I know what you’re thinking.
Woman’s Hour woman makes a documentary about periods. It’s so far up a niche it’s beyond parody. Maybe you’ve got a point. Not everyone menstruates, though many of us will, do or have done. The majority of us, in fact. And if you’re male, you may know someone who’s female. Perhaps you have a mother or sister. Or even an Aunt Flo (as they used to say in less enlightened times). So stick with this, please.
We can’t turn back now. The Menstruation Taboo is on its way out, don’t you know? This is 21st-century Britain, where MPs discuss the tampon tax and a Labour MP, Stella Creasy, won’t continue the debate until a Tory who keeps intervening, Bill Cash, uses the words “sanitary towels and tampons”. Poor Bill hadn’t got the memo, and was sticking with the far safer “products”. You can’t blame him; he’s 76 and from an age where ladies’ particulars stayed out of the workplace.
By now, you must be wondering where and when I started my periods. Thank goodness I have a memory for this sort of vital detail.
The drama unfolded in a very cramped changing cubicle at Skipton baths. Well, I say drama… there wasn’t a lot to it, really, but the pinkish streak was unmistakably significant and swimming was off. I was A Woman. Of course I was nothing of the sort. I was a bird- brained David Cassidy fan on a Girl Guide trip to Yorkshire, grateful to my mother for packing me off with some Kotex towels “just in case”. Frankly, it was about time. I was nearly 14 and beginning to think this female mystery would never be revealed to me. At nearly 52, it’s fair to say I’m over the excitement. That’s enough female mystery, thanks.
The “average woman” has 500 periods in her lifetime. She is a lucky, lucky lady. Experiences differ: some claim their periods have no impact on them whatsoever. Others are able to harness the discomfort; they use it to propel themselves along. The really unfortunate may have to take to their beds, hugging a hot water bottle and gnawing on milk chocolate. I am bog-standard in this department: an urge to eat cheese slices combined with lethargy and a marked increase in narkiness. Put it this way: I wouldn’t be a middle-aged man on a child’s scooter heading in my direction around the time my period’s due. You annoy me at the best of times, but then… oh, and I do get stomach pains. But nothing that can’t be biffed away with a couple of painkillers. Nothing to complain about. Though that doesn’t stop me complaining, obviously.
I’ve nursed children and hangovers, been stuck in tailbacks, taken exams and presented hundreds of radio programmes through the mild fug of a period. Life carved up into neat four-week chunks since that fateful day in Skipton. (This is the sort of publicity that fine town could probably do without.)
Still, on the whole, until very recently, this was something we didn’t really talk about. Which is odd when you think what we DO talk about: so much positively filthy laundry is now aired in public. I don’t mean any sort of taboo applies to women and girls, who have always talked about periods, but wider society. Or what on Radio 4 is sometimes referred to as “public discourse”.
Woman’s Hour has long been one of the few places menstruation has been acknowledged, let alone discussed. I’ve read emails from older listeners explaining that they’d started their periods at primary school, aged nine or ten: in the absence of hard facts, it’s easy to understand why some of these petrified children simply assumed they were bleeding to death. Not everyone has a mother of any kind: let alone one who could prepare you practically and emotionally. Or you may be living in a culture where menstruation is not just ignored, but regarded as “unclean”. Some communities in Nepal, for example, still practice chhaupadi, banishing women and girls to the cowshed during their periods. It’s all a gazillion miles away from trying to remove VAT from “products”, and the eye-popping online frankness of the vloggers who influence today’s Western teenagers, my own included. I don’t see this generation buying into the secrecy surrounding menstruation. Why should they?
The British tennis player Heather Watson put a bad performance down to “girl things” in 2015 and the sporting world was far more shocked than it should have been. We have moved on. A bit. In fact, as a sports scientist says in my documentary, this area is still poorly researched and barely understood. Former tennis pro Annabel Croft tells me she never once discussed her menstrual cycle with her coach. Ever.
It’s all change down the supermarket’s feminine hygiene aisle, though. (There’s no such thing as masculine hygiene, by the way.)
What a world this is. We may not have the moving pavements we were promised, but sanitary towels have got a lot sleeker since the 1970s. Now there’s an “ultra slim” panty liner for all occasions. Some have wings; others boast of their “quilted softness”. One brand claimed it was “breathable with pH balanced infusion”. I bet.
Nothing on the tasteful packaging indicates what these products are actually for, but there are certainly plenty of them. This is a global business worth billions, you understand. And its success is partly down to that lucrative old taboo about periods. Be “protected,” be wary of “odour”, don’t frighten the horses.
I have wanted to make a programme on this subject for a while, and I can’t say the BBC bit my hand off exactly. “Discreet” is another favourite adjective of the “sanpro” world. Oh dear. I haven’t been very discreet, I’m afraid, and nor were any of the people I spoke to for the programme. I’d like to thank them for their frankness. And I hope Aunt Flo’s not too shocked. But then, she may have had a period or two herself.
A Bleeding Shame premieres 11am Friday on Radio 4.