotel by LifeCell International. They’d chosen Women’s Day to launch their new product – LifeCell Femme. My first thought when I heard the phrase ‘stem cell banking’ was the medical thrillers I used to read in college. I was pretty sure it had something to do with regrowing limbs and such in a petri dish, for accident victims. I had no idea what that had to do with Women’s Day or me, for that matter. I went along out of curiosity.
It turns out my basic perception was right. Stem cell regeneration is the technology that allows us to regrow certain parts of the body, using basic cells. Just thinking about it is awe-inspiring. Science tells us that each of us starts with one cell, that divides progressively into halves, quarters and so on. At some point of time, the collection of cells starts to resemble an actual human being.
How does a cell know that it is going to be part of the liver and not, say, a finger? How does a cell know that it should grow in this direction, not that? How do the cells know that they should bunch up in just this shape and not another? Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Imagine a few renegade cells in your right kidney had decided that left elbow was more their thing, instead? What a miracle the human body is then, that every single cell knows its own place and function!
This line of thought took me to memories of my grandfather and uncle. The first died of cancer of the urinary bladder, the second of stomach cancer. Two generations before them have died of cancer of various parts of the body. Medical opinions I’ve heard are divided over whether cancer is hereditary or not. All I know is that it has claimed a few lives in every generation of my family. I’ve seen reports, become thoroughly familiar with terms like oncology, carcinogen, malignant, benign and chemotherapy. The scariest part of cancer is that it isn’t a virus or germ. It’s not an outside element at all but your own body turning on itself. Cells inexplicably start growing in the wrong place, in the wrong manner. Cancer is when life goes haywire, literally and metaphorically. The reason chemotherapy is such a dreaded treatment is it is quite literally killing off cells, targeting the cancerous growth but obviously other cells would suffer too.
The concept of it and my own personal experiences make me choke up at the very though of Lisa Ray, whose journey through cancer and its treatment has been chronicled in recent times. Ms.Ray was at the event to launch the product and talk about her own experience with stem cell regeneration. She spoke about being diagnosed with a rare form of the disease that was normally found only in older people. Much to her good fortune, she said, her doctors also advised her to consider stem cell therapy, which ultimately was her return-to-life story. LifeCell couldn’t have chosen a more powerful ambassador for their cause.
LifeCell Femme involves potential stem cell therapy using menstrual blood (hence the name and the launch date). It was a revelation to me to know that what I thought of as waste discarded by my body every month, was actually still of use in some way! Even with my liberal upbringing, I always thought of menstrual discharge as dirty, unclean and in general, dead.
The presentation made me think of something else. Menstrual discharge is the disposal of materials created by the womb (uterus) in anticipation of fertilization. In a nutshell, it is preparing for a baby, creating it, storing it, supporting it, feeding it and carrying it through to term. An entire human being could have been created and maintained for nine months, from the material that flows out of me every month. It seems intuitive that the cells in that discharge would be the most powerful life-creating ones found in the body. Shock, awe and pride! Reading this in a science textbook is one thing, actually realizing it on a profound (dare I say, cellular?) level is a life-changing experience.
LifeCell’s proposition is to collect and bank menstrual blood for anticipated future use. The cells thus collected, have applications in the treatment of diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, renal failure, lung failure and cancer to name a few. It’s like insuring your health (using cells instead of money) against future calamity.
The most interesting thing is that menstrual blood collection is a non-invasive process (which means the body does not have to be cut or surgically entered by a foreign object). It’s also non-intrusive, by which I mean that the customer can perform the collection all by herself and without any help needed or embarrassment faced. The way the product works is thus:
- On the first day of the period, the customer calls LifeCell to inform them. A collection kit is delivered to her doorstep immediately.
- Collection is advised on the heavy bleeding days so Day 2 can suffice. This involves inserting a small cupped tube into the vaginal passage for a few hours. 10ml of menstrual blood is the most that is required.
- Once collected, the kit includes a sealing and packing facility. LifeCell will then collect the kit from the customer’s doorstep.
- The collection is stored cryogenically at temperatures below -150 degree celcius. In theory, this sample can be frozen indefinitely. Power back-ups ensure that electricity downtime will never contaminate this storage.
It is also advised to perform this procedure as early as possible in one’s lifespan as the younger the cells are, the more potent they are (potency being a measure of how many cells can be grown from one cell).
The Menstrual Blood Stem Cell banking service costs Rs.49,900 for preserving these cells upto the age of 60. The alternate plan offers a buying price of Rs.29,900 with an annual fee of Rs.1,500.
The ideal age for a customer is purported to be under 35. I am thinking about this seriously myself. What I would like to see happening is greater awareness of this science. No doctor I’ve known has ever talked about this, even though the technology has existed for over 50 years. LifeCell Femme’s involvement goes as far as collection and storage of the cells. It would be good to see the other end, i.e. – the actual applications tying in too. For example, a top-class healthcare facility would ask its patients if they have medical insurance. I’d like to see doctors also inquire if their patients have cell insurance. I’m not a medical professional myself and at the end of the day, I may not even know that a certain ailment has a possible cure in stem cell regeneration. But the future looks promising for LifeCell International and for stem cell therapy and hence I hope, for all of us.