‘Don’t be revolted, lead the revolt – preferably with a grin on your face and a tampon tucked proudly behind your ear.’
Emma loathes her period. Really, she does. But there’s something she loathes even more: not being able to talk about it. Freely, funnily and honestly. Without men and women wrinkling their noses as if she’s pulled her tampon out and offered it as an hors d’oeuvre.
But somehow, despite women having had periods since the dawn of time, we’ve totally clammed up on anything to do with menstruation. Why, oh why, would we rather say ‘Auntie Flo’ than ‘period’? Why, in the 21st century, are periods still seen as icky? Why are we still so ignorant about such a fundamental bodily process?
Now, in Period., Emma draws on female experiences that will make you laugh, weep (and, most probably, squirm), in a fierce and funny rallying cry to smash this ridiculous taboo once and for all.
Because it’s about bloody time.
I have been waiting for this book to come out since I heard the editor, Charlotte Mursell of HQ Stories, raving about it back in March. Once I finally got hold of my copy, I was eager to start, and I raced through it. Odd, you might think, to be so keen to read a book about periods but, as the tag line says, this is the book we have all been waiting for and it’s about bloody time it was written.
Those of a squeamish disposition may want to look away from this post, because it is going to be blunt and revealing.
No, actually don’t, because the whole premise behind this book is that periods are a natural bodily function and we should be talking about them, loudly and proudly, all genders, and that the stigma surrounding periods and the silence that shrouds the topic is inherently unhelpful to everyone, perpetuates a certain level of female oppression and needs to stop.
Sound a bit heavy? Well it isn’t, this book is brash, ballsy and downright hilarious, as well as dealing with the subject openly, honestly and head on and should be read by everyone. As a 47-year-old woman who has almost run the full gamut of the female reproductive cycle from starting through child-bearing to now being perimenopausal, I could relate to a lot of what was being said here, and found myself cheering along, whilst also being shocked by some of the information imparted, enraged by other parts, questioning why I had never thought of some of the issues, laughing out loud in horrified solidarity at people’s embarrassing experiences and finally asking myself if I really was as open about this subject as I always thought or complicit in the silence that surrounds this final taboo topic.
I always think of myself as being fairly honest, very opinionated and not at all squeamish. I am the eldest of four girls, have two daughters and three step-daughters, all either in or rapidly approaching their teens, so periods are something I have been surrounded by almost continuously my entire life and something I have to talk about regularly. In the spirit of honesty encouraged by the book, and to illustrate that I have had to be open about my periods from the beginning, I will share my own ‘starting my period’ story with you.
It happened on my thirteenth birthday. Yes, the actual day itself, heralding in my teens and the start of womanhood at the same time. The only hitch was, I was staying over at my friend Alex’s house for the night and had arrived unprepared. Mortifying. Luckily, Alex and I had been friends a long time and I knew her mother well. She was (I’m sure she still is, I have not seen her for many years) a kind and sensible woman, who didn’t make a fuss but just helped me calmly and quietly, sparing my blushes, an act for which I have ever been grateful. Alex also had an older sister, so her mother had already been through this process and was suitably equipped, much to my relief.
The next morning my grandad died and my parents’ concerns were, understandably, entirely taken up with the fall out of that, so the whole episode went largely unremarked upon by my own family. My highly-anticipated birthday trip to Alton Towers was cancelled and the whole thing did not feel like something to be celebrated. My mother then presented me with a glamorous belt to wear around my waist which went through loops at either end of the massive sanitary towels I was given (the days of sticky fixing, slim towels were way in the future) and not much more was said about the matter. I had crippling cramps throughout my teens, which often made me cry with pain, taught myself how to use tampons and just got on with my life, accepting monthly discomfort as simply something to be endured.
I have tried to be much more open with my own daughters than my mother was with me, talking to them well in advance about what to expect, reacting calmly when my eldest started her periods and encouraging her to talk to me and ask any questions she has about anything to do with her body. I must have done reasonably okay, as she does talk to me, as do my step-daughters, although she does sometimes complain that I am a bit too open about bodily functions. She will probably be horrified by this post if she reads it. Parents are SO embarrassing, aren’t they?
I must admit I have to a degree been guilty of perpetuating the idea that periods are something to be ashamed of by giving her the requisite discreet pouch of sanitary products to take to school. Maybe I should be advising her to walk proudly through the corridors clutching them openly. However, I am not sure at 14 and quite shy, that she is ready to be such a period pioneer and I would not force her to face up to ridicule. We obviously still have a way to go before this topic is one that people of all ages can be open about, and I think the older generation will have to lead the way. This book is definitely a step in the right direction.
You may be thinking, this is all very well and interesting, but is talking about these things quite so bluntly really necessary? Why should I read this book? The answer is absolutely yes. Emma gives many reasons why we need to be more open throughout the book, but one issue really stood out to me as an important reason why we should do away with the shame surrounding periods and anything to do with the female reproductive system, and it is to enable women to speak openly with doctors when they feel something is wrong and to be listened to and taken seriously. I have another personal anecdote that illustrates how important this is.
Several years ago, when I first went back on the Pill after starting a new post-divorce relationship, the tablet the doctor gave me resulted in periods of a duration and severity I had never before experienced in my 27 years (at that point) as a menstruating woman. I knew something was wrong and went back to see the doctor. He (yes, it was a he) told me it was just teething troubles and it would bed down. Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself on a Saturday evening in A&E, having had to leave an evening out with friends because I was soaking through a Super Plus tampon every ten minutes and thought I was haemorrhaging. I have never seen so much blood, even post-childbirth. The A&E doctor gave me a tablet to stop it and told me I had to go back to my GP and insist he change my prescription. He did. We women know our own bodies, we know what is normal for us, we need to listen to them and feel able to talk honestly and forcefully to people when we know something is wrong and we deserve to be listened to and taken seriously. Our instincts are the best way to intercept serious problems at an early stage, and the more open we can be about what is normal for each of us and what is not, the better off we all will be. Emma stresses this point in the book and she is 100% correct.
So, next time I am at the doctors filling my pill prescription, I will be asking why it is necessary for me to bleed once a month (hint, it’s not for my benefit), making sure I think about donating sanitary products when giving to food banks and considering the different circumstances women may be in and how they might feel about their periods when I’m talking about them. This book is eye-opening and thought-provoking and should be read by everyone. I will certainly be passing it around amongst my acquaintances. Baby steps in the right direction.
Period is out now and you can get your copy here.
About the Author
Emma Barnett is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist. By day, she presents The Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5 Live in which she interviews key figures shaping our times, from the Prime Minister to those who would very much like to be. By night, she presents the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, on BBC Two and hosts Late Night Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.
Emma was named Radio Broadcaster of the Year by the Broadcasting Press Guild for her agenda-setting interviews. Previously, she was the Women’s Editor at The Telegraph. She now writes a weekly agony aunt column, ‘Tough Love’, in the Sunday Times Magazine and is a proud patron of Smart Works. Period is her first book.
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