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JJ Barnes

JJ Barnes writes about parenting, feminism, current affairs and writing

By - JJBarnes

Why I talk to my children about periods and female biology.

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According to the 2011 census, 51% of the population of the UK is female. It’s estimated that globally around 26% of women are of reproductive age, so that means on any given day, a large number of women will be menstruating.

Despite this, there is still so much misinformation around what periods are, as well as beliefs that they’re dirty and disgusting, in those not educated to understand what is happening.

Understanding menstruation.

Menstruation occurs in women of reproductive age, usually between the ages of 12 and 51, but it can start sooner or end later. An average monthly cycle lasts five to seven days, where the uterus lines with a thick layer of blood to allow a fertilised egg to implant and grow during pregnancy, and if she does not get pregnant, that lining is shed. The shedding is blood that comes from the uterus, through the cervix, and out through the vagina.

Considering the numbers of women on any given day that are experiencing this, it tells us a lot about the way society views female biology that there is still confusion and discomfort about menstruation.

I’m a mother of two daughters, and step mother of a son, and I consider it my duty to educated them about female biology. At one point or another they’ve all stomped into the bathroom to demand biscuits or cheese or a drink whilst I’ve been changing a tampon or a sanitary towel. Usually they’ve not noticed, or decided I’m too busy to wait for and gone to find their father, but sometimes there are questions. And when they ask, I answer. And I answer honestly.

Female reproductive organs.

My eldest knows what a tampon is, what a sanitary towel is, she knows that she will get a period and that all women do. She knows boys don’t get periods, and she knows it can be painful but it’s okay to take pain relief. She knows it’s normal. She’s not happy that it’s going to happen to her, but it’s not a scary thing. She understands that it’s okay. When she’s ready for more information, she’ll ask more questions, and I’ll explain further. The boy child is less aware, and the smallest one less so still, but has enquired suspiciously about why mummy’s wearing a nappy when she’s seen me putting a sanitary towel into my pants. However, they all know that they can ask me and I will be honest.

I believe an open and honest approach to discussing menstruation is important for a number of reasons.

For the girls, I don’t want them to be scared when it happens to them. I don’t want them to not know how to deal with it or feel they can’t tell me or ask for help. I want them to know what the average is, because sometimes a missed period or a different period can be a sign of a medical issue that requires attention. I want them to know there is no shame in getting their periods.

There are a number of reasons why your periods can stop. The most common reasons are:
pregnancy 
stress 
sudden weight loss 
being overweight
doing too much exercise 
taking the contraceptive pill
the menopause 
polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) 
Periods can also sometimes stop as a result of a medical condition, such as heart disease, uncontrolled diabetes, an overactive thyroid, or premature menopause.

NHS

For the boy, I want him to understand and respect what women go through. I want him to have sympathy and respect for girl’s privacy and not be part of the horrible teasing that so many girls go through due to their period.

In a poll of 1,000 girls aged 14 to 21, 20% said that they had experienced “bullying or teasing” due to their period, with 67% of this behaviour happening in school.
Further to this, girls are actually missing school because they’re menstruating, with 66% reporting that they have missed part of or a full day of school because they have worries about leaking, anxiety around people finding out or general embarrassment. 

Stylist

Internationally, the stigma and lack of understanding around menstrual health has led to women dying. Women will be banished from their homes and forced to live alone in “period huts” with no windows, considered too dirty to be around people.

A 21-year-old woman has been become the fourth person known to have died this year as a result of the illegal practice of chhaupadi, whereby menstruating women in Nepal are banished from their homes and forced to sleep in huts.

Rebecca Ratcliffe, The Guardian

Whilst in the UK we do not have extremes such as this happening, it shows what a lack of education in periods can lead to. It tells us why we have got to start fighting this both at home and around the world, because it’s women and girls who suffer for that ignorance, and the systematic way women are oppressed because of their biology.

Recently, a teenager named Amika George started campaigning for women to speak about their periods to start fighting against a culture of shame and repression, with the hashtag #freeperiodstories.

A beautiful poem by Rupi Kaur was shared in honour of this quest, and it explains so much.

Is it more socially acceptable to purchase a woman’s body for sex, than it is to acknowledge that the same vagina will lose blood each month? If it is it, it has to change.

So many women have stepped up and shared their experiences of their periods.

Starting your period young will be challenging enough, you’re going through something the majority of your friends won’t be experiencing yet and that is a very isolating experience. But if your period lasts on average five days, the likelihood is you will be in school for at least part of that time. Schools not being equipped for girls to deal with their periods in privacy and with dignity causes so many girls end up skipping school, missing out on education. We need to make sure our places of education and work are appropriately accommodating for something that is a biological fact for so many girls, even if it happens younger than anticipated.

If half of a workforce is female, then it’s reasonable to assume the majority of them are at reproductive age, and that means the majority of them will be getting periods. It should not be something worthy of horror to explain that a hospital appointment is due to irregular bleeding, anymore than it should be to attend due to lung function issues or stomach pain. It shows that the uterus and female biology in general is still seen as something uncomfortable and wrong to discuss, rather than just a completely normal part of the anatomy.

Not understanding what is normal and what isn’t is a huge issue. Women’s health suffers due to lack of understanding, because of lack of education. Raising awareness and teaching everyone what they should be experiencing is a way of keeping women healthy with the appropriate medical attention. And it means the doctors need to be educated too, not just women themselves, or, like in the case above, they will not be diagnosed appropriately.

We know already that women’s health is taken far less seriously by doctors than men’s. A seminal 2001 study by researchers at Maryland University, titled The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, found that women were less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed and were more likely to have their pain dismissed. Women have also been found to be prescribed strong painkillers less often, and at lower doses than men

Dawn Foster, The Guardian

The only way society can improve its understanding of menstrual health and women’s bodies in general, is if we are educating from a young age. Don’t let boys grow up with no understanding of what the women around them experience and the knowledge that it’s normal, don’t let them think it’s appropriate to tease and bully girls for what they’re going through. Don’t abandon girls to a world that isn’t set up to accommodate menstruation, with privacy and dignity and hygiene.

Period pain.

Because periods are happening every single day, and as it’s only females who can experience them, I can’t help but feel that leaving women’s health as misunderstood and considered disgusting is part of the patriarchal structure of society that elevates men and subjugates women. If we want to ensure an equal society, we have got to ensure menstruation is part of the education programme.

I will talk to my children about women’s health issues. I will teach them that women’s biology is not our curse nor our downfall, it’s just simply part of the female experience that we are dealing with our whole lives, and society has a duty to accept and accommodate for. Perhaps, over time, if we’re all happy to share our period stories and teach those who don’t understand, we can change the world, so no more girls have to die, miss out on school, or go undiagnosed due to their periods ever again.

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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