Famously, the trick to good writing is bleeding onto the page. I picture the male writer who coined this phrase, sitting at his typewriter, the blank sheet before him. What kind of blood did he imagine? Blood from a vein in his arm? Or a leg? Perhaps a head wound? Presumably it was not blood from a cervix. I have so much of this blood, this period blood, this pregnancy blood, this miscarriage blood, this not-pregnant-again blood, this perimenopausal blood. It just keeps coming and I just keep soaking it up. Stuffing bleached cotton into my vagina to stem the flow, padding my underwear, sticking on the night pads ‘with wings’ hoping not to leak on some man’s sheets, or rip off too much pubic hair with the extra-secure adhesive strips. Covering up with ‘period pants’, those unloved dingy underwear choices pulled out from the back of the drawer every month. And all along, I was wrong, I should have been sitting down at my desk and spilling it across the page, a shocking red to fill the white.
I was at school when I got my first period and I was mortified. It was geography class and when we stood up at the bell my friend leaned over and told me that the back of my dress was wet. I looked at him in astonishment, assuming he was joking. But I glanced behind me and he was right, there was a patch of dark on my skirt, and a small pool of blood on the plastic chair. My classmates, seeing my embarrassment, stood back silently to let me pass. In the girls’ toilets I sat hunched and resentful, wadding toilet roll to protect me for the rest of the day. I did not want it, any of it, this blood. At home I rinsed my knickers at the bathroom sink, hung them to dry at the back of the airing cupboard, and hoped no one would notice. Unable to bring myself to have the dreaded ‘becoming a woman’ conversation with my mother, I shoplifted tampons and tried not to cry when it burned as I put one in, my whole body clenched against the process. Wipe, insert, pad. At twelve I felt a lifetime of bleeding ahead of me. And I felt my body had let me down.
I had never been good at noticing the passing of time. There were moments I even forgot what day it was, but now I had an internal calendar that I could not ignore. The relentless monthly bleed. Wipe, insert, pad. In my refusal to adjust to this new rhythm, there were times I got caught out. Once I was on holiday and, too late, realised I had packed no sanitary protection. I tightly bunched the hotel’s toilet paper to fashion a rough tampon, winding more around the gusset of my underpants. I went to the bathroom frequently to check for leaks. When, a few days later, the bleeding stopped, I cried with relief. Other girls seemed equally ignorant about the realities of bleeding. In my school, a myth circulated that your vagina would somehow seal itself upon contact with water, even during your period. I disproved this during the after-school swimming club. Luckily, the pool was crowded with girls so no one could identify me as the culprit who had turned the water cloudy with her blood. On another occasion, my period started one night at a friend’s house. I woke up in her spare bed, hot with cramps, and wet between my legs. When I realised I had stained her sheets, I wished for the earth to open up and swallow me.
I was unbelievably squeamish about blood. Not the sight, or feeling, or smell of it – but the saying of it. ‘I’ve got my period.’ Where did I learn that these were shameful words? I can’t have made this phobia up all by myself. Maybe it was in school when we – the girls, that is – were sent to ‘Education for Living’ classes (the boys simply vanished, to extra sports it turned out). Though notionally about periods and pregnancy, ‘Education for Living’, we learnt, was about using hand cream (not too much), and wearing the right size bra (not too small), and the right length skirt (not too short). About how to apply foundation, and when to shave your legs. About eating an orange in segments, like a lady. When a girl asked, perfectly reasonably, what we should do if we got our period in the middle of class and had to ask to go to the bathroom, the instructor said ‘Tell your teacher that you’re menstruating.’ She placed great emphasis on the last word. We stared at her.
Blood is dirt. Isn’t that what the label ‘feminine hygiene’ tells us? In fact, period blood is so dirty that it must never be shown. Instead, ads for tampons and sanitary towels demonstrate their absorbency with a bright blue liquid, poured cleanly out of a laboratory beaker. As a teenager, I did not recognise this sterile-looking fluid as like anything that had ever come out of my body. But then, I wasn’t meant to – that was the point. My body, and its blood, were taboo. I’m not sure it’s so much better now that tampon and towel companies advertise their products with uplifting rock songs and clear-skinned smiling teenagers. They may look different, with their emphasis on having fun! and celebrating! and adventuring! all while having your period. But whether it’s compact tampons for teens or maxi-pads for grown-ups, somehow the blood is still invisible. And so the message remains the same: blood is unknowable, blood is unshowable.
If you have a sore back, it’s from over exertion (I’m so fit, I’m so active.) But a cramped abdomen? (I’m so female.) It’s unspeakable
As an adult I still find it hard to say I have my period. Even within feminist conversations some aspects of bleeding can be taboo. There is a current slogan that makes me laugh: a woman can do anything a man can do, and do it while bleeding. But at the same time as laughing, I’m also wondering – what if I can’t? Sometimes my hormones flood me, then leave me high and, literally, dry. Sometimes I am doubled up in pain. Sometimes even the idea of standing for any length of time leaves me feeling faint. I do not feel like a feminist hero in these moments, I feel like I want to go home and get back into bed. But in a world where women are still over-identified with their bodies, where women have to prove their intellectual ability over and over, what is the threshold for claiming this pain? If you have a headache, it’s strain from too much thinking (I’m so brainy, I’m so busy.) If you have a sore back, it’s from over exertion (I’m so fit, I’m so active.) A stress attack? (I’m so hard-working, I’m so important.) But a cramped abdomen? (I’m so female.) It’s unspeakable.
Blood is never more taboo than when you’re naked. There are men who are into menstruation, who desire sex with a woman who’s already wet, who want to lose – or is it get? – their ‘red wings’. But I remember only too well the first time a man saw my period blood and it is not a happy memory. We were in our twenties, and we liked each other, and he was cool and I wanted him to think I was cool. And we were kissing and then we were fooling around and then we were having sex and then he looked down. Seeing blood he pulled out of me, and suddenly there was blood everywhere – blood on my inner thighs, blood on the sheets, blood on his penis. And he screamed like he thought he was dying. Actually dying. And I thought that maybe I was also dying. Of shame. That was the first, but not the last time I found that a man could want to swap all kinds of bodily fluids with me, but not blood. Another time a man said he was ‘fine with it’ but got me out of bed as soon as he had come so he could wash the sheets. Another time – at the mere mention of my period – my chivalrous date phoned me a taxi to take me home.
In my twenties I liked having sex during my period because I knew I could not get pregnant. In my thirties I stopped liking it for the same reason. Over the years that I was trying to conceive, I became afraid of the appearance of blood. In the obsession that became ‘my menstrual cycle’, which translated month by month into ‘my not-getting-pregnant cycle’, I scanned my body for signs: bloating, a jab of pain at the point of ovulation, the rope of clear cervical mucus that meant I could conceive, the pink smear in my underwear that meant I had not. The blood became a curse, one that I could not shake and, as the months stretched into years, I truly began to hate this blood. No longer just inconvenient, it left a new kind of stain: infertility. People talk about making peace with difficult life events, but what do you do if the event you’re trying to come to terms with is happening inside your own body? I was back to not being able to talk about blood, not being able to say it to my boyfriend, relying on him to intuit it, because to say ‘I’m bleeding’ was beyond me. I went shopping instead, I figured that if I couldn’t have a baby, I could at least have a new dress. And every time I looked at my credit card statement, I would note wryly that here it was at last: my menstrual cycle, written down in numbers if not words.
For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. I have done this for so long that I almost no longer notice it. Almost. But now I am sick of the silence and the secrecy and the warped idea that blood is taboo when it comes out of a vagina. Because that shit is just not good enough. To hell with covering up, to being embarrassed, to being silent. For most of my life I have had a monthly period. For most of my life I have smiled through PMT and heavy flows and cramps. And for most of my life bleeding has been painful, physically and emotionally. And so for the rest of my life I will not be silent about it. I will talk it, write it, spill it. Blood will not just be my ink, it will be my subject.
I have a body that bleeds. Once a month it squelches, wet and hot, with blood. This blood runs out of the side of the pad, it stains the crotch of my jeans, it drips onto the bathroom floor when I forget to replace the tampon. It is inconvenient and messy and necessary and vibrant and drenching and awe-inspiring. And it is red. And it is loud. And it is mine.
Or rather, it was. And that is also a silence that needs breaking.
In my twenties I liked having sex during my period because I knew I could not get pregnant. In my thirties I stopped liking it for the same reason
If I felt shame at the onset of bleeding, those feelings are multiplied ten times over at its ending. I have checked, inserting a finger into my dry vagina, to see if there’s blood, in a parody of my teenage fear of pregnancy. Let there be blood. Lots of blood.
What do other women do when confronted with the ways their bodies change? My internal monologue used to complain about luxury tax on tampons, but now I’m nostalgic for those pubic-ripping night pads. Of course, it’s not sanitary products that I’m really mourning. The gradual shift towards menopause – which started in my late thirties – is an incontrovertible sign that my body’s childbearing years are over. The fact that there was no actual childbearing (can you bear a miscarriage?) makes this an even greater loss. One I need to find a way to articulate.
When a friend mentions her menopausal symptoms, she half apologises. ‘No, keep talking,’ I say. I’m so grateful to her for saying it matter-of-factly – cramps, sweats, smelly discharge. Because I’m discovering that the greatest social embarrassment is not the one concerning periods, but the one that muffles and obscures the unproductive female body. We know the debates about HRT (or do we all just know there is a debate?), we know about hot flashes and night sweats, and we concede that maybe there’s a bonus to contraception-free sex. What is not said, or what I’m not hearing being said, is what it feels like. How the absence of blood feels. How your body starts surprising you. How what was wet is now dry. How what was vivid red is now brown or gone entirely. How it smells different. How it smells old.
And what are my symptoms? Orgasms can now give me cramps that could floor an elephant. PMT is worse, not better. There are days I experience what can only be called despair. My breasts look less … perky. I am too hot all the time. Except, of course, when I am too cold. And my bleeding is rare, unpredictable, unrecognisable. I get the occasional heavy day, a series of blood clots, a viscous, ferrous, tarry substance I can almost roll between finger and thumb. I look at this old blood on the toilet paper before I flush it away. This is my body. But it feels alien. I have to learn it all over again. I have to learn to be a woman who does not bleed.
One night last summer I had an argument with a friend who said we were middle-aged. He wore it as a badge of honour. ‘I’m not middle-aged,’ I said to him, over and over. Why did I defend this position so passionately? Perhaps because the signs that I am are unavoidable. Perhaps because the label ‘middle-aged’ was, for him, just a phrase, not an actual bodily change. Perhaps because if getting my period was ‘becoming a woman’, I fear that the end of my period is the end of being a woman.
As I think about bleeding, and not bleeding, I realise that the cultural silence around female blood is part of a much wider problem – a total shit storm – of how women’s bodies are imagined, and aestheticized, and policed, to be a certain way. Any variations from the approved script render you invisible and silent.
Bodies and silence go both easily and uneasily together, but I remember back to when that wasn’t the case. When young, we’re much more vocal about our bodies. In fact, there’s a kind of show-and-tell about your body when you’re a kid. When you’re seven and you meet another kid, playing in the street, and you say ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’. And you roll up your trouser leg and show the scars, from the dog bite, or jumping off the shed roof, or the rusty nail scratch that got infected. When you’re an adult, you still talk about scars but they’re no longer physical. We roll up metaphorical sleeves and talk about our heartbreak, our disappointment, our sadness and stress. Of course, we also talk about the ways we have been marked by happiness, but you get the idea.
As long as the actual blood and the subject of blood are made to disappear, women will continue to be second class citizens
Though the life events we describe when we meet strangers, in between trying to appear funny and smart and not-scary, are often about our bodies (from kids to hearts to running marathons) we rarely do so with any real reference to our bodies. Well, okay, maybe marathon runners are the exception (we’ve all been stuck at a party with the guy who just has to tell you about his tight hamstrings). And obviously where people have been ill, we talk about bodies, though we still shy away from talking about their physical scars. In general, our biographies have become rational stories, in which we focus on what’s in our heads, and ignore what’s inscribed on our bodies. What if, though, we gave our life stories as if they were mapped out on our skin?
Perhaps a body, my body, can tell the story of my life. This kind of nakedness might take some work, and not just because I come from a country plagued by religion and damp weather, two reasons to keep my clothes firmly on. But because, prudishness aside, getting naked is not just about taking clothes off, but about revealing how we feel on the inside about how we look on the outside. And as I try this nakedness out, I realise that my body is not a source of grief, but so often the way I talk about my body is.
This grief is projected across the skin of my body, and other women’s bodies, an invisible but permanent tattoo of stigma and shame. Women’s bodies bleed. Let’s pretend they don’t, let’s bleach the blood out of existence. Women’s bodies have hair, let’s shave it all off, let’s make them smooth like little girls. Women’s bodies have fat, let’s cut it off, squeeze it in, slap it down, starve it off. Women are taught to be desperate for the regard of men, and, because we are pitted against each other in this hateful system, women are also fearful of how other women’s bodies and judgements might show them up, might make them less deserving of that male regard.
We make ourselves small, flat, quiet. We are policed. We police ourselves. We disappear. We make the blood, all the blood, its mesmerising flow, disappear. Along the way, we pay and suffer for hair to be ripped out, we expend energy on how to appear, rather than on how to live, and we risk our health, mental and physical in these pursuits. And as long as this is the case, as long as the actual blood and the subject of blood are made to disappear, women will continue to be second class citizens. This is serious. It’s serious because this the two-tier citizenship game has effects that reach far beyond the surface level of our bodies. It shapes how the insides of our bodies are legislated.
And this, this is what it looks like when a woman bleeds onto the page.
This essay was extracted from Notes to Self: Essays by Emilie Pine. It's out now