We thank Celebration Day for Girls facilitator Elissa Leigh for her two-part series on why menstrual education is so important for those who menstruate when considering birth control. Part II of Elissa’s piece will be published in a fortnight, enjoy!
*I recognize that easy and affordable access to hormonal contraception is a privilege, and it should be available and free for all people who need it. This article discusses the need for more education about the menstrual cycle to support informed choice of birth control method and other health decisions.
I was 10 years old when I caught my mum by surprise, cornering her in the hallway and yell-whispering, “I think I just got my period”. She didn’t believe me at first, I was only 10, and had seemingly barely begun puberty. Mum joined me in the bathroom, I showed her my underwear to confirm; I was a little confused because I thought periods were meant to be a continuous flow of bright red blood, or as my slightly older cousin had informed me, “one day, when we become teenagers, we’ll start to pee blood” (yikes!). Instead, there was some dark reddy-brown spots in my tiny Fruit of the Loom undies.
Mortified, I quickly came up with an excuse to send my 5th grade bestie, who was over for a playdate, home so mum and I could deal with this pressing crisis.
Somehow, despite having very little knowledge about what a period even was, I knew it was embarrassing and shameful, and that it would be very bad if anyone at school found out. I also begged and pleaded with my mum not to tell my dad, which is strange as I’ve always been quite open with my dad, and I don’t know what I thought the benefit would be in keeping it from him. I recall then being given a ginormous pad that stuck out the back of my underwear as my mum only had tampons on hand at the time.
Well, this is my life now, I thought waddling around…
While this all seems a bit dramatic, I was not alone in these initial feelings. In 2019, Libra’s #bloodnormal campaign reported that 70% of girls and young women would rather fail a subject than have anyone know they have their period, and 25% would rather be bullied than have their peers find out. As someone who has always been an oversharer, I managed to keep my period a secret from my school mates for three years, 5th grade to 8th grade, until I was certain that others in my friend group had started menstruating.
After my menarche (first period), my mum bought me a book called, The What’s Happening in my Body Book. She put it in my bedside table drawer and told me to read it before bed, and that I could come to her if I had any questions (yes, my mum rocks). I devoured this book, and held her back most evenings for lengthy discussions about which stage of breast development she thought I was at…picture 1 or picture 2?
However, from memory, the information on the menstrual cycle was very brief. It described a period as a 28-day cycle and warned of minor cramping. It was something that first happened to girls when they were 12-14 years old. There was nothing that explained why, after getting my first period at age 10, I didn’t bleed again for another 6 months, or why my blood was dark in colour, or why my body even started menstruating to begin with. There was no reassuring information explaining that it’s very common for pre-teens to have irregular cycles in the beginning as their body develops and the ability to ovulate is still gaining rhythm.
After the initial 6-month break between my first and second bleed (which conveniently made its come back in the middle of a family camping trip in the Australian Outback), my periods began to get heavier and heavier. I was bleeding through pads and tampons quickly, often through my clothes. When I began high school, I had to wear a uniform which included light beige pants. Every student with a period’s worst nightmare was bleeding through their school pants, and you’d often be discretely asked, “can you check me?” as your friend or a stranger walked a few steps in front of you down the hallway. I never remember having to sound the ‘leak alarm’ but just the constant fear was enough to keep everyone on high alert.
At this stage, my curiosity around puberty and periods had shifted from intrigue and wonder to loathing and fear of embarrassment. During the summer holidays, between grade 9 and 10, I had plans to spend a month at an overnight camp as a counsellor in training. Camp brought a whole new level of period shame fears to the table, tampon strings hanging out of bathing suits, leaks while you were swimming or canoeing, leaks in your bunk, boys seeing your menstrual products…the horror! The previous summer I had one of these moments happen to me, I was sailing with a co-ed group of campers, and when I got up to switch sides of the boat, there was a small pool of blood where I had been sitting. Mortified, I spent the rest of the activity trying to stealthily splash water where I had been sitting each time I got up to move.
This could NOT happen again, I emphasised relaying this story to my mum. She encouraged me to try and keep track of when my periods began on my calendar…like an old school paper calendar on the wall in my bedroom. This was before the many great period apps and smartphone calendars that exist now, so I tried, but my periods never seemed to follow a monthly pattern. And unlike some of my friends, I did not have debilitating cramps to warn me of the beginning of a new cycle.
So, a few months before summer camp began, mum and I went to see our family GP. I told her the tale of my irregular periods; I was 15 at the time. Almost instantly, she suggested I go on the hormonal contraceptive (HC) pill. “This will regulate your periods,” she said. With a squiggle on a piece of paper, off I went with a 3 months’ supply of Yaz. My mom was okay with this, as she had been on HC for most of her adult life to manage her own period issues. We also trusted my GP as she’d been our family doctor for my whole life.
But wait a minute…
How, in this moment, did three intelligent women, my mom, my GP, and I, all sit in a room and agree that, yes this is the best course of action, the pill will regulate her periods, nothing else to see here, have a lovely day!
We will publish Part II of Elissa’s story and exploration of informed consent and birth control in a fortnight, see you then!
Elissa is a high school teacher and Celebration Day for Girls facilitator. She’s originally from Canada where she studied Environmental Sustainability and International Development and has since lived and worked across Australia, and currently in Vienna, Austria. Elissa’s own experience with endometriosis has inspired her to advocate for better menstrual health education close to home and around the world.