Turning Red: challenging period shame.
How can we do this while maintaining boundaries and safeguarding? A talk for Merched Cymru.
I wonder if people have seen the recent controversy around the new Disney Pixar film Turning Red? The film is rated PG, but even so, some parents have complained that the theme, which involves puberty and periods, is not appropriate for children to watch. It’s very revealing in terms of how many parents are clearly NOT talking to their children about periods, keeping their period products hidden from their children, and carrying a lot of shame around periods.
I’m Milli Hill, I’m the author of a book for preteen girls about periods, and I also write about birth and women’s health. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the shame and stigma around menstruation, and about how we can challenge these engrained cultural attitudes without removing important boundaries for girls.
There has always been shame and stigma around periods!
This is what Pliny the Elder had to say about period blood about 2000 years ago:
Contact with it turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren...seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees falls off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.
As recently as a hundred years ago, some people believed that a girl with her period could:
Cause flowers to wilt and die
Stop bread from rising
Kill insects that infect crops just by walking through the field (useful!)
Make bacon go mouldy
Prevent milk from turning to butter
And even today, in the 21st century, some girls are prevented from attending their places of worship or even their schools when they have their periods, are not permitted to cook or prepare food, or have other rules about what they are allowed to do.
It seems like people are just a tiny bit scared of period blood. Did you know that adverts for period products were BANNED from the telly until 1972?! And that nobody even said the word PERIOD on TV until 1985?!
In 2015 a picture of a woman called Rupi Kaur, with a very tiny patch of period blood on her trousers and bedsheets, was taken down TWICE by instagram.
And even the TV adverts for tampons and pads used BLUE liquid to show period blood (which is red, right?!) until 2017!
I’d like you, if you are female, to think back to your first period. Can you remember it? Do you remember how it happened? Do you remember what your mum or the adults in your life told you beforehand, to prepare you? Did you feel supported? Did you feel informed? Did you feel confident?
The chances are, no, you didn’t. There are still huge gaps in education and support for young people, which are of course passed on intergenerationally. Yes, we have shame via the messages in advertising that tell us, for example, that a period product is great because nobody will hear you opening the wrapper, or the adverts with the blue liquid, or the fact the products are called ‘feminine hygiene’ or ‘sanitary towels’, both of which imply something dirty. But we also have personal shame, that we then pass on to other women and especially to our daughters.
Of course, we need to smash the shame of periods and break this cycle. To do this we need to all think about ways in which we can destigmatise menstruation – for example by being open about our periods, our period products, how periods feel and even our period blood in front of our own children from a young age, rather than keeping this aspect of our lives hidden.
Doing this involves doing some work on ourselves. How do we feel about periods? Can we use words like vulva with confidence? Giving thought to these issues can bring up complex feelings and even memories of difficult experiences. But it’s helpful to do this because if we want to change the way the next generation feels about periods and their female bodies, we have to start with ourselves.
But what about privacy? Is privacy also about shame? The short answer is – no – but I think this is an area of confusion and it can sometimes be dressed up as a progressive argument against single sex spaces.
It’s normal for girls to feel awkward or embarrassed about their periods or other aspects of puberty, such as their changing bodies. Smashing period stigma is not all about running down the street waving a bloody tampon – although if you wish to, you do you!
Girls and women’s body boundaries are violated every day in various settings and with various justifications. In childbirth, women are told, ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’ and are expected to allow others to do absolutely anything they wish to their body, without complaint. Women are told ‘leave your dignity at the door’ and that ‘all their ideas of privacy will go out the window when they have a baby’, etc.
In the debates about gender identity, women are expected to make way for men. In the current swimming competitions in the USA, in which Lia Thomas is taking all the medals, women are expected to move over without complaint about this very obviously male bodied person. When I have written about this, I have had other women tell me I am not ‘being kind’ and that ‘everyone should be welcomed into womanhood’ and that we should ‘give space and safety’ to trans women by allowing them into our changing rooms – because they are not ‘safe’ in the mens. Women (female people’s) safety is clearly given a lower priority than trans women (male people’s) safety by those who argue this.
When I hear about this situation, I get a very clear image of boundaries being pushed on and stretched in my mind. The boundaries between male and female. The long established boundaries between women’s sport and men’s sport. The clear physical boundaries of walls and doors between changing rooms. And the boundaries of women’s kindness and generosity, the way in which women are forever pushed to accommodate the needs of others. As women we have to develop very STRONG boundaries around what we will and will not do for others. Otherwise our boundaries will be constantly transgressed, and we will be stretched, and pushed, past our limits.
We need to help our daughters and the young women in our life develop GOOD STRONG BOUNDARIES – across all areas of their lives. We need to teach them that it’s ok to say no and even to let another person ‘take the hit’ if they don’t want to do something. For example, if their friend wants them to go to the party, but they don’t feel they want to, it’s ok for them to say no, even if that leaves the friend without someone to go with. It’s ok to turn down the offer of a date with the boy in school even if that hurts his feelings. It’s ok to come home early from the school trip if you don’t feel safe, even if this puts your parents out. It’s ok to politely say, “I am speaking” to someone who interrupts you. It’s ok to tell your siblings to get out of your room. It’s ok to speak your needs and you don’t have to apologise or sweeten the pill or make things better or easier for other people all the time.
And clear body boundaries are all a part of this. It’s a positive thing for all people to have clear body boundaries. As children grow up, this can mean developing an awareness that some of our body parts and experiences are private, and not feeling comfortable sharing them with anyone and everyone.
For this reason, I would always support single sex toilets from age 8 and upwards in schools. I think the physical boundary around girls and women’s spaces is also a really important metaphor for the clear ‘inner’ boundaries that girls and women have to get good at developing and sticking to if they don’t want a lifetime of putting other people’s needs before their own.
It’s frustrating when this discussion gets framed around ‘prudishness’ – ‘they’re just bodies! Get over it!’, or even around period positivity – ‘it’s great for boys to be exposed to these things!’ – etc.
As someone who has worked as a therapist with children in care, who have experienced abuse, this attitude rings alarm bells for me. Anyone who knows anything about child safeguarding or abuse will tell you that clear boundaries are such an important message for children, for example, “Your body belongs to you”.
And it’s not just relevant in abusive situations – as young people become teenagers and begin to have their own sexual experiences, it’s again extremely helpful to them to have a clear sense of body boundaries, and to know that some parts of their bodies are not to be shared unless they absolutely want to.
Whether it’s to help teach and reinforce clear body boundaries, or simply to make periods and puberty less embarrassing for young people, single sex spaces are much needed. This means safe spaces that are structured around sex, not gender identity. It is ok for girls to have boundaries and their own specific spaces built with their needs in mind. If we start eroding these spaces, I feel we send a worrying message to girls, that their privacy and boundaries do not matter.
This talk was given at an event organised by Merched Cymru on ‘Sex Education in Wales, Promoting a culture of safeguarding in schools’, on 19th March 2022.
Thanks for reading. This substack is free but if you want to support me, I have 3 books which you can buy from any good book seller!
My Period is for girls age 9 to 13 and is filled with information and positivity about periods and puberty.
Give Birth like a Feminist is for anyone interested in why birth is a feminist issue. You don’t have to be pregnant.
The Positive Birth Book is a comprehensive guide to getting ready for birth with lots of humour and a dash of feminism thrown in.
Links to a few ways to purchase via my linktree - or just search the title name via your usual book shop.
Or you can buy me a coffee. :-)