Living in a world where blood symbolizes impurity, dirtiness, and the potential for disease, women are often conditioned to feel shameful for the monthly ritual of excessive bleeding. This essay explores my own journey from repulsion to fondness of my menstrual blood.
I remember being 11 years old, squatting in a public bathroom stall, looking down at this strange dark spot that had formed on the lining of my underwear. I felt nauseous and scared. I was taught that blood was something to be feared, and its presence was a sign that something had gone wrong.
After consulting my mother, I learned that this kind of bleeding was normal for women, but talking about it required whispering because you wouldn’t want other people to know when it was happening. Upon seeing other women in my community shyly conversing about their periods, I learned to associate embarrassment with my menstrual cycle. Because people don’t whisper about things of which we are proud. Secrecy implies shame.
I remember being 17, anxiously awaiting the unexpected and ever-inconvenient timing of my next period and constantly running to the bathroom to see if my vagina had betrayed my beloved panties. I felt painfully alone and repulsed by my own body. I slowly but surely developed a resentful relationship with the most “natural” necessity of my health as a female.
Part of me accepted this as my reality, and I grew accustomed to feeling shameful about the most biological part of myself. But I was no longer able to keep my secret quiet. I would complain relentlessly, overwhelmed by unwelcome waves of emotion and crippled by painful cramping and cystic acne. It felt as if my hatred of my period was eating me from the inside out.
I remember being 21 years old, looking into my drawer full of stained underwear, hoping that no one would find my dirty secret. Cringing at the thought of being discovered, I kept dark colored sheets on my bed to avoid my boyfriend from noticing any accidental stains, and I hid my laundry basket as if there was something stolen inside of it.
At some point, I found myself with a birth control that completely stopped my periods altogether. I remember thinking, “what a relief,” as I felt this anxious tension dissolve inside of me. But while I thought that removing my bloody monthly ritual would solve my problems, it actually did the opposite.
I began feeling completely disconnected from my body, unfamiliar with my own sense of rhythm, and confused about my sexuality. Sure, there were fewer stains on my underwear and no more embarrassing explanations about brown circles on my couch and bedsheets. But in the absence of my periods, I realized that there was still a presence of female shame that influenced my behavior and my own beliefs.
I remember thinking that if having a period is a natural occurrence, what makes female reproduction cycles “dirty” and the surprise appearance of a rainbow “beautiful?” I wondered if there was a way to reclaim my relationship with myself by embracing my excretion of bodily fluids.
I was 23 years old when I decided to change my method of birth control to regulate my periods. It had been two years since I had experienced real menstrual symptoms and any substantial amount of bleeding. I vividly remember sitting on the toilet, staring down at the clots of blood dripping from my vagina into the toilet bowl. I felt as if I was watching a magic show! My eyes bulged and I laughed vigorously at the miracle that was occurring between my legs. What was this? How was this happening? What was this unfamiliar experience of feeling whole?
I had forgotten what it felt like to bleed. Sure, I felt bloated and heavy, crampy and emotional. But for the first time in my life, I was no longer angry or resentful of these “unpleasant” experiences. I was grateful for the opportunity to slow down, be in my body, take care of myself, and intimately connect with a vital part of being a woman.
Over a year later, my monthly periods now exist as an avenue of adoration...
I no longer hide my bloodstains, for they are evidence that I am a warrior.
I refuse to whisper about my feminine needs, for they give me penetrating insight into my world.
I honor the opportunity to experience a spectrum of physical sensations, for they make me stronger and increase my capacity for love, joy, and pleasure.
So why are we teaching women to feel embarrassed of their periods? What is the source of this shame? Who benefits from women developing a hateful relationship with our bleeding bodies?
While modern medicine has caused people to fear the potential of blood-borne diseases, women have been ostracized for the monthly ritual of excessive bleeding in cultures across the globe long before modern science. In some rural parts of India, even whispering about menstruation is unpermitted; female elders often refuse to give an explanation to young girls, leaving them to develop dangerous and life-threatening hygiene habits. Let’s not forget the 400 years of the European Witch Trials, where women were systematically burned at the stake for offering any kind of medicinal guidance relating to female reproduction, sanitation, and/or health. It would be remiss not mention the current political climate fighting for government control over women’s reproductive rights. Perhaps, feminine health is diminished not because of our modern understanding of medicine, but because humans have a distorted relationship with nature.
Blood is often regarded as a symbol of life, but it also implies the looming presence of death. Even more, the color red is often associated with powerful characteristics that evoke a strong emotional response. It’s no coincidence that women’s menstrual cycles are intricately connected to the 28-day cycles of the moon and that the shedding of uterine lining provides evidence of not being pregnant. Perhaps, we are teaching women to feel embarrassed of their periods because our social institutions value dominance, aiming to control nature through disempowerment (feelings of shame) and planting a seed of subjugation (unwanted pregnancy.)
By revealing the systems of power that perpetuate my suffering, the ones that taught me to hate my own body, I have learned how to reclaim what is mine. It only benefits the governors of oppression when I am repulsed by my monthly bleeding ritual. But when I cultivate a relationship of sincere love and fondness for my female needs, I become a powerful force of nature.
Maria Borghoff, BFA, 500-RYT, is a community artist, creative wellness coach, and curator at GROOVE. She teaches individuals and communities the practice of harmonious living, and her dream is to live in a world full of people who use their creativity to enhance their daily lives.
Photo Credit: Rupi Kaur