Flicking through the pages of this month's Company magazine - diets, fashion, celebrities, diets, fashion - what's this? The word 'period' in a women's magazine? A feature entitled 'It's 2010 - so why are we still having periods?' Good question, according to the rest of the articles we're meant to have stopped eating by this point, so why not give up on another, far less enjoyable, natural bodily function? Next, blinking - such a hindrance to the whole seeing thing!
Beneath the headline is a picture of boxes of tampons and packets of sanitary towels covered in cobwebs. 'Periods are passé in the modern age' claims the feature. Long-acting reversible hormonal contraceptives are the new tampons - rather than just putting the blood out of sight, they get rid of the bleeding all together. The injection, the implant, the hormonal IUD are the new, 'period-banishing' must-have accessories for every woman's body.
Preventing our periods is now a 'biological lifestyle choice.' Periods, we are told, are an 'inconvenience' - 'the bleeding for a week, the unpredictability, the cramps, the mood swings, the cost of tampons… what a bore!' Company exclaims. We can't blame them, according to an online survey 80% of their readers said they would like to 'get rid of periods forever.' The magazine takes this opportunity to discuss how these readers can get the 'period-free lifestyle' right now, with LARCS and the birth control pill Seasonique. Until very recently I would have clicked the 'Hell, yeah!' box to stopping my periods. The last time I'd had them, before going on the Pill at sixteen, they were very heavy and so painful I'd faint. Now, ten years later and off the Pill, they are lighter, without pain and, in a funny way, actually rather exciting.
Think back to your first period, how did you feel? I don't think it's a stretch to say many of us might remember being upset, angry, scared, at least uneasy. Karen Houppert is the author of a brilliant book The Curse: Confronting The Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation' which charts how early education for young women about periods was driven by the growing feminine hygiene industry - their message was that periods are unsightly, smelly and unattractive. The blood must not leak onto clothes, must not show, and must not be spoken of. Periods have always been socially linked with sexual maturity. So, the messages are as much about female sexuality as they are about menstruation. The more disgusted women could be persuaded to be about their periods, the more hygiene products they would buy, until as Houppert points out, the industry had many women convinced they should be using pads even on days around their period, just in case, and days far from their period - for all those other unsightly leakages. Menstruation is also linked socially with weakness and frailty of the body, and the mind - a long-held, entrenched justification for women's inferiority to men. Not to mention the perils of PMS which was said in 1978 by Dr Katharina Dalton, author of Once A Month: The Original PMS Handbook to 'threaten the very foundations of society.'
Considering the history, it's not surprising 80% of Company readers want to be rid of periods - 'what a bore' is right! Why would anyone want to deal with all the social and cultural negative baggage that surrounds our biology? It does seem a whole lot easier just to do without. Then we can get on with the business of being just as capable as men, without all the incessant nagging and condescension. We have come to think of ourselves as horribly hindered by this monthly event, held back by it even, and so when presented with such a choice it looks like liberation.
Company rounds up some experts to support their enthusiasm. They argue that it is a 'myth' that women actually 'need' periods, and that stopping menstruation has 'no detrimental effect on health.' As Dr Susan Rako says in her book No More Periods? The Risks Of Menstrual Suppression there is no good medical reason for actual menstruation, but what about the cycle that brings menstruation about? If we choose to prevent ourselves having periods, we are choosing to prevent ourselves having the monthly cycle of hormonal changes that brings about ovulation and menstruation. This cycle is intrinsically associated with many bodily systems including those that regulate body temperature, blood glucose levels, energy levels, memory and concentration abilities, brain wave patterns, fine motor coordination, metabolism, adrenalin levels, visual, auditory and olfactory acuity, the concentration of vitamins and thyroid and adrenal hormone production.
Menstruation within the cycle is controlled by the endocrine system, which in producing the rise and fall in the flow of hormones acts on every organ in the human body. Not menstruating is more than a matter of not bleeding, it means not ovulating, not experiencing any of the hormonal fluctuations that balance the workings of your entire body. Menstruating was once thought of as one of the vital signs of good health. Contraceptives that suppress the ovulation menstruation cycle do not 'cure' painful or heavy periods and can mask over health issues, allowing them to go untreated. By focusing on periods as separate from the cycle, LARCs and the Pill look like much more attractive options, but this presentation is very misleading.
The conclusion of the Company feature states 'Periods are no longer taboo. We are as likely to talk about them as we are our latest TopShop purchase.' We might be talking about them more - menstruation activism is definitely gaining ground - but what are the majority of us saying? It's nothing positive.