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A bloody, often painful secret

Women talking
Women talking

“If you swim in the ocean with your period, you will attract sharks.”

“Girls can hold in their period if they choose to, like pee.”

“Your period is the tears of an empty womb.”

“There are balloons floating inside you full of blood.”

“Periods are blue in colour!”

“Never talk about your period at work, especially in front of male colleagues!”

I asked some friends to share with me what the weirdest things they had been told about periods. Maybe you’re thinking ‘where on earth do people get these ideas from?’ Or maybe you’re thinking, ‘yes, I have heard that too.’

One friend, a staunch feminist and incredible woman confessed that at 35 she didn’t know what a period actually was. She just knew she bled and she hated it.

Let’s clear some things up.

A period is when your body sheds the monthly build-up of the lining of your uterus (the uterus is also referred to as ‘the womb’). Menstrual blood and tissue flow from your uterus through the small opening in your cervix and pass out of your body through your vagina.

A ‘cycle’ involves the uterus lining building up over a month. The build-up is the uterus’ way of getting ready for pregnancy. If you don’t get pregnant, estrogen and progesterone hormone levels fall and when they get low enough this tells your body to “let the lining go!” and voila: your period.  

Ok. So, if it’s that simple why is talking about periods difficult? And why do these strange ideas about periods flourish?

Many cultures around the world have menstrual taboos – rules, both spoken and unspoken about the impurity of menstruation. For many cultures, including ours, period blood and the menstruating body is considered “dirty and disgusting”.[1]

The menstrual taboo in Western culture takes a lot of different forms and has a long history. It’s intimately linked with ideas about women being irrational, weak, fallible and impure.

When you ask women, as Pickering and Bennett did in their research with thousands of women,[2] we see a range of deeply negative experiences around menstruation, and this brings with it a lot of problems for our health and wellbeing.

Let’s take just one example. Have you ever hidden the fact you’re on your period at work? Have you rocked up to work feeling bloody awful but soldiered on anyway because it’s just your period, and you need to get on with it? Have you called in “sick” because you’ve got your period?

The cultural norms underneath these decisions are very silencing: don’t talk about your period. Hide your period. Shoulder the cost, pain, and inconvenience of your period on your own.  

Often these ideas are ones given to us as young people, maybe at our very first period.

As we learn about menstruation through the negative lens of the menstrual taboo we are more likely to ignore or be ignorant of what a healthy period is for us.

In Australia, one in 1 in 9 (11%) women born in 1973–78 were estimated to have been diagnosed with endometriosis by age 40–44.[3] One of the very common stories from women who are diagnosed with endometriosis is that they lived for years believing that crippling pain of their period was normal. But it’s not, and women exchanging information about their periods, doctors asking questions about menstruation are ways of alerting women to what their period might be telling them about their body.

The menstrual taboo functions to stop women talking about their period, their pain and their needs. It stops our doctors, families and communities from listening to us.

Does it have to be this way?

“A taboo will live or die by the number of people who obey it, and its strength and resilience depends on its popular understanding and broad social agreement.”[4] Currently, our tacit social agreement is to remain silent about our periods and what the experience is bringing us.

Recently, I spoke to a group of women who are incarcerated. I told them research shows that you have a better period experience if you have a positive understanding of your period and if you can have people around you who support you when you are on your period.[5]

One woman looked at me with a frown. “So, what? You’re saying we should all get together to talk about our periods?”



[1] Olivia Willis, Breaking the menstrual taboo: Why period stigma still holds women back, (2017).

[2] Karen Pickering and Jane Bennett. About Bloody Time. (2019). Page 91.

[3] AIHW, Endometriosis in Australia: Prevalence and hospitalisations (August 2019).

[4] Karen Pickering and Jane Bennett. About Bloody Time. (2019). Page 91.

[5] Royal Women’s Hospital, Healthy Periods.