Feet in the water, the current kisses my ankles; crouched low, the backs of my thighs skim the surface; the early evening sun against my shoulders; the sandpipers bob and dart just a few yards away; and I am transfixed, mesmerized by the blood that now dances between the river rocks, diluting its way downstream. I am 39 years old. And I love my period.
28 years ago I caught the first glimpse of my own menstruation. I burst into tears when I saw the clear evidence that was staining my underwear. I ran to my mom and squeaked out the words “I think I just got my period!” She was sweet, and motherly and told me not to cry. She handed me some pads from hers and my sister’s stash. They looked gigantic. They felt like a diaper. They crinkled when I unwrapped them. I knew the whole world would know I was now a menstruator. I knew that periods were something to dread. I knew that they were uncomfortable, inconvenient, and that they equaled an overflowing bathroom garbage can. I wanted to give my period back to whatever devil gave it to me in the first place.
Culturally we are conditioned to regard our periods as problematic. Inconvenient. A dread. Sometimes people laugh when their periods arrive because, phew, not pregnant! But outside of that, seldom is the cycle that is anticipated with joy. In fact, we regularly plan life around our cycles. We’ll alter vacation plans, date nights, even exercise so that they don’t coincide with our periods. Maybe it’s because they can be uncomfortable and we’d rather be home with a heating pad than trekking into the backcountry with cramps. Maybe it’s because we just don’t want to have to “deal with it” when there may not be a proper bathroom nearby. Maybe it’s because even the most “period positive” of us who are actively working to erode the menstruation taboo still have to contend with our own personal relationships with our bodies and our cycles. Maybe the dread is just seeded too deep, and it’s still hard for us to grow away from the “deal with it” approach to menstruation.
But that approach needs to change. When we treat our periods as if they are inconveniences like heavy traffic, we stunt our own growth. How many adventures and opportunities have been missed in anticipation of a period’s arrival? In many parts of the world the story is more severe. Menstruators who contend with the notion that menstruation is not only inconvenient but also taboo miss out on educational and life experience opportunities, perpetuating the cycle that keeps girls, in particular, in poverty. But even in the US where the taboo is less severe, we still restrict the opportunities for those who bleed. Whenever we skip an event or activity because we don’t want to “deal with” our periods, we limit ourselves. We stunt our own growth.
For the first two decades as a menstruator I fervently hoped that my period wouldn’t come while I was camping. I hated everything to do with disposable menstrual products. I generally used tampons with a thin pantyliner as back up. It wasn’t comfortable. I was making garbage while trying to enjoy the sanctity of the outdoors. I always worried about that damned string poking out of my bathing suit bottoms. And ugh, the feeling of a tampon that needed to be changed but still miles to go until I’d be back at a trailhead. Historically I’ve regarded my own relationship with my period as something that would put a damper on whatever experience I was setting out to enjoy.
And now here I am in a cold river, watching as my spot of red swims downstream. The coolness of the water and the warmth of the sun is more soothing than a heating pad. My cup and cloth pads more comfortable than the disposables of my earlier menstruating years. The experience of being on the river and surrounded by woods filled with life, life that bleeds just as I bleed. Behind me my cloth pads dry on a branch in the sun. No garbage to pack out. No chafing. But most of all … no dread. This moment is the first that it has occurred to me that I no longer dread my period. I was aware and prepared that it would coincide with this river trip, and I embraced it as I embrace a good friend.
Life doesn’t stop because of menstruation. It starts. And we’ll all flow on okay.