Women go through so much embarrassment when males fail to clue in to the fact that women may be trying to get out of an activity due to their periods.
Or maybe they need more frequent bathroom breaks due to their periods, and that’s okay! They’re not being lazy. They honestly need it.
We’re doing a mini-series on periods during the month of August, and one of the themes that came up on both Facebook and Twitter when I asked about women’s memories of periods and embarrassment from the teenage years came from interactions with clueless men and/or boys. Then on yesterday’s post about periods and going to the beach, many of the comments told embarrassing stories of men making them feel embarrassed around their periods.
Sometimes it’s in work situations, like Jane Eyre:
At work, an almost 50 year old manager got mad at me during a surprise performance review for bringing my purse into the bathroom.
HR got a call about that.
Now, I’m not saying that I was anything but mortified, and I cried while calling hr, but… it’s not okay for men to do that to women. The man had a LOT of other issues with women, and that was just one symptom of a larger problem.
Often it was at school, and related to swim activities or to gym class.
At 9th grade orientation, I remember the male PE teacher telling the girls that he wasn’t going to accept our period as an excuse to sit out, minimizing the very real pain and fears I experienced with my periods. A couple of years later, in a high school where we were required to wear khaki pants/skirts, one of my worst fears came true when I started my period and it bled through my pants. I had to stay in the bathroom until class started. I then sneaked out to the parking lot to my car, and drove straight home, where I tried to avoid male family members. The next day, I was sent to the principal’s office for skipping class. It was so embarrassing.
But so many of them were in Christian situations, at camps, youth groups, or even on the mission field:
How about this: Church camp in high school, put together by our (male) youth pastor. We were mandated to take part in games, including water games in the pool. Well, some of the girls didn’t want to because they were on their periods. So they discretely went to their counselor and she excused them. She marked a special mark by their names on the participation roster. The pastor was very disappointed and demanded an explanation for why so many young women didn’t participate. She tried to answer politically, that they had a good reason and she approved, but he still insisted. She finally said, “Because they are on their periods!” and he said, “So?!” She had to explain to him why his choice of water games in the pool was a bad choice.
The second time I got my period ever I was at Christian summer camp and had swimming lessons. I had to tell the lifeguard I wasn’t going in the water that day. “But why not?” he loudly asked. I kept trying to discreetly tell him it was my “time”, but he was not getting it. So, I had to announce to everyone that I had my period. I was mortified.
I’ve been that cabin leader that had to discreetly tell a male canoe leader that my girl wouldn’t be tipping that day. He was so confused but I insisted and finally he agreed with me.
I had several awkward situations with my male boss when I was a missionary. A couple of us ladies had our periods at the same time so we couldn’t participate in going to the hot springs (and no you can’t use a tampon there), and our team leader was demanding to know why we couldn’t go. He assumed we were just lazy or didn’t want to participate in a team activity. We had to explain to a man who has a wife and TWO DAUGHTERS why we couldn’t go.
I think this is quite a big problem in the Christian world because we tend to have more shame about periods, and I want to talk today a little bit about why that is, and beg all of us to try to help the men in our lives never, ever make a girl or a woman feel embarrassed about this.
We equate anything to do with the vagina as being about sex
Yesterday I mentioned several women’s stories of being told that tampons affect virginity, and that came up in the comments a bunch, too.
Because your period affects your vagina, it’s generally seen as quite a taboo thing–and I think that taboo is even larger in the church because sexuality is so taboo.
But having your period is just something that every female of a certain age goes through! It’s universal. And it should not be seen as shameful or secret. It doesn’t have anything to do with sex; it has everything to do with the fact that she’s simply a woman. And there is nothing wrong with being a woman.
We require women to be secretive about it, and our society gets upset if she demands special favours
Many of the stories that we heard (and I didn’t publish all of them) were men complaining that women go to the bathroom too often, and use their periods as an “excuse”. Or that women should not expect to get out of PE just because they have cramps. Or that women shouldn’t be lazy and use excuses to avoid boating/swimming etc.
And it was phrased that way–that women are being lazy, or are using their periods as an excuse.
But they’re not an excuse.
And when you read through the comments from yesterday and see how many women experience totally debilitating pain (some said it was worse than childbirth, and they had been through childbirth!), you see that women are not making this up. It’s insulting, and it adds so much mortification and embarrassment to call women trying to function at normal levels that they’re lazy. Especially when they’re in that much pain and they have to pretend the pain isn’t there so that no one will know.
What should we tell our boys/men?
A lot of men seem very clueless when it comes to periods, so as moms and as wives and sisters and friends, we need to educate the men around us for the sake of our daughters and sisters and friends.
Here’s a hilarious story from Kya yesterday:
This reminds me of a funny story from high school! I was having a conversation with my best friend (female) and another friend of ours (male), and we told him to ask us absolutely anything he had ever wanted to know about women–anything. His question? “So when you guys have periods, can’t you just…you know…hold it?” We both cracked up for a good minute or two and then kindly informed him that vaginas don’t work that way. But it still makes me think about just how poor our sex and puberty education was that his poor guy was wondering about something like that!
So let’s tell them:
1. Women can’t control their periods
We cannot hold it in or wait for a more opportune time. If we say we need to go to the bathroom, it’s likely because we’re panicking that we’re leaking right now.
2. Periods aren’t a constant flow
It’s not like an IV drip that just drips at the same level and speed throughout the day. It’s often in big gushes which are really scary when it comes all at once. Often the blood doesn’t have time to seep into the pad when it’s a whole bunch all at once and that’s when it leaks all over everything. And while you can’t feel the drips, you can feel the gushes. And it’s scary.
3. Not every woman experiences the same thing
If you had a sister who wasn’t bothered by her periods, and who didn’t have a lot of cramping, that doesn’t mean that your co-worker that you meet in your twenties who has to take a day or a morning off every month is faking. Some women have much heavier flows. For some women it’s only 3 days; for some it’s 7. And some have abnormal bleeding so it’s much longer than that. Some have no cramping; some have cramping so bad they have to stay in bed or they start throwing up.
So if you’re ever in a situation where you’ve got a bunch of teenage girls and women and you notice that one is not handling her period well, do not assume she’s lazy. Assume that she’s just got it worse than the others!
4. Treat it as a matter of fact thing
Don’t talk to women about it–that would tend to freak us out. And especially don’t talk to teenage girls about it. But if you’re a gym teacher or a youth leader or a lifeguard or a swim instructor, you could make a general announcement at the beginning of the term to say something like, “Now girls, there may be times you can’t participate in everything, and I understand if you need to sit out occasionally.” That’s all you have to say. Girls will get what you mean. And it will help them feel a huge amount of relief.
You have no idea how stressful events can be that involve water especially, or physical activity, without knowing if we have an “out”. So give us that out at the beginning. Will some abuse that out? Maybe. But who cares? Wouldn’t you rather save the dignity of the girls? And wouldn’t you rather avoid causing them stress?
And parents–let’s talk to our boys about periods!
Just because you’re raising boys doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook having to explain periods. Boys at puberty need to learn what girls go through, too, and in our Whole Story puberty course, we do explain it to girls (obviously) but also to the boys.
We made sure in the guy’s version to explain what periods are, to explain hormonal changes, and to explain that you shouldn’t pressure girls to swim or make fun of them at certain times of the month. I’ll let Connor, my son-in-law who gives lots of commentary in the course, explain this:
Hey, Connor here!
Dating back thousands of years, there has been this culture around periods being something unclean and gross that should be kept away from males. Now, we don’t really talk about it in quite those same terms these days, but that’s because we pretty don’t talk about it all, and we don’t teach our boys how painful and embarrassing having your period can be. But let’s face it, periods aren’t going away. So it’s time for guys to stop pretending they don’t exist and learn instead how to not make life more difficult form women and girls. An important thing we discuss in the Whole Story for Boys is how to respect and empathize with girls as whole people with their own hopes and problems. Understanding what they have to go through every month is an important part of that empathy.
And The Whole Story is on special COVID pricing now, so check it out!
Are you terrified to give your kids "the talk?"
We want to help. So we created The Whole Story: an online video-based course to help parents tell their children about sex, puberty, and growing up.
Let us start those awkward conversations, so you can finish them!
I hope we can change the conversation, especially in the church, around periods, so that they’re seen as natural, nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing that you have to keep secret at all costs.
And I’d love your input on how we can do that better!
I want to end with this rant from Melissa from yesterday that sums up just about everything:
Sitting around a campfire with friends when I was 19, we were all talking about our future marriages and one guy proclaimed he would never buy tampons for his wife. One of the other girls said “You say that now but just wait, one month in you’ll be calling your wife from the store asking if she needs regular or super plus.” His eyes got wide with horror and he blurted out “Wait, there are different kinds???” We girls all laughed heartily and then gave the guys a brief education.
My shame around my period came from the emotional side of things. As a teen I had really heavy periods accompanied by really bad PMS. For years if I got even remotely upset about anything it would be dismissed as “Missy must be PMS-ing!” no matter what time of the month it was. Which of course only made me even more angry. Which of course led to more teasing and invalidation.
When my husband and I got married he took it upon himself to read up on the menstrual cycle, which was great, but there was still a lot he didn’t know. One day during a particularly hard week of PMS I was able to put words to it. I said something like “Do you think I’m enjoying this any more than you are? Do you think I like feeling this way? Do you think I like having these strong emotions and having zero control over whether or not I get to feel them? Do you think I like not being able to enjoy anything because I’m irrationally irritated by everything? And then what do I get at the end of this? I get to deal with blood flowing out of my vagina uncontrollably for a week!”
We have two sons now and I’m making it my mission to educate them about periods when they’re old enough to understand. There is a serious lack of education and empathy out there regarding periods. Periods are still regarded as this secretive, mysterious thing we aren’t supposed to mention. But most women have them!!!! We spend around 1/4 of every month (or more!) dealing with it! That’s a lot of time! And we didn’t choose it. If I could have it my way I would get a text message from my uterus every month saying “not fertilized, you’re good for another month” instead of the massive hormonal temper tantrum that is my menstrual cycle.
Periods are normal. We should normalize them in society. Not like we are all walking around shouting HEY WORLD I’M ON MY PERIOD, but it would be nice if a woman working in an office or a girl attending school could make her more frequent bathroom visits in peace and if men didn’t panic at the sight of a tampon. Which reminds me, to any husbands out there, memorize your wife’s preferred feminine products and buy them for her if she asks you to. And don’t get scented. NEVER scented. Those things should be banned.
So how do we do this better?
How can we make periods more normalized and less shameful? Let’s talk in the comments!
Our Period Series:
- All about Periods, Going to the Beach, and Teenage Embarrassment
- How Can We Help Boys/Men Be More Sensitive about Girls' Periods?
- The Period Podcast!
- When Should You Call the Doctor about Your Period?
- What Should You Do About Sex During Your Period?
- Why We Love Diva Cups
- 10 Things to Know about Old Testament Laws and Periods
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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