From the time my son was a toddler, whenever I was on my period, I would tell him I needed privacy in the bathroom so I could change my tampon or pad. I said this in a casual, everyday tone of voice, with the same inflection I’d use to say I’m going to get myself a glass of water.
When he got a little older, he asked what a tampon was for, and I told him it was for my period. That was enough at the time, but when he got a little older he asked what a period was. So I told him about periods in simple, kid-friendly language: “If Mommy isn’t going to have another baby, my uterus”–here I would pat my stomach–”cleans itself out to get ready for next month just in case.”
As my son got older, I elaborated and talked about cramps or moodiness or a heavy flow being the reason I couldn’t exercise. Because I’ve always talked about periods, my son doesn’t remember a time he didn’t know what periods were. He has commented that he’s glad he doesn’t have to deal with periods, that it sucks that women have to go through all that. That was a good opportunity to point out that trans boys and men can get periods too, and yes, bleeding once a month is kinda sucky, but there’s no shame in it. It’s just a thing that bodies with vaginas do.
I’ve had all the same conversations with my daughter, but when it comes to normalizing periods, my attention has always been more focused on my son. That’s because I don’t want my son to end up like one of those guys who is embarrassed to buy tampons or pads for his partner or who is grossed out by the whole idea in general. Or like Colton Underwood of ABC’s The Bachelor who thought period underwear were “so gross.” Underwood compared period blood to shit (no really, he did) and suggested that every time a woman gets a little blood on her underwear she should just “go buy new underwear.”
Bless Colton Underwood’s heart. Over my dead body will my son grow up and utter such ignorant nonsense.
Underwood and guys like him are not the exception. Thanks to a lack of realistic and thorough sex education in schools, lingering social stigma, and a general embarrassment among many parents to discuss these topics, periods are still considered taboo and icky. Women still whisper to other women when asking for a spare tampon as if half the population doesn’t deal with this once per month, and commercials still use blue liquid to represent blood when demonstrating a bad’s absorbency (except for Kotex, who recently put out an ad using more realistic red liquid. Way to go, Kotex!).
Since we can’t trust our schools’ sex ed class to normalize bodies that get periods, we as parents have to do it. Of course, we should be doing this anyway. Sex ed isn’t a once-and-done topic. But if it’s important to normalize periods for our girls, it’s even more important that we do it for our boys. Already, sex education classes often separate students by gender when it comes time to talk about the reproductive system.
Can you imagine being a transgender child in a sex education class separated by gender? How painful would that be for a trans girl to be in a roomful of her vagina-having classmates and knowing she’ll never experience this rite of passage? And imagine being a trans boy learning about erections when you really need to learn about periods. We’ve got a long way to go to get over body shame in general.
Periods are seen as “gross” and shameful, something that must be kept secret, especially from anyone who doesn’t have a vagina. The idea that periods must be kept secret is still so pervasive that in 2019, a group of middle school girls from Bronx Prep Middle School in New York created a podcast called Sssh! Periods, wherein they challenge the idea that periods are something that shouldn’t be discussed. They pointed out the absurdity of the signs in the bathroom stalls that used the phrase “feminine products” rather than simply using the word “pad.” The girls also suggested that it would be less awkward if boys learned about periods too. “They always separate the girls and the boys,” one of the podcasters said. “We’re never informed about the opposite sex.” Sssh! Periods won the middle school grand prize winner in the NPR Student Podcast Challenge.
We need to talk to all of our kids about the fact that vaginas bleed once per month, but we especially need to educate the ones who don’t have vaginas. More than half the population currently gets or will get or used to get a period. Periods aren’t weird, and they aren’t gross. It’s simply something that bodies do, something that’s necessary and kind of amazing and also sometimes a giant pain in the ass.
The secrecy and shame that surrounds periods can have other deeper and unintentional negative consequences — if getting a period is shameful, if it is a hindrance, if it is something dirty, than so must be the body the period comes from. Bodies with vaginas are already policed and deprived of their autonomy in so many ways. Do we really want to compound the message that our bodies aren’t ours, not even simply to talk about?
We don’t want to send this message to our daughters and trans sons, but we definitely don’t want to send it to our cis sons. Let’s raise our boys to be the kind of men who are totally comfortable buying tampons or pads or menstrual cups for their partners or daughters or trans sons because periods aren’t shameful or gross or something that a “lesser” body does.
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