“Okay, uterus, I’m not planning on getting pregnant soon, so could you stop with the bleeding and cramping for seven years or so until I’m ready?”
The young poet bopped her head onstage, making everyone laugh.
I shouted, “Girl! Periods are awesome!” but I was a) drowned out by the cheering crowd and possibly b) dismissed as insane. Who thinks it’s awesome to bleed out of your vagina once a month?
We’ve been taught to see our periods as nothing but a nuisance, a uniquely female inconvenience that prevents us from achieving powerful accomplishments like playing tennis in short shorts or whirling in slow motion on beaches. We’ve been taught we need “sanitary napkins” or “feminine hygiene products” that euphemistically imply that our blood, and especially our vaginas, are unsanitary and dangerous to touch.
Tampons are designed to avoid such contaminative contact: they have contraptions involving white plastic applicators designed by NASA scientists that can help you to never touch your vagina even while you are inserting a piece of bleached wood pulp byproduct into it.
The first time I tried this, I got the applicator tube stuck, and only when I went to pull it out by its white string did I realize that there was a plastic thing with a sharp sphincter-like end that, for all I know, was trying to eat my cervix the whole time it was in there.
And lord knows what was in there: as Tina Fey writes in her book Bossypants of her first period,
“I was ten. I had noticed something was weird earlier in the day, but I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency. This wasn’t blue, so…I ignored it for a few hours.”
Ignore it we try! The ability to ignore one’s period is the absolute goal of the feminine hygiene industry. Women (and men, for that matter) are under pressure to perform at a consistently high level of productivity throughout the month no matter what’s going on emotionally or physiologically. Bleached wood product, plastic applicators, and pain medication have us sitting at our desks with a stick up our butts (well, vaginas, actually) in a strong attempt to pretend this shameful thing is not happening so we can keep working as hard as all the other robots.
This attempt to ignore and try to suppress our cycles may be exactly what aggravates the menstrual and menopausal issues Western women struggle with. Ayurvedic doctor Claudia Ward writes that “There is a general consensus among Ayurvedic physicians who visit from India as to why the excessive amount of female disorders plague the West and not the East, and it has much to do with honoring the cycle itself.”
Alisa Vitti gave a popular TED talk on “Loving Your Lady Parts” that breaks down the myth that women are good worker bees for three weeks out of the month, and then crap out for a week to go insane. Rather, Vitti explains, each part of your cycle has a different quality that we can optimize for success. When we are ovulating, we are at our most magnetic, which makes this a good time for public speaking and other social events. When we are bleeding, our right and left brain hemispheres are communicating better than any other time, increasing our intuitive and creative capabilities. This is an excellent time to reflect, think, dream, and create.
What if we could see our menstrual cycles as a superpower rather than a handicap? I believe we can, even in the Western world where taking a week off every month may not be your best option. Here are five ways:
1. Look into alternative menstrual products that are not called “feminine hygiene products.” I swear by my Diva Cup, an acorn shaped, silicone cup that catches my blood and lets me see it when I rinse it out and reuse it. For ten years. The amount of blood you end up encountering is minute compared to the terrifying gush I had in mind back in my no-peeking, no-touching tampon days. Cups aren’t for everyone, but there are also Lunapads and other options that are much healthier and more environmentally friendly than mainstream options.
2. Track your cycle and plan around your period: where possible, organize social events and presentations around ovulation, and avoid extra work or social interaction during menses. I use a pink highlighter on my wall calendar.
3. Rest. Your body is working hard while you shed your uterine lining. Your liver is heating up and working hard. Energetically, a frustrated liver leads to irritability, so get out of your own way and let the liver do its thing. Give your body lots of water and extra sleep. If you practice yoga, avoid inversions, which reverse the flow of apana, or downward moving energy, and can actually slow your flow. In my experience, if I really relax for even just the first day of my cycle, it only lasts about three days. When I push myself, my period extends up to seven days.
4. Adjust your activity level. During your period, you have the hormone relaxin coursing through you, which is the same hormone that loosens the muscles and joints of pregnant women preparing for labor. Deep stretching is less safe during this period, and core work squeezes up on muscles that are trying to release for a reason. Strenuous exercise with a core that can’t fully engage easily could put your lower back in danger. Gentle yoga can be great, just focus on giving the belly space and staying upright and soft. You can go back to being hardcore the other 26 or so days of the month.
5. There is a final, secret gift that our periods give us that men can go ahead and envy. Each menstrual cycle can psychologically parallel a cycle in your life. After a breakup, move, death, or any stressful situation, your body literally sheds a layer from inside your body. Your body grieves and remembers with you as you process blood and emotion from the last cycle. This monthly shedding consistently creates new space for new life, literally and figuratively. Perhaps we can think of menopause as a larger life shedding, a physical and psychological transition from an old way of being into a new cycle of life.
So the next time you see your blood returning, thank it for everything it does for you, and give yourself the space to experience it as a gift, not an inconvenience. Resist the urge to run to the beach in white shorts and whirl in slow motion. Lie down and enjoy the rest–we all need it, and now you have a good excuse.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta