Why we need to start talking about periods, period.

I got my first period when I was 11. On Midsummer’s Eve. My mam and I thought this was pretty romantic. Since then I’ve had my share of embarrassing period stories. From countless soiled sheets and seats to a pair of white trousers at a London fashion show. If the makeup artist that saved me with makeup wipes, soap, and warm water is reading this THANK YOU. And yes, that is your best quick trick to get a fresh period stain out of your clothes. Even white.

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When I was 15 my boyfriend told me periods are disgusting and I didn’t know any better than to believe him. It was years before I was able to talk about periods in front of men. When I was 17 I moved out of home to Dublin and I recall being embarrassed that my friend kept her tampons on show in the bathroom for our male friends to see. I kept mine hidden.

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I am aware that I had it particularly bad when it came to period shame, maybe it had something to do with that ex-boyfriend? Or the patriarchy in general? Was anyone else on my level? From speaking with friends it seems like I was the most uncomfortable with periods. But look at me now…

I was the first in my class to get my period. I didn’t tell anyone. A year later, in sixth class, I had cramps for the first time (yay!) and was feeling faint. I didn’t know what was happening to me but my teacher figured it out. The next week she decided to talk to our class about sex. My revelation had clearly enlightened her. The boys were sent out to play football while our teacher talked to us about periods. I’m not sure what the benefits of separate ‘talks’ are but I wonder if it gives us the wrong idea. Teaching us from the beginning that menstruation is not something to be discussed with men. Sure, it could have been more embarrassing, more uncomfortable for us all. But shouldn’t we nip that one in the bud?

Here I am at my confirmation. I bet boys didn’t have to worry about periods on their special day. Although they did have to worry about predatorial priests so I guess it wasn’t a fun day for anyone. And here’s Keira Knightly, rocking the same look. Also in a church. FATE. (I tried to find a quote from Keira Knightly on menstruation to make this more relevant but all I got was period dramas.)

It’s a long time since my first period. I caught up with Sarah Sproule, an occupational therapist with an MA in sexuality studies to see how period education is dealt with in Ireland today.

Can you tell me a bit about your job?

I’m an occupational therapist and I help parents talk to their kids about sexuality, consent, and relationships. I provide information evenings for parents and sexuality education for 5th and 6th class students.

Are primary school teachers obligated to teach sex education or is it a choice?

Primary school teachers are not obligated to teach sex education at the moment. Each individual teacher has the opportunity to opt out if they don’t feel comfortable with the curriculum.

At what age are children taught about periods?

Conversations about periods begin in fifth class and sixth class.

Is there anything wrong with how period education is dealt with in Ireland and how would you like to see it change?

Conversations should begin with much younger children. At the end of the day, periods are a normal biological experience and often times period education is delayed because there’s an idea that young children shouldn’t be informed about things related to sexuality and relationships, and periods come under that umbrella for most people.

Children are getting their periods earlier these days; 4th class, 3rd class. To make it easier for everyone period education should happen before anyone gets their periods. This would ensure that the person with their period is supported at school so they don’t feel like they’re different or weird or they’re going to die or anything like that.

What is your opinion on boys and girls being taught sex ed separately?

There is a split in research on this subject. One possible issue is that some children are uncomfortable being in the girl’s group or the boy’s group. Some kids prefer to be in the opposite gender group so sex ed being taught separately can be limiting if you have gender diverse children in the classroom.

In one particular school, I taught sex ed separately because there wasn’t a history of conversations about sexuality within the school or family homes. It worked because there were a number of girls in the class that were very anxious and it did create a sense of safety. It allowed them to be more open with me and ask more questions.

I don’t necessarily think that this issue is an either or situation. I can see that there are benefits to both situations.

How important is it for boys to learn about periods?

Everyone should learn about everything. Young boys need to be taught that they have a responsibility in fertility control. It’s not just period education, its pregnancy prevention. Every young person has the right to information that allows them to stay healthy, safe and respected. It’s just as important for boys to be given that information as girls.

Also, period education is another step towards being sound, respectful human beings. It means understanding what the experience of someone having a period is and how you can help. It would be pretty nice to be able to say to friends of any gender ‘Oh, I’m having a bit of a period crisis here any chance you can run to the supermarket and buy me some pads or tampons?’ It’s just sound practice for being a sound human.

The DOE’s curriculum for sex education is 18 years old. Why hasn’t it been updated?

Eighteen years is a long time. The year 2000 was a whole different ball game in terms of the internet and lots of things. There was way less information available at that stage. A curriculum that’s 18 years old it’s not fit for purpose for the time the children in primary school are living in now.

As far as it being updated I think it’s probably a political issue. I don’t have a lot of information on that. But it may stem from Ireland’s historical attitude towards sexuality and the place the Catholic Church had in controlling people’s views on sexuality and the shame that came from that.

You can find out more about Sarah and her work here.

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In March I got a menstrual cup. Like everyone, I dread periods and saw it as a way to make things easier and more comfortable. I also saw it as a way to save money and reduce my waste. Plus, I don’t like the idea of plastic all up in my pussy for about a week every month. While it does take time to get used to, I am really loving the cup and think everyone should give it a go!*

*Talk to your doctor before using a menstrual cup. (I cannot physically type that without winking.)

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How to use a menstrual cup if your vagina is transparent and detached from your body.

Menstrual cups are made of medical grade silicone and shaped like a bell with a stem. To pop them in you gotta fold them over, shove them up just a teeny bit and they pop open once inside just like a pop-up tent. (Except all your friends aren’t there to say ‘Ah yeah, easy work now but that will never hold up in the rain.’ It won’t.) The cup creates a seal with your vaginal wall, collecting rather than absorbing your blood. Cups need to be emptied and rinsed every 4-12 hours. Yes, 12 hours!!! So you can sleep like a baby. You can sleep naked. You can sleep like a naked baby!

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This woman on Wiki-how’s ‘How to use a Menstrual Cup’ is suitably delighted about her 12 hour wait.

~~My VeRy SpEcIaL, UnIqUe, aNd VaLiD eXpErIeNcE wItH mY mEnStRuAl CuP~~

I bought my Menstrual Cup in Only Natural, a health food shop in Wexford. You can get them in most health food shops or online. Mine is a Moon Cup (they seem like a pretty cool employee-owned business if you look them up) but there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference across leading brands. Once you buy one, they last several years. Moon Cup claim you only need one to last you a lifetime.

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At first, I found the cup super uncomfortable and really did think ‘I CANNOT DO THIS!’ Turns out I was shoving it up way too far like a tampon. I stuck with it and now I can’t imagine going back.

Here’s how I do it! The following description is possibly unnecessary. If not please tell me you appreciated it so I feel less naked. If it is too much, don’t tell me. Ahem:

  • I wash my hands!
  • I fold the cup. There are different techniques for folding. I’m pretty sure I do it a different way each time (I like to spice things up in the bathroom) and it hasn’t made a difference to me.
  • I put one foot up somewhere, anywhere, like the toilet or bathroom storage or what have you.
  • I find the opening to my vagina with my fingers so I can feed the cup in. The initial penetration is probably the most uncomfortable part just like a tampon but then it’s all G.
  • I pop the cup up and back like I would a tampon, into the very bottom of my vagina…basically as low as it can be while still fitting in and sitting comfortably.
  • I wash my hands! And I am out of there.

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Ok, so here’s the part everyone is gonna find disappointing…. I haven’t been able to wear mine without panty liners yet as I have the odd lil leak. When the cup is inserted correctly they say there should be no leaks. If anyone else has had a similar experience let me know! This is something that could take more practice. I reckon I’m on my fourth cycle. I’ve had my cup since March but we haven’t always been in the same county or country. They’re good but not that good. I’m still much happier and more comfortable than I was with tampons/pads. Plus, I was never able to exclusively wear tampons anyway as they would generally leak. Maybe it’s me? Have I had a wide set vagina and a heavy flow all along?

Here’s how I go about taking out/emptying my cup!

  • I wash my hands!
  • I squat.
  • For removal, you don’t pull the cup by the stem because you need to get it a little smaller before its exit. I reach my fingers up a little higher to pinch the bottom of the cup and pull. This bit can be a bit….’Woah…’ cause you can’t make it as small coming out as you did going in. But you can handle it.
  • It is possible that some blood will spill from the cup onto the floor. So what? Grab some tissue, little wipe, and c’est parfait!
  • Empty the cup into the sink or toilet and rinse with water (preferably warm but who can afford hot water all the time?)
  • Now, re-insert.

Check out this video on how to insert/remove so you’re all cleared up!

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After each period (so once a month) you must sterilize the cup by boiling it for five minutes. Yes, you have to boil it in a pot. On the hob. Yes, this is kinda awkward if you live in a house share.

Housemate: *Walks into the kitchen to find a pot boiling on the hob.* Mmm, what’s a cookin’? *Approaches cooker.*

Katie: *Running towards cooker.* Nothing, don’t look! *Stands between cooker and housemate.*

Housemate: *Blinks*

Katie: Mine! It’s….my….rice….

Housemate leaves. Housemate never passes comment on Katie’s cooking ever again.
So, some people may be thinking its gross to boil the cup in a pot? I wash my cup thoroughly with hot water first then wash the pot thoroughly after. (It’s all in the thoroughly, isn’t it?) And everyone else seems to be doing it so I guess its fine? Look, here’s a pic of a girl from Massachusetts doing it.

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I don’t really know if she’s from Massachusetts. I don’t know where she’s from.

As some of you are probably all too aware soap is a no no when washing the cup, as this can disrupt the delicate PH balance of your beeeeautiful vagina. Unfortunately, people who’ve cleaned theirs with non-fragranced, PH balanced soap then boiled and rinsed thoroughly still report contracting the dreaded:

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Before I go into more details on the benefits of using a cup I’d like to say: Menstrual cups are probably not for everyone, for more serious reasons that I’ll get into later but also I imagine in the same way that tampons or pads aren’t for everyone. Cause vaginas are unique like snowflakes and bloggers!
Environmental Reasons:

  • The average woman uses more than 11,000 disposable sanitary products in her lifetime. (Imagine that was all you could think about on your deathbed, that would be shite.)
  • Tampons take 6 months to decompose but they impact more than landfills. When flushed they create serious problems for marine life. If ingested they can also suffocate fishies  ‘Nemo, nooooooooooo! That is not a toy!’
  • It takes 500 years for plastic applicators to break down. I always thought they were unnecessarily sturdy. Polly Pocket could take up residency in one. Ok, not the cheaper cardboard ones but you know what brand I’m talking about. Ryhmes with ‘Glamsax’… If you can’t stay off the tampons try ones without an applicator. It just means getting deeper and dirtier but you don’t have a problem with that now do you?
  • I read somewhere that tampon applicators can cause huge problems for marine life if flushed down the toilet. Do people flush applicators down the toilet? Em, don’t?

Health!

  • Tampons are made of cotton and rayon. Rayon can dry out the vagina. Dry vaginas aren’t fun for anyone. Cotton is treated with pesticides more than any other crop. I don’t know how much of that gets from field to vagina but worth thinking about. Especially considering:
  • The vagina is the most absorbent part of the female body. So you don’t want to be putting anything questionable up there. (I’m not trying to scaremonger, you do you girl. I’m only writing this article cause I had a quare notion.)
  • When it comes to tampons manufacturers are not obligated to list additional chemicals.
  • Rayon is bleached to look all pure and white and vagina worthy which creates dioxins which have been linked to nasty diseases, you know the ones.
  • One of the ingredients used to make tampon applicators is ‘Crude oil’. Did you know you’re sticking crude oil up your vagina? It’s not as hot as it sounds.
  • Unlike pads, there’s no chance of rash or chafing. There’s also lower risk of toxic shock syndrome. When I was 15 I met a girl at a Halloween party who was dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. We became friends on Bebo. Her tagline, to my horror, read: ‘I still find it hilarious that you can die from tampons.’ I could not believe she was cool with being associated with PERIOD. I checked every now and again to see if she’d taken it down from embarrassment. She did not.
  • Has anyone else found that it’s increasingly difficult to find pads without a fragrance? My pussy smells just fine thank you very much and also:

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WAIT. I just read that ‘the occasional cocaine’ has been found in tampons. Maybe you Glamsax Gals are on to something after all.

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I never really liked tampons. I found them dry and uncomfortable. I was proud to say ‘There’s only one thing going up my vagina!’ Now, I must swallow those words.

HERE is an interesting one. Perhaps I am alone but one of my concerns when I first got the cup was….’Is this gonna stretch out my vagina?’ I was relieved to learn the opposite is true. When the cup is in your vagina your vagina is constantly working out. It’s a muscle and this muscle has to hold the cup to keep it in place. So it’s like you’re doing Kegels all the time. This might sound uncomfortable but you really don’t feel like anything is inside you once its inserted right.

Ok reading this back it kinda sounds like BS but a lot of bad bitches on Yahoo Answers seem to know what they’re talking about. I learned a lot from them, especially Kasha. Check out what she had to say:

‘…the idea that the vagina can be stretched out is a sexist idea used to control women’s sexual activity by implying if you have too much sex or insert things into your vagina that you will become deformed and worthless to men, it’s untrue.’

Ooops. So this concern was pretty backward of me. Join me on my future blog where I will discuss my battle with internalized misogyny. It’s ok, even Anne Hathaway has to check herself. Here she talks about working with director Lone Scherfig on One Day:

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And the answer to the question on everyone’s mind is: Yes, you can masturbate with the cup in.

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I know that I’m privileged. (I’m currently eating candy floss flavored grapes and not even appreciating them.) The menstrual cup is not a possibility for everyone. I spoke to Claire from Homeless Period Ireland about period poverty and what we can all do to help.

What exactly is period poverty?
Period poverty is when women are unable to afford the necessary sanitary products to keep themselves clean.

What is the aim of Homeless Period Ireland?
The aim of HPI is to give women their dignity by supplying those in need with sanitary products.

What difficulties do homeless women and women in Direct Provision face during their period?
Homeless women and women in Direct Provision are not provided with sanitary products. For women in direct provision, they have €22 to live on each week which means that sanitary items are a ‘luxury item’. For homeless women on the streets, they may have no access to bathrooms etc which means that they often have no sanitary products to use or have to resort to using tissue, bags, socks.

Are menstrual cups an option or a fix to these problems?
Menstrual cups are a great alternative, however, they are not always suitable for the woman we donate to who may be on the street, have no access to bathrooms or hot water. Women in direct provision share communal bathrooms or may have been victims of sexual trauma. Our aim is to provide women with the products that are most suitable for them and their needs.

What can readers do to help?
Period poverty is not always at the forefront of people’s minds so the next time they are at the shops they could pick up a packet of pads or tampons to donate, arrange a collection amongst friends, at a bookclub etc. Homeless Period Ireland is not a charity, it’s a small volunteer initiative so we don’t take any cash donations, sanitary products only.
Scotland has been leading the way in the fight against period poverty. (Scotland has recently launched a programme to provide free sanitary products to students.)

What should our government be doing to help? It would be fantastic to see Ireland follow Scotland’s lead.

Do manufacturers have a responsibility in the issue? And should they be doing more to make sanitary products more environmentally friendly?
Our friends Hey Girls in the UK are leading the way in this regard, they believe that access to menstrual products is a right, not a privilege. Every box they sell they give a box away. Their products are also environmentally friendly.

Check out @homelessperiodireland on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Please like/share and support by donating. I’ve attached a list of their drop off points below. How about next time you’re buying yourself pads or tampons you pick up an extra box? And hey boys! Men should not be afraid to donate products either. They need all the support they can get. If you do make it down, why not take a picture when you’re there, share and tag their page to encourage others to do the same.

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Last week I went to Dealz and Lidl on Moore Street and got a load of pads and tampons. I then walked 5 minutes over to the Irish Family Planning Association on Cathal Brugha Street to donate. I was extremely hungover when I did this, I almost fell asleep in Dealz. If I did this, you can do this. Pictured below is one of the women at IFPA accepting my donation.

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Yes, in hindsight I should have gotten a better picture. This could just be my Mammy with a Tesco bag full of candy floss flavored grapes. (Remember I was very hungover and sleep deprived.) But I assure you this is one of the women at IFPA and she was very lovely and very embarrassed to have her picture taken.

It is so important that we create a safe space for open conversations about periods. They are exhausting enough without the added stigma and shame that surrounds them. Imagine how different growing up would have been if menstruation was looked at for what it is: an integral and completely normal part of a woman’s biology. Like her arm or a sneeze. Removing this stigma is an imperative step towards gender equality. How can we help marginalized women if our parents, teachers, siblings, friends, and politicians are too afraid to talk about periods? In a country that recently spent upwards of €30 million on the Papal visit, I think we can make sure that every woman and child has the basic dignity of keeping themselves clean by providing those in need with free sanitary products. If we can hand out free condoms (sex is a choice, menstruation is not) we can hand out free sanitary products.

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@katiefreeney

2 thoughts on “Why we need to start talking about periods, period.

  1. Excellent blog on Periods! Going through mentruation has been perceived wrongly for years and it is time for a change. We don’t want bells and whistles everytime we get a period but just the assurance that we can speak honestly about how we feel and not hide it in shame.

    Like

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