In mid-August, Kiran Gandhi completed her first marathon while on her period, without a tampon, to raise awareness about global period-shaming. I'm all about celebrating women's bodies and our natural biology, but I'll admit, when this story first broke, I was super grossed out.
I'm 43 years old, so I'm not unfamiliar with the culture period shaming. In fact, I lived it. Being Turkish, my mom's reaction to me getting my first period was immediate dismissal: "Go talk to your sister," she ordered. And as a teenager, if I wasn't able to get rid of evidence of my menstruation thoroughly enough at home, I was scolded. Of course this made me angry. Why does this need to be such a secret? I wondered. Who cares if my brothers see the plastic wrapper of a pad in the garbage? (And not a used sanitary napkin; I mean the actual packaging here -- nothing more.) But no, not in our home. I was taught to wrap the pad in newspaper, then stash it in a garbage bag, then immediately haul out the bag to the big trash bin outside.
So, while Ms. Gandhi's point isn't entirely lost on me, I also felt pretty repulsed by her choice. First of all: sanitation. I don't care who you are or what you're doing -- if you're out in public, for the love of God, contain your blood. Second: Our periods represent our ability to create life; it comes literally from the place where life begins and is carried. This is private. Not because it's something to be ashamed of, but because it isn't anyone else's business whether or not a woman happens to be fertile, ovulating, in menopause, have a health issue that keeps her from getting a regular period, etc. I'm not eager to know who else is on her period at any given time, and I'm certainly not interested in seeing the proof.
But the more I thought back on my own ritual as a teenager of wrapping up a used sanitary napkin at home, of my annoyed trek out to the garbage bin to hide any evidence of my period like it was something to be ashamed of, the more I wondered about where we were as a society when it comes to shaming young girls regarding their monthly cycle.
I was horrified by what I found. In parts of the Middle East and Africa three out of 10 girls miss school while menstruating because of the associated stigma or lack of access to pads/tampons. In India, some women are discouraged from cooking while menstruating because of lingering folklore that this can "pollute" the food they're preparing, and in some Indian tribes women are still, today, forced to live separately from their families (banished to a cowshed or similar structure) while bleeding. In Iran, nearly half of the female population believes their period is the result of a disease.
Even here in the United States, menstruation is cited as one of the most insurmountable struggles for homeless women, and consistent access to clean sanitary products is a major issue -- and one of the most humiliating -- for women in prison.
I still maintain that it's pretty gross to free-bleed while running a marathon, but I understand better now that this is largely Ms. Gandhi's point -- maybe it's gross, but who cares? It's just part of bodies, and it isn't a big deal. Women and especially young girls don't deserve to be shamed or ostracized when it's their time of the month, and all women, both here in the U.S. and abroad, deserve consistent, affordable access to sanitary products. No more bleeding in quiet shame, ladies. Shout loud and proud when you're on your period, and little by little we'll break down the barriers that maintain periods are disgusting, humiliating or worthy of anyone's shame. And if that means bleeding freely while running 26.2 miles through cramps and bloating like an absolute rockstar -- hell, I'll support it.