I look down at my bag, trying to figure out how I was going to maneuver my tampon out unnoticed. I could just take out my miniature black clutch where I kept all my supplies, but that would be too obvious right?
I look up and around at my classmates to see if anyone was looking at me. Why would they decide to take their eyes off the teacher or whatever else may have their attention and look at me at that exact moment? Absolutely no reason. But I am still very paranoid.
'Okay just do it' I think to myself.
I reach into my backpack and into the black clutch I had previously unzipped in preparation for this moment. Cautiously, I grab a tampon from the bunch, slip it into my sleeve (while thanking myself for wearing long-sleeves), and sit back up. About a minute later, I get up and go to the bathroom. A few minutes later, I walk back to class with the feeling of a mission well accomplished. Thinking more clearly now, I pick up my pen and start taking notes. Now I can focus.
Every woman experiences her period differently, but what every woman does feel is the overall unpleasantness of the whole situation. I, for one, absolutely hate those few days where it feels like my body is against me. I have cramps that make me unable to move from the bed, I get extremely nauseous at the smallest of things, and my emotions are so sporadic that I feel the need to warn people to keep their distance.
On top of all of that, I am supposed to pretend like it is any other day, and that I don't feel like crawling back under the covers. When I'm riding the subway, walking down the street, waiting in line for coffee, I am constantly aware of the fact that I am on my period. It is a constant paranoia that follows me and makes me feel like there's a giant sign above my head that reads Warning: Menstruating Woman Coming Through.
Now I realize that there is easily a chance that I may be more paranoid than the average menstruating women. So I reached out to others to see if their periods came with a giant sign too, or if it was more of a small button pinned on their shirt. Here, some of their comments:
"I used to definitely care more in high school but in college I don't mind as much. It's natural and should be normalized."
"It was a struggle when I first got my period in middle school. I was so embarrassed to have to go into my bag or locker to get a tampon or pad out because I thought it was the end of the world if boys or other classmates knew I had my period. In the winter when I would wear boots I would put my tampons in there so I wouldn't have to pull it out in public in the hallway.
It was a major problem not having access to any materials in the bathroom for girls. I think it was something that was so embarrassing and was a shame. A lot of companies I work for now have all the supplies in the bathroom for our needs which is very fortunate...."
"I always try to discreetly and quickly get it out of my bag to go to the bathroom. I always try to keep [my period] to myself so men don't try to excuse/use it to explain my work performance, mood, or anything."
"This might sound weird but in high school I used to take a tampon out of my locker discreetly and put it in between my boobs so no one would see me walk to the bathroom with it. Even now I feel the need to whisper to female coworkers while asking for a tampon or pad. If men see me with a tampon and I feel any kind of emotion later, they usually assume I'm being irrational. I'd prefer to hide it rather than deal with men being unnecessarily uncomfortable of something that is completely normal."
"I sometimes will wait it out until I'm home or until most people around me go on break so I can sneak either my bag or a tampon and/or pad with me. I hate doing that because I get my period very heavy, but just knowing that people might see what I'm doing gets me paranoid. Especially if I'm around men. Then sometimes I won't change it at all until I'm home, as gross as that sounds."
As expected, there is a wide range of emotions women feel when dealing with their period. However after hearing other women's experiences and feelings, it is justifiable to conclude that a majority of women, especially younger women, feel the need to be discreet and hide any actions that show they are on their periods.
The simple (and obvious) answer is: The Patriarchy.
Years and years of men being in charge and women being shamed for their bodies. When you look back at ancient and medieval times, it can be hard to find information about women on their periods because the male recorders didn't want to write about it. What is understood however is that women on their periods were often associated with magic and sorcery, with their being myths to explain why they bled and what the blood would do. There was also a lot of religious shame of periods as well. Women were told the cramps were to remind them of Eve's' original sin, they were not allowed to take communion while bleeding, or they were sent away to wait it out somewhere.
Today in the 21st century, society has learned the biology behind menstrual cycles and the appropriate sanitary supplies have been created to help women manage. However this underlying shame that has been embedded in menstrual discourse still remains.
In more developed parts of the world, women fight for period supplies like tampons and pads to be treated with the same amount of importance as the men making these decisions treat viagra. Movements were started to decrease or completely abolish the tax on these necessary products.
In lesser developed countries, women have to deal with much more than feeling paranoid. These cultures are more ingrained in their taboos on periods, considering the topic something people shouldn't openly discuss. In India and Bangladesh some women are not allowed to touch food or enter the kitchen on their periods. In Burundi, women cannot bathe near shared utensils out of fear that the blood will kill family members. In Venezuela, some women have to sleep in huts while they are bleeding.
Because of this shame, there is an extreme lack of education about the menstrual cycle and overwhelming lack of access to proper sanitary supplies. Many young girls are unaware of what a period is when they first start, leaving them ashamed and scared. Girls without access to a sanitary pad are forced to stay home from school and are at a higher risk for infections.
As we all continue to fight for things to be better for women at home and all around the world, let's also try to make them better for ourselves. Yes this is easier said than done, but if we stop feeling shame when menstruating, and aim for an attitude that expresses how natural the product is, maybe men will be forced to see it as well.
In the quotes given above, many women mention that much of their shame started when they were teenagers in middle or high school. If we aspire to change the mindset of young girls to not be ashamed of their period, because it is, of course, one of the most natural parts of life, then we may be able to stop this shame from manifesting and staying with women as they mature and step into their adult lives. We must aim to show men that they can not impose thoughts about us over something they could never fully understand. This type of change can not and will not come easily, but the first step of any change starts with a public conversation.
Following are excerpts from "Unleash the Girls, The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me)" By Lisa Z. Lindahl
There is an idea that has popped up everywhere from Chaos Theory to Science Fiction and New Age memes known popularly as the "Butterfly Effect." Simply put, it is the notion that one very small thing—the movement of a butterfly's wing say, or the ripple in a lake caused by a pebble being thrown into it—can cause tremendous effect far away: the butterfly's wing a tornado, the ripple a large wave on a distant shore. Cause and effect, does it have limits? The field of physics is telling us that it takes only observation to bring a thing into being. We cannot consider these areas of investigation and not acknowledge that everything—everything—is in relationship in some way or another with everything else.
So, it is evident to me that commerce of any kind is, also, just about relationships. It all boils down, on every level to this simplicity. While we usually think of relationships as occurring between people—it is far more than that.
I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship specifically for women in The Women's Small Business Program at Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont. I made this concept of relationship and its importance central in how I taught the marketing thought process. I would stress that for a product or service to be successful, it had to meet a perceived need. There is a need, and it wants to be met; or it may be thought of as a problem to be solved. Or there may be an existing solution that is less than adequate.
For example: In my universe as a runner there already were a plethora of bras available, but they were inadequate for my purpose. The relationship between my breasts, my running body, and my bra was creating discomfort and distraction. A new solution had to be found, the relationship occurring when all these things came together had to be fixed. Utilizing this point of view, one sees a set of issues that need to be addressed—they are in relationship with each other and their environment in a way that needs to be changed, adjusted.
Nowhere is this viewpoint truer than in business, as we enter into more and more relationships with people to address all the needs of the organization. Whether designing a product or a service or communicating with others about it—we are in relationship. And meanwhile, how about maintaining a healthy relationship with ourselves? All the issues we know about stress in the workplace can boil down to an internal balancing act around our relationships: to the work itself, to those we work with, to home life, friends and lovers. So quickly those ripples can become waves.
Because Jogbra was growing so quickly, relationships were being discovered, created, ending, expanding and changing at a pace that makes my head spin to recall. And truly challenged my spirit. Not to mention how I handled dealing with my seizure disorder.
"My Lifelong Partner"
Let me tell you a bit about my old friend, Epilepsy. Having Epilepsy does not make any sort of money-making endeavor easy or reliable, yet it is my other "partner" in life. Husbands and business partners have come and gone, but Epilepsy has always been with me. It was my first experience of having a "shadow teacher."
While a child who isn't feeling she has power over her world may have a tantrum, as we grow older, most of us find other more subtle ways to express our powerfulness or powerlessness. We adapt, learn coping mechanisms, how to persuade, manipulate, or capitulate when necessary. These tools, these learned adaptations, give a sense of control. They make us feel more in charge of our destiny. As a result, our maturing self generally feels indestructible, immortal. Life is a long, golden road of futures for the young.
This was not the case for me. I learned very early on when I started having seizures that I was not fully in charge of the world, my world, specifically of my body. There are many different types of epileptic seizures. Often a person with the illness may have more than one type. That has been the case for me. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy—with a seizure type now referred to as "Absence seizures"—when I was four years old. I have seen neurologists and taken medications ever since. As often happens, the condition worsened when I entered puberty and I started having convulsions as well—what most people think of when they think of epileptic seizures. The clinical name is generalized "Tonic-clonic" seizures.
In such a seizure the entire brain is involved, rather like an electrical circuit that has gone out as a result of a power surge. I lose consciousness, my whole body becomes rigid, the muscles start jerking uncontrollably, and I fall. Tonic-clonic seizures, also known as "grand mal" seizures, may or may not be preceded by an aura, a type of perceptual disturbance, which for me can act as a warning of what is coming. The seizure usually only lasts for a few minutes, but I feel its draining effects for a day or two afterwards. Although I would prefer to sleep all day after such a physically and emotionally taxing event, I have often just gotten up off the floor and, within hours, gone back to work. It was necessary sometimes, though definitely not medically advised. I'm fond of saying that having a grand mal seizure is rather like being struck by a Mack truck and living to tell the tale.
Having Epilepsy has forced me to be dependent on others throughout my life. While we are all dependent upon others to some degree—independent, interdependent, dependent—in my case a deep level of dependency was decreed and ingrained very early on. This enforced dependency did not sit well with my native self. I bucked and rebelled. At the same time, a part of me also feared the next fall, the next post-convulsive fugue. And so I recognized, I acquiesced to the need to depend on others.
The silver lining of having Epilepsy is that it has introduced me to and taught me a bit about the nature of being powerless—and experiencing betrayal. I could not trust that my body would always operate as it should. Routinely, it suddenly quits. I experience this as betrayal by my brain and body. It results in my complete powerlessness throughout the convulsion. Not to mention an inconvenient interruption of any activities or plans I might have made.
Hence, I am the recipient of two important life lessons—and I was blessed to have this very specific and graphic experience at a young age. It made me observant and reflective, giving me the opportunity to consider what/where/who "I" was. I knew I was not "just" my body, or even my brain.
So, who or what did that leave? Who, what am I? Much has been written about trauma, and about near-death experiences, both of which seizures have been classified or described as. I won't delve into that here except to say that experiencing recurrent seizures and the attendant altered states of consciousness that sometimes accompany an episode (the euphemism for a seizure) changes one. It deeply affects you. It is both illuminating and frightening. It opens you up in some ways and can close you way down in others. For me it made it easy to consider the possibility of other ways to perceive, of other realms. And as an adult I became interested in quantum physics, where Science is pushing and challenging our long-held perceptual assumptions. Me, who was poor in math and disinterested in Science while in school! So if not merely body and brain, who am I? Spirit. And with Epilepsy's tutelage, I was encouraged to question, seek, try to understand what lies beyond.
Living with Epilepsy has also given me great strength. In realizing the futile nature of trying to have "power over" Epilepsy, I developed a deep well of "power within"—that inner strength that comes in the acceptance of that which one cannot change—and looking beyond it.
Through my experience building the business of Jogbra with the unique lens afforded me by my Epilepsy partner, I came to understand more fully the nature of power and what it means to be truly powerful.
Specifically, that having power and exercising it is not simply a manifestation of the ego. It need not be "power-tripping." It is how I wield my power that matters, making the all-important distinction between creating a situation of power over, power with, or empowering and having and creating strength in oneself and others.
Being powerful is a big responsibility.
To put all this another way: do I choose to create situations in which I am able to wield power over others? Or do I choose to empower others, sharing my strengths with them, while nurturing their strengths as well? The first is not true power. It is control. The second I believe to be the essence of true and positive power: strength. And integral to creating a more harmonious world, oh by the way.
While this may be apparent, even basic to others, it was an "aha!" moment for me. Too often in the years ahead I would give away my power and question my own strengths,. Time and again, however, my inner strength, my shadow teacher's gift, helped me survive and thrive until I could take responsibility for and embrace more fully my own power.
© Lisa Z. Lindahl 2019