I recently attended a meeting made up of mostly men and by the end of it, I was feeling invincible. I had held my own in our debates, successfully rebutting some of their points, and I even had them questioning their own biases. Feeling on top of the world, I stood up to network with the other attendees and there, against the cream chair I’d sat on, was a damning smear of red period blood.
My previous victories were immediately forgotten and embarrassment thrummed through my veins. I had taken precautions ― how could this happen? I tried to be covert, but it was too late. The whole room had seen it. I made a swift exit with apologies to the host, but the mortification remained. I was so humiliated, I cried actual tears over this natural bodily function.
Days afterwards the memory would continue to catch me off guard, and the shame would flood in all over again. As someone who is not particularly self-conscious, I analyzed why I was so triggered by this event, and I realized this shame is something I’ve battled with for most of my life.
When I was 9, I migrated to the U.K. from Nigeria, and this was the first time I’d lived with my mother since I was 4. Puberty was not something we spoke about openly in my home, so when it began, I wasn’t in any way ready. I recall my breasts materializing almost overnight when I was in primary school, and girls in my class whispered that I was stuffing my chest. The very suggestion was abhorrent to me; it made me want to rip off my jumper, and show them that it was all mine, whether I liked it or not ― and I certainly did not.
As the new kid from Africa, I felt like a fish out of water and being the only student in school with fully formed breasts only served to make me the subject of more ridicule and gossip, which isolated me even further. My experience with menstruating proved to be an extension of this feeling.
My first period was dreadful. I recall waking up and heading to shower only to be met with a pool of brown sludge in my underwear. An internal meltdown immediately ensued. I had overheard enough conversations to deduce that this was my period, but I was completely unprepared. My mother was essentially a stranger to me, and I was too embarrassed to tell my dad, so I resorted to dealing with it alone. I knew skipping school wasn’t an option (my parents would never allow that), so I loaded my underwear with tissue and free bled. It was icky, uncomfortable and made my skin crawl. I remember walking into primary school next to a girl who looked up at her mother and said, “Mummy, she stinks.” I was absolutely mortified, but I couldn’t go home, so I forged through the day trying to make myself invisible.
My secret was finally discovered days later when my mother found my blood-stained underwear in the wash. While I had quietly hoped that she would hug me and reassure me that everything was going to be okay, instead she interrogated me about why I hadn’t told her what had happened. The hurt and shame seared into me. She followed up by providing pads and period advice, but by this point I was ready to be done with the entire thing. This was my initiation into menstruation.
As I got older, I got better at managing my period. My cycle was relatively painless, so my strategy was to ignore it as much as possible, yet my general aversion to the subject persisted. To combat this, my friends and I would nickname our periods, avoiding technical terms like “menstruation,” and instead opting for cliche alternatives like “aunt flo.” All the while I was inadvertently absorbing messaging that periods were taboo, which was affirmed by the actions of the culture and adults around me.
On TV, I never saw period products advertised with anything resembling blood ― it was always a blue gel. In school, when we began sex education, the boys and girls were separated, which implied that boys were not required to know the details of female anatomy. In addition, I often heard the phrase “she must be on her period” thrown around as an insult, further supporting the notion that periods are bad.
Because of what I’d learned, I was part of propagating this belief. Whenever my friends and I needed to go to the toilet to change our period products, we would sneak them in our blazer sleeves as though they were contraband. When I needed to purchase period supplies, I opted for the longer self-checkout line over the shorter cashier queue to avoid other people seeing what I was buying. I had internalized all of the negative things I had seen and heard about menstruating, and I was trapped in the grip of our society’s ― and my own ― period shaming.
When I began to date and became sexually active, conversations about menstruation were unavoidable, but it took a lot for me to feel comfortable enough in my relationships to talk about it. With time, this became easier, and I realized that some men were open to being educated, but others were committed to staying ignorant. Still, I was proud of myself for broaching the topic with them, and I believed I was making some progress with my period shame.
Then it happened: I had the most traumatic period experience of my life.
When I was 19, I was working a summer job as a door-to-door charity fundraiser when my period unexpectedly started ― and it was heavy. I was in the middle of nowhere, and the closest thing to a public toilet was a school in the neighborhood. I asked the girls on my fundraising team to “check me” to see if I’d bled through my clothes. It turns out I had ― I was stained, and no one in our group had any period supplies. It was my perfect nightmare. Here I was, once again, stuck free bleeding with limited options.
I decided to try my luck at the school. Mortified, I explained my situation to a male guard, but he refused to let me use the toilet. Panicking, I pleaded that he could escort me to the bathroom and back, but his answer remained no. A little part inside of me broke.
Hyperventilating, I called my team leader and explained my humiliating predicament. Thankfully, she was understanding. She drove me to the nearest pub, but unfortunately their toilets didn’t have any period product dispensers. I cleaned up as best as I could under the circumstances and used a hoodie to cover the stain. This was one of my first jobs, and I was eager to meet my quota, so rather than wasting the whole day, I chose to continue working. In hindsight, this was the wrong choice.
Our job was to knock on doors and tell people about the charity. Despite my period unexpectedly arriving and bleeding through my pants, things were going well until a couple invited me into their completely white living room. They offered me a chair and despite refusing to sit, they persisted until it got so extremely awkward, I perched on the floor. By the time I finished delivering my rushed presentation and stood up to leave, I had a strong feeling I had left a stain, but I had been through too much to explain my predicament to one more person ― much less these strangers ― so I left without looking back. My mind’s-eye vision of them discovering the stained carpet is a recurring nightmare that lives rent free in my head.
While these instances may sound like scenes from a movie, they are my reality and the reality of many women and people who menstruate. They happen more frequently than we talk about and due to the stigma in our society surrounding menstruation, we are shamed into silence. This silence is made even more damaging because it breeds a lack of education and perhaps if we were more open about it, my younger self wouldn’t have had such a traumatizing transition into womanhood. Yet, I am beginning to recognize that we are all complicit in this culture of silence. It is only in the last year that I have finally been able to tell someone about the incident at my job and even the act of writing this article has been extremely uncomfortable, which reminds me just how deeply ingrained period shame is in me.
Despite how much I have grown, incidents like the meeting I mentioned at the beginning of this piece remind me of how negatively I can still sometimes feel about my period, and by extension, myself. However, these incidents also motivate me to do whatever I can to help eradicate period shame, both personally and for our society. I am more committed than ever to speak more openly about menstruation ― including writing about my own experiences on a very public site like this one ― and undertake simple tasks that subvert period shame, like not hiding my period products and questioning habits and behaviors that stigmatize periods. I now notice when books and tv shows overlook the fact that women menstruate, or when establishments don’t provide adequate access to period supplies. It is only when we see and challenge these erasures that things will change, and thankfully, they are slowly changing. Social media has been a great tool in accelerating the progress and due to the work of candid creators like @theperioddoctor and many others, I continue to learn more about my period. Nevertheless, in a society where half of the population menstruates, it is not only the responsibility of those who menstruate to normalize periods, it everyone’s responsibility to help destigmatize them.
Ronke Jane Adelakun is a Manchester-based freelance writer and poet. Her work covers a variety of lifestyle topics and has been featured by Manchester International Festival, Black Ballad and HuffPost. She is an advocate for better representation for black women and the founder of Cultureville, an African-inspired fashion brand.