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What a Bloody Shame

Periods. Tampons. Blood. Menstruation. There. The words have been uttered now, no going back. This is the point when some of you may glance towards the little ‘x’ in the corner of your screen and shut down because “Who wants to read about icky things?” or you may feel like it doesn’t apply to you. I urge you to read on, even it if feels uncomfortable; lean into the discomfort and ask yourself why you feel the way you do. 


I am not 100% sure why writing about periods or bodily functions matters so much but it feels super important – to me.  I have silenced the utterings of my body for a really long time, ignoring aches and pains, ‘powering through’ sickness. I thought this was the done thing – “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But this has always bothered me. It bothered me when I first started my periods and felt grossed out, dirty – I couldn’t speak to anyone about it, I was not prepared to have a conversation about it, and I don’t remember anyone sitting down and having a conversation with me. I had learned growing up that you don’t talk about these things, you just deal with it. And so, I was given a bottle of Dettol antiseptic, told to dilute it in warm water and bathe in it to help me feel fresh and clean. So, I did.  That was my normal. 

I thought it was bizarre, however, that I was unable to attend certain religious festivals if I was on my period or ask my dad to buy sanitary products if he was popping to the shops. The boys and men in our household could not know, it was too shameful. And so, I quickly learned that it was best to keep quiet and carry on but all the while feeling baffled as to why a natural process like menstruation had to be a dirty little secret. To me, periods = dirty = shame. Normal, no? 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” seems to be the prominent ideology and is not only limited to periods. It includes (but is not limited to): body hair, breast-feeding, puberty, periods, the menopause, mental health, sex, digestive processes/sounds, incontinence and nudity. 

And so, over the years I have concealed, hidden, shied away from situations and conversations that may give rise to embarrassment or shame. Shame is insidious, it creeps into our everyday life and how we respond to it confirms or informs how we feel and what we do as a result of that feeling. So, when we feel shame, we keep quiet. Lie. To ourselves and others. This compounds those feelings, further allowing shame to feel legitimised because the silence we exercise gives it space. It is a vicious circle and the more we stay silent the more it continues. 

Transgenerational or Inherited Shame

Shame is passed on through generations, like an unwanted gift. No one is born ashamed; it is learned, usually in childhood. We quickly learn that to get approval or acceptance we need to adopt certain behaviours and be ‘in line’ with what is expected of us.  A departure from this can pose a threat to relationships and so we conform most often. I learned in childhood that it was not ‘the done thing’ to talk about periods, sex, body hair – you just dealt with it. And I suspect my mum had experienced the same in her childhood, and her mum before that and so on. Before you know it, the idea of ‘put up and shut up’ becomes normal. It is worth mentioning here that my acknowledgment of transgenerational shame does not mean that I seek to place blame or shame on my parents and caregivers. I wholeheartedly believe that they were doing the best that they could with the awareness and knowledge that was available to them at the time. 

Flipping the Script

When I consider my desire to write about this matter, I realise that it is not purely coincidental.  My own children are teetering on the edge of puberty and the information and support that they have available to them is incredible. The ease with which they can ask questions, the comfortability in saying “I don’t understand what is happening to my body/feelings, etc” and “Can you help?” – these types of questions are all normal for them to articulate and I love that for them.  At times I have also found it a mildly triggering when thinking about the heaviness of shame that I have carried, all due to years of not speaking about certain matters. It has also made me reflect and learn from my own experiences and really think about the type of gift that I want to be handing down to my children and future generations. I choose to do things a little differently, I am choosing to ‘flip the script’.  

The Antidote to Shame

Conversation. Shame feeds off silence, so I wonder what would happen if we didn’t feed it?  Conversations around our struggles with health, pain, sexual preferences, etc with those who we feel safe with, can be a start to chipping away the toxicity of shame. Shame can also be isolating but by sharing experiences with others it can remind us that we needn’t be an island, especially if those experiences are shared or similar. ‘Having a chat’ may be the first step to normalising aspects of our lives that may typically be taboo.

CompassionReplace shame with self-compassion.  In this wrangle with shame, compassion becomes imperative. I have noticed that people find it so much easier to feel empathy and compassion for others whilst feeling less deserving themselves – why is this? Give yourself a break from the critical voice or even turn down the volume on it. Be kind, be patient and tap into your own caregiving system.   

Awareness and acknowledgement.  A natural response to things that make us feel uncomfortable is to look away or ignore it. But I wonder what would happen if we shone a torch on it, sat with it or even called it out. Sometimes just acknowledging feelings can go some way to disarm them, in this case embarrassment or shame. We may not be able to eliminate it completely and it may still show up when we least expect it to, but it might significantly reduce the power of its grip. 

If you stayed until the end of this piece – thank you. I have written and re-written this article in my head for a while now. Maybe it was the shame I felt that stitched my lips shut or paralysed my fingers from typing. I’m not saying that I feel 100% comfortable baring all but pulling up beside the discomfort has allowed me to understand it a little more and sit with it. I want to be able to ‘do it differently’ for my children and gift acceptance, compassion, understanding and empathy to the generations that have yet to come. 

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