Periods: Where Are They in Literature? - Thee Sim Ling
When was the last time you read about menstruation in a book? If you are lucky, you may have come across literature that describes the experience of monthly bleeding one or two times. But, it is likely that you have never read a story that gives due attention to the menstrual cycle.
Menstruation is a universal phenomenon that people with female reproductive organs experience all around the world. Many people who experience periods view them as significant parts of their lives; having their first period signals the start of puberty, and the disappearance of periods leads to menopause and preparation for old age. With millions around the world having periods, they are as common as filing taxes or picking up books at the library. So, why do we see more written about taxes or library visits than periods?
One thing that is as universal as periods is period shame. Menstruation is a taboo topic in many societies globally. There are many historical, religious or cultural myths and problematic beliefs surrounding periods that have originated from the beginning of human civilization. In ancient tribes, menstruation was thought to give supernatural powers to control natural processes such as the lunar cycle and ocean tides or negatively affect organic materials. Thus, people were warned to avoid menstruating women for fear of the “harm” caused by mysterious periods.
Myths about menstruation were created to portray it in a wholly horrific light, as if the monthly process of bleeding to allow for the ability to reproduce is impure and disgusting. They also implied bigoted and misogynist undertones. The Yukon tribe in Canada thought that coming into contact with menstruating women would cause men to lose their “manliness” or masculinity. The Mae Enga tribe in Papua New Guinea asserted that if men touched period blood, they would face the risk of illness, loss of intelligence, darker skin and even death. In Europe, people believed menstruators even caused bacon to rot!
Spiritual beliefs also play a large role in mainstream perceptions of periods. Religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism may perpetuate stereotypical images of periods as “unclean” or something to be ashamed of. Even in etymology, menstruation carries unsatisfactory connotations. The word “taboo” comes from the Polynesian “tabua”, which, coincidentally or uncoincidentally, means menstruation.
Many of these fears are still prevalent in certain parts of the world today. Nepal is one example, with its longstanding tradition of “menstrual huts” where families exiled women undergoing periods, known as “chhaupadi”. Even though this practice has been outlawed, several women die in menstrual huts every year, and the majority of female-identifying Nepalis still participate in menstrual exile. In India, women who menstruate are not allowed entry in temples and shrines. They are also unable to cook or touch anyone in many conservative families.
Periods are so rarely discussed in literature; there are no official statistics on how many books published discuss this topic. When we pick up a book to read, we seldom expect scenes of bleeding from someone’s posterior— and such scenes could be “shocking”. With menstruation facing so much stigma, writers are reluctant to even mention it in passing, as it is treated as shameful and “unhygienic”. Plus, male authors who do not experience periods would be hesitant to write about something they barely know of.
Writing periods does not need to be taboo, though. They are a part of life, and as artists, we should consider it our duty to reflect the human condition authentically in our work. If we find politics, murder and even bedroom scenes acceptable in commercial fiction, why are periods not being included as well?
There are many benefits to including the menstruation experience in books. It raises awareness about reproductive rights and issues surrounding feminism and the sexual health of people who menstruate. It can be a vehicle for social change so menstruation can be acknowledged and accepted, instead of shunned and ignored. It can also encourage non-menstruators to get educated, and in turn educate others on periods and how they affect the lifestyles of people they menstruate.
How can we start writing about menstruation in our stories? It can touch on the embarassing nature of periods in daily life, or the difficulty of getting menstrual hygiene products in many countries with high tax rates, for example. It could simply be implemented as a relatable anecdote that can offer a laugh for people with similar experiences and educate those unfamiliar with the idea of menstruation.
Research is a great starting point for wordsmiths wanting to write about this topic. There are many online resources that give factual information about periods, as well as fiction books written with the inclusion of periods, such as Revenge of the Red Club by Kim Harrington and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.
We can also use this as a good conversation starter for periods and how we view them. Talking with friends and family who menstruate allows us to gain deeper insight into periods, such as side effects of periods and how others can support them during different parts of the menstrual cycle.
What should writers take note of when writing about periods? Everyone has a different period experience with different cycles, side effects and usage of menstrual products. They should also be mindful of stereotypes and misconception around menstruation. For example, one common myth is that all menstruators would have menstrual cramps, and when menstruators (mostly women) are grumpy, they would be having their period. However, side effects vary among individuals, and people can be irritated by many things, not just mood swings during their period. Periods also do not need to be an object of horror and wickedness. Carrie by Stephen King depicted the titular character having her first period in the shower and thus being mocked by other girls, using her power to exact revenge. Stories involving menstruation do not need to be written in a scary vein, but can be stories of support within communities.
When advocating for change, writing is often the first step to allow us to make a difference. Therefore, I encourage every writer to pick up their pens and write about menstruation.