Breaking the Cycle: Let’s Get Real About Periods
I was only nine years old when I first got my period. The elders in my life were happy for me, they said, I “finally became a woman,” but people my age used to shame me because of it. At that time, there was only one other girl in my class who also had her period. I was really embarrassed about it for years and always tried to hide it. I would never talk about it because it felt too taboo. But many years later, people are talking about periods more openly.
In an episode of YR Media’s podcast Adult ISH, co-host Merk Nguyen wanted to change the stigma that teens and other people like me felt about our periods. She leads an open conversation about what it’s really like to have your period. Her Adult ISH co-host Nyge Turner, the Vicious Cycle podcast’s Kate Elston, YR Media’s Lauren Rascoe and journalist Desmond Meagley join Merk in talking about the stigma around bleeding, debunking myths surrounding periods and much more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Merk Nguyen: When did you realize that you do or do not talk about your period?
Desmond Meagley: Well, I feel like my situation is a little unique. I generally don’t ever talk about it, even if I’m really close to somebody because I just don’t feel totally comfortable. Especially not with casual friends because a lot of people in my life don’t know that I’m not a cis male.
So it really limits the amount of times I’m able to be super honest. Like, “Why are you in such a bad mood, Desmond?” “Because I’m bleeding out of my vagina!” If I told someone that, they’d think I was joking or being incredibly inappropriate. But I was just being honest.
So it’s not that I think it’s gross or taboo or anything like that. But it’s just not a part of my life that I feel compelled to share with anyone except for, maybe, my doctor.
Merk: What are some things that you have experienced with periods that you’re frustrated about? That people don’t really see? Because you can’t just look at someone and say, “I know how you bleed! I know what it’s like!”
Kate Elston: I think the thing that has been getting on my nerves the most is how little is known. So I did a bunch of research on athletes who bleed, and there’s just not research. Menstrual hormones affect them in their cycle — how they run, how they sprint, how they jump. [But] research has been so focused on cis men.
Menstruation is a vital sign and I don’t know if I knew that until recently. It’s like urine. If your urine is orange, there is a problem. Same with menstruation. If your cycle changes duration or length of period or color; that means something is wrong with you. I don’t think people know that.
Lauren Rascoe: When I was in grad school, I didn’t have a period for like nine months. I attributed it to stress. My boxing coach said that it sometimes has something to do with BMI and your weight and how much you’re eating which … my nutrition was trash.
Merk: As it is when you are in your 20s.
Lauren: Right! So I didn’t have a period from [when] I moved to Boston for grad school until I came home for Christmas. That was when I got my period again.
Kate: That’s a sign that something was going on.
Nyge Turner: I didn’t know how much everyone’s period varies because I didn’t hear anything about periods growing up from none of the women in my life. It was always so taboo.
We had this little vase in the bathroom. And it had a label on top of it that said, “For Ladies.” I would always look at it and be like, “I wanna open that thing!” I remember I got caught getting a little too close to it one time, and my mom was like, “What are you doing?!” I was like, “Ahh, alright. I won’t look.”
Kate: But you should be able to look.
Nyge: I remember my mom had this little trash can in her bathroom and that is where she kept her stuff. And that was it. I would take out the trash, because it was my job to take out the trash, except for that one. Like, “You don’t touch that one.”
It’s just so interesting, the difference in the generation gap. It was like, people my age would talk about it all the time. Everybody else in my family who was older, like, you don’t talk about that. If I would’ve dared brought that up it would be so out of pocket.
Merk: What are some of the things you grew up being told about periods and believing, but the more you looked into it you realized, “Oh, that’s not really true.”
Lauren: My mom and several other women in my life told me that using tampons would break your hymen and that virgins didn’t use them until after they’ve had sex. I was just kinda like, ““Okay, won’t be using those.”
Merk: The whole hymen test, it’s totally a myth. Your hymen can break when you’re just riding a bike or stretching in a weird way.
Lauren: I have a question about tampons though. Who teaches people how to use tampons?
Kate: Were you guys taught by your friends?
Lauren: I still don’t use those.
Kate: After this do you want to go to the bathroom? We’ll shut the door, I’ll talk you through it through the door. It’ll be great!
Merk: When have you experienced people not believing you about the effects of your menstrual cycle, or using the menstrual cycle to belittle you or your abilities?
Because when I’m talking to my sister and my mom, I feel like “Oh yeah, I think it’s because of my period.” But, if I was talking to my boyfriend, I would really not want to say it that way because I don’t want that to be used against me. But then I feel like I use it against myself in a way! It feels like this really weird, double-edged sword.
Kate: I think it comes from people not understanding exactly how we operate. Our hormones are not the same as people who don’t have a uterus. Like, if people knew how athletes would perform best wherever they are in their cycle, we wouldn’t have to demonize them when they aren’t playing well.
Nyge: Well, cis males always make that dig at each other too. Even if you don’t have a period, they definitely say that. That happens all the time. They’ll be like, “Nyge on his period or something.”
Desmond: I heard that at work this morning. My co-workers were going at each other talking about exactly that.
Nyge: They for sure say that if you’re ever moody.
Merk: So two things I’ve known for a long time that you don’t talk about are one: periods. And two: sex. And Kate, you did an episode all about period sex! What kind of stigmas are associated with that?
Kate: For a lot of people, it’s gross. For men and women, it’s not pleasant. You don’t have to enjoy it. I think a lot of people stigmatize their partners. Their partners are like, “I don’t want to do it, we’re off limits this week.”
That’s fine. Especially because if we, as people who bleed, are grossed out by it, that’s gonna rub off on whoever else. A lot of people are obviously into it. People out there are proud of it. And like, good for them.
Lauren: More power to ya.
Kate: Everyone has their thing. It’s just like any other sexual act. There’s germs and things can be transmitted. But, as long as you’re healthy, it’s totally fine.
Merk: I wanted to challenge everyone here to think about one thing that you are going to do in playing your part to normalize period culture.
Nyge: First thing that popped into my head was like, if I have kids later on, I really wanna make sure that I don’t have that “ladies only” jar. You don’t have to be ashamed about that.
Lauren: When I’m buying pads and tampons and things, especially if it’s a male cashier, I won’t make it an awkward encounter. It’ll just be like, “Here.” Or, when I feel myself starting my period, I have a tendency to stick the pad in my pocket and then go to the bathroom. So I think just not making myself feel so secretive and encouraging other people to not be so secretive.
Kate: Since I’ve started working on the podcast “Vicious Cycle,” I’ve been trying not to use euphemisms. Period itself is already a euphemism of menstruation. I really don’t want to be like, “It’s that time of the month,” or whatever people say. I wanna be like, “I have my period.” There’s no need to hide behind that.
Check out the full episode exploring periods, including this conversation and much more (including an experiment where Nyge experiences a simulated period), on Adult ISH.