19 May 2015

The Cost of Being Female

Dear male readers, you might want to skip this article.
Then again, you might not. After all, it's only an article about
something that happens to all women - including your mother, 
sister, wife, cousin, neighbour, colleague, daughter and oh,
just about every other woman the world over.

The Huffington Post writes a very interesting article about the Pink Tax - what it costs the world's women to menstruate for much of their life. According to the article:

"On average, a woman has her period from three to seven days and the average woman menstruates from age 13 until age 51. That means the average woman endures some 456 total periods over 38 years, or roughly 2,280 days with her period -- 6.25 years of her life."

Source: Here's How Much A Woman's Period Will Cost Her Over A Lifetime | The Huffington Post | 18 May 2015

The Huffington Post article focuses on the cost of periods with regards to money, however I would like to write about the way society thinks about periods and treats women who go through their periods. Women make up about half of the world's population. Women who menstruate, those roughly between 13 and 51 years old (as per the article), make up a large percentage of the world's women. Unless one is especially keen to have stains in one's underwear or blood leaking down one's legs, one needs something to catch the blood - tampons, pads and panty liners, menstrual cups, simple rags to put into one's underwear. Whether one chooses to use tampons or pads or other items to catch the blood, one can't get around the fact that once a month, those who are not pregnant or somehow unable to menstruate (extreme sports or dieting can interfere with one's period, for instance), we bleed.

While periods are different per person and grumpiness, cramps and cravings don't happen to all women, they do happen to many of us. Some joke about their periods, some refuse to talk about them, some dread that time of the month, while others cherish the monthly reminder that they are fertile women with bodies that function well. Yet something that is normal to most of the world's women is still often seen as icky or strange by the men of our world, sometimes even by fellow women. Which is exactly why I'm writing this article, because monthly periods are as normal as breathing and treating menstruating girls and women as outcasts or preferring women stay quiet about a simple biological function that is common to all women makes little sense to me. And yet - speaking about periods in general or being open about period-related issues is something many people have trouble with.

Personally I do not feel the need to share news of my 'monthly visitor' with strangers or colleagues or people I barely know, such as the readers of a public blog. "Hey, it's that time of the month again" is not something I intend to share with others as to me, when I have my period is a private affair. I don't share my every thought with others either! Yet making periods something normal to talk about, something not seen as weird or strange or icky because it happens to all women, that is something I see as essential. Let me explain why. As a child, I was quite a 'tomboy' and had many male friends. We played sports together, went exploring together, climbed trees together, had fun together. Gender was not an issue as we were all essentially the same - children. As we all got older and I neared the age my period was due to start, the boys I'd been friends with for years started treating me differently. From being a child like they were, a friend whose gender did not matter to any one of us, I turned into a girl almost overnight. Both the boys and the girls in our group of friends were growing into teenagers, our bodies changing and taking us for wild rides. Yet instead of shrugging off those differences as a normal part of growing up, our differences started to divide us. The boys started hanging out together doing 'boy things' while the girls formed groups and started doing 'girl things'. Growing up is a normal part of life, however honestly, I still miss the days of being 'one of the guys' (or rather, just one of the children) when my gender and the shape of my body were not important to anyone.

I was still in primary school when boys and men started treating me differently. Why? Because my body changed. Instead of being just a person, just a child like other children, I was now 'a girl'. Boys walking past started whistling at me, going swimming at the pool meant being hassled by strange boys and men who made kissing noises at me and walking in public places became a nightmare after being groped by a stranger while walking on a crowded street. I still remember the horror I felt when a stranger's unwanted and unwelcome hand touched me between my legs and for the very first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to be assaulted. I was twelve then. Buying supplies for my monthly period became a strange thing as well - when going shopping I would attempt to sneak into the isle that houses the tampons and pads so as not to be seen by the boys in the store, then hid whatever supplies I bought under other groceries until getting to the counter. Why? Because buying sanitary products became something that defined me as a teenager, as a girl instead of just a child, just a person. And yes, because (some) boys seemed to make it their mission to treat girls buying supplies as outcasts, snickering at them, ridiculing them, laughing at them. Even ringing up my sanitary supplies at the check-out counter seemed impossible for many of the teenage boys manning the counters. They would carefully pick up whatever box of supplies was put in front of them as if it was likely to break or contaminate them, then look relieved when they could put the box down again to pick up the next item. Some of the boys would go red in the face, some refused to make eye contact and some simply looked embarrassed by having to handle a simple sealed box, as if the act of touching it meant they were 'contaminated by girl cooties' or some such.

As I got older and grew to understand that another treating me as an outcast or an alien did not mean I had to think of myself that way or take any notice of their opinions or shortcomings, I became more comfortable with my own body and the changes I was going through. Instead of feeling embarrassed by my monthly periods I grew comfortable with them and learnt to see them as a normal part of life and a celebration of being female. Yet the memory of feeling like an outcast and being treated as different just because I was growing up and changing never quite left me. Even though periods are normal and happen to all girls and women, as a teenager I was angry at life and my body for some time, unhappy about being different, about monthly cramps, about having to spend money on period supplies and about being treated as an object instead of a person simply because of my gender and my looks. Being a teenager going through hormonal changes and suddenly being treated differently by members of the opposite sex is hard enough without also feeling embarrassed or shamed by something that is normal and happens to all women.

In writing this blog post, I hope to share some of what I went through and how I felt as a teenager. Even if only one person reads this and thinks 'hey, maybe I shouldn't treat a young girl as an outcast because her body is changing' then this post has been worth writing. Despite what some religions may teach us about periods or how some societies (including the one I grew up in) may view menstruating women, the simple truth is that without menstruation and the monthly cycle, women would not be able to have children and our species would soon cease to exist all together. Which leads me to wonder - would it not benefit our world immensely to treat periods as normal and teach all people to cherish the female body and its amazing cycles instead of treating a little bit of blood once a month as something strange and alien to be feared or ridiculed?