A few months ago, a friend jokingly asked me: “why do you do so many things to do with, you know… women’s bits?” First I’d campaigned on the tampon tax, then cervical smear tests and the menopause. Whatever next?
I started my periods when I was 13, and I hated them with a passion. I still do really - but the difference now is I can talk about them, and I do. It makes some people cringe, others change the subject, take a sudden interest in their shoes, giggle or tell me shut up but I’ll keep doing it. And sorry, but I’m not sorry.
Because we need to talk.
I suffered with what doctors call dysmenorrhea - painful periods to you and me - from an extraordinarily young age. Now, I adore my mum, she’s responsible for my feistiness after all, but we never really talked periods. For years, I just assumed it was normal to feel like someone was operating a circular saw in your belly once a month. I used to feel so pissed off seeing the Bodyform adv
erts on telly. I mean, the roller skating girls looked so happy - why didn’t I feel that way? I was practically murderous once a month. It felt like no coincidence my initials are PMS.
The extent of period education at school was being given a pink, plastic flip-top thingy, most of us used it as a pencil case, which contained a couple of Lil-lets. The boys were sent out for this five minutes but stared in through the window, giggled and pulled faces. Periods were never referred to in the classroom again, not even in biology. Boys and men need to know about periods too, just like girls and women should be informed about the signs of testicular cancer.
And what was with the blue dye they used to demonstrate the absorbency? I don’t know about you but I’m sure that mine wasn’t blue. I actually know someone whose friend finally plucked up the courage to see her GP to confide that she didn’t bleed blue but red.
“I started my periods when I was 13, and I hated them with a passion. I still do really - but the difference now is I can talk about them”
I sought help in my twenties. It took me 15 years to receive the right treatment for what transpired to be a painful gynaecological condition. 15 long years of being afraid to wear white, making wrong contraceptive choices and dreading ‘that week’ every month. Perhaps if we talked then about periods, like we’re starting to do now, then I wouldn’t have suffered so long. I might not have had to go through a chemical menopause at 36. Who knows? I can’t turn back the clock but I can damn well encourage others to know what is and what isn’t normal and to seek help.
It has reduced me to tears reading about, and meeting girls who suffer period poverty because families cannot afford to buy sanitary protection. To ignore that indignity and humiliation would be criminal.
There’s so much more we can do. Supplying every school (not to mention, women’s refuges, food banks and elsewhere) with sanitary protection won’t end period poverty, but it’ll be a damn good start, especially accompanied by proper education. So I’m proud it’s the Labour Party leading the way with a policy to do just that. But as much as I want a Labour government I’m not prepared to wait for the next for action either. Working with others I want to force this government into action, not least in this Budget.
That’s why it’s important that it’s discussed in Parliament, including this Wednesday. Not just because the tampon dispenser in the toilet at the back of the Commons chamber appears to have been designed for ladies of approximately 6′10” height (can we sort that please?!) but because we need to break down the barriers, smash the taboos and dispel the myths. We need to make it part of the mainstream political debate, and get political action to match those words. That’s what real feminism looks like.
There’s nothing shameful about periods. So let’s talk.
Paula Sherriff is the Labour MP for Dewsbury