I said it: Louise O'Neill

Louise O'Neill photo credit Anna Groniecka -  2.jpg

By Louise O’Neill

I was in a pharmacy recently, one whose layout I wasn’t familiar with, and I couldn’t find the sanitary products. “Excuse me,” I said, approaching one of the assistants. “Where are the tampons?” She looked furtively over her shoulder before lowering her voice. “They’re over there,” she whispered, pointing to the next aisle. She looked so uncomfortable that I was momentarily concerned she was going to tell me the maxi pads were locked in a safe with the methadone, and that I would have to provide a password and perform some sort of complicated handshake in order to gain access to the contraband. It reminded me of when I was in school, and the Agony Aunt columns in my teen magazines consisted of letters about girls dropping tampons in front of boys they liked, or unexpectedly getting their period at a friend’s sleepover. The humiliation and embarrassment dripped off the page – even at that age, we knew that our periods were something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden. Definitely not something that should be discussed in polite conversation, and particularly not in front of men. Conventional wisdom told us that they would be terrified if we ever brought up menstruation. More than that, they would be disgusted.

Thus begins the social conditioning of young women to prioritise a man’s comfort over her own. Men don’t like it when you cut your hair short, men don’t like women who are too thin or too hairy or too fat or too clever, men don’t like women who are feminists, men don’t like women who make a fuss. Men certainly don’t like women who talk about their periods.  One of the most empowering aspects of my own burgeoning feminism was my rejection of this pressure to base my life choices on what the nearest male figure in my life would prefer. I don’t care what men want from me or what they expect of me.  I am a woman – and I am going to talk about my period openly and honestly.

Over 50% of the world’s population has menstruated at some stage of their lives and still, we have been made to feel as if it’s a deficiency in our biological makeup. Despite that human life would literally cease to exist if we didn’t have our periods, the fact that we bleed once a month has been used as a tool to mock us, ridicule us, and diminish us. Our opinions are dismissed and any display of emotion is labelled as ‘hormonal’, a neat trick to ensure that we are kept cowed and powerless. And do not be mistaken here – period phobia is nothing more than latent misogyny. How else can you explain a man who will happily watch Quentin Tarantino movies and Youtube videos of shark attacks but who dry wretches as the mere thought of a woman using a tampon? It’s just blood, after all, except one is ‘icky’ because it comes from a woman’s genitals.

There are some who believe that women are connected to the sacred cycles of the moon because of their monthly visits from Aunt Flow, but I have to admit that I’m at the stage of performing a gratitude dance to the lunar goddesses every time I start my period. It’s annoying and I have to wear crappy underwear for five days for fear of stains and I get infuriated when I think about how much money I will have to spend over a lifetime on sanitary protection. But I’m not sickened by the blood, no more than I am by my need to use the toilet a hundred times an hour because of my ridiculously small bladder. I quite enjoy talking to other women about it - discussing our most horrendous period stories (the best usually involve one night stands and the words “It was like the prom scene from Carrie”) can be a fun female bonding ritual. It’s also an important way of disseminating information about conditions such as endometriosis, an all too common condition that can hugely impact a woman’s quality of life. But these conversations can’t just take place amongst women. I think it’s important that we take the decision to talk more openly about the realities of periods to the men in our lives. Our partners, our brothers, our fathers, and our sons – they need to be reminded that women have periods; that they always have had periods, and they always will have periods. Continuing to maintain a silence around this fact of life because some men feel too ‘squeamish’ about it is nothing more than a subtle reinterpretation of ancient traditions of labelling women as unclean and banishing them to menstruation huts once a month – and it needs to be challenged by all of us.

Almost Love by Louise O’Neill (Riverrun, €12.99) is out now


Woman's Way