Enduring Aunt Flow: The Taboo of Menstrual Pain
Updated: May 30
It’s 7am. You wake up with a pang of pain which you can only describe as mini Everest climbers hacking their way up the inside of your abdomen. Nevertheless, you silence the buzz of your alarm, throw back the covers and attend to your five hungry four-legged fur-children. As you get ready to jump in the shower, you begin to empathise with the distressed wrench experienced by tie-dye t-shirt in the making, as your insides begin to twist and knot. Steadying yourself, you reach to test the water temperature before committing to the shower and that’s when you start to see stars. The familiar knotting sensation has grown into a tension similar to that of a mousetrap being forced open for bait to be laid and with that you decide you can get away with smelling for a day; you didn’t have the time to be passing out in the shower. Forcing down some cereal, you pop the highest dose of Tylenol allowed, praying they kick in before you have to sit on a bus for 40 minutes with a bunch of strangers who most likely would give you peculiar looks if you spent the entire journey folded in half. The minutes tick by ever faster and with each second the pain gets worse to the point where you fall to your knees in front of the toilet to say adiós to your breakfast as your head whirs and spins. Already 5 minutes late (told you there was no time for passing out in the shower), you crawl to the closet and prop yourself up against the wall, so you can grab your coat and shoes, take a deep breath and tentatively make your way out the front door to work.
Now, you may ask, why did this person even go to work despite the crippling pain they are in? The answer: the person is a woman on her period.
Over 85% of women asked in a recent survey(1) stated they have experienced painful periods, with 30% of over 1000 women having taken days off work due to the extremity of the period pain(1). It is worth noting, of course, that some (lucky) women experience no menstrual pain (or ‘dysmenorrhea’) at all, however the unlucky majority face the monthly monster with pain which can be worse than the pain experienced when having a heart attack(2).
I should also explain, for those who are not aware that period pains are not exclusively limited to the lower abdomen, that there is a whole suite of body parts (including the brain) which can be afflicted by the monthly visit from Aunt Flow… These include(3,4):
· Lower back pain
· Lower leg pain (or any muscle really)
· Diarrhoea or constipation
· Mood swings and irritability
· Tender breasts
So, as you can see, it is a full-body assault. Imagine experiencing a combination of these symptoms simultaneously, for up to a week, on a monthly basis, with absolutely no way of preventing the symptoms from occurring (besides having a hysterectomy).
As a woman, I think what makes period pain more difficult to deal with is because you know it will come around every month. I have been known to utterly panic when I realise that my monthly monster will rear its ugly head on an important day at work because I know how debilitating the pain I experience is. My secondary panic then being, ‘what do I say to my boss when they pull me aside and ask why I am off my game, why I am not focused and why I look disinterested in Mr. VIP’s research presentation’? I know for a fact my performance at work drops to around 50-60% when I am on my period and experiencing the whole swathe of symptoms listed above.
The huge taboo around menstruation (heck, they have only just started using red liquid in sanitary commercials!) makes taking days off for period pain incredibly difficult and awkward to approach with bosses. Despite some Asian countries, including Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and certain Chinese provinces having ‘period policies’ in place, consisting of monthly ‘period’ leave days for women, many women in pain do not participate. Instead of taking advantage of the recognition that it IS acceptable to have ‘sick’ days for period pain, women remain at work for fear of appearing weak or fear of being sexually harassed(5).
I remember being in secondary school in year 8 (so around 12/13 years of age) and being doubled over in pain during history class, knowing exactly who the culprit was. When I eventually bravely raised a hand to ask to be excused to the medical room, I was met with interrogation (in front of the whole class of females may I add) as to what was wrong with me and why I needed to be excused; obviously my white-as-a-sheet complexion and inability to stand up straight wasn’t instantly recognisable to my middle-aged FEMALE teacher. Growing up, I was taught to be truthful, so I exclaimed that I was having my period and was in pain and needed to go lie down as I felt faint. The class erupted in whispers and stifled laughter and my teacher asked to speak to me outside. Bewildered both about the class’ reaction (surely everyone knows what periods are, especially in an all girls’ school) and need for teacher to speak to me alone, I shuffled outside where the teacher told me ‘in future, say you have a stomach ache, it saves you and the teacher the embarrassment’. But WHAT was there to be embarrassed about?! Going forward, this encounter at school stuck with me and I developed a lot of anxiety and fear around my period, to the point where as an adult, I am too scared to ask for a sick day to let my period pain pass in the comfort of my own home. And just like a quarter of other women(1), if I am seriously needing to take a day off because of period pain, I lie to my boss as to what the affliction is.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The wise words of Margaret Mead sums up how I think the menstruation taboo can be tackled. It isn’t driven by using red liquid on TV ads, allowing women sick days for period pain or universal menstruation education; it is instead driven by our own actions as women. If we are accepting of our bodily functions, if we speak out about our menstruation rather than pretend it doesn’t exist for the fear of embarrassing (male) colleagues and friends and if we are honest with bosses about the real reason for taking any time off needed for period pains we could spark change. We need to encourage the next generation to not get trapped in the cultural taboo of periods and instead embrace their bodies through all days of the month and speak freely about any menstrual pain they experience.
Ultimately, the start of the end of menstrual pain taboo begins at home; whether that home be within your own body, within your household or within your workplace. Tell the world about your Aunt Flow, the changes she enforces, the pain she puts you through and how she makes you feel because after all, Aunt Flow is here to stay.
apparently it is ungraceful of me
to mention my period in public
cause the actual biology
of my body is too real
it’s OK to sell what’s
between a woman’s legs
more than it is OK to
mention its inner workings
the recreational use of
this body is seen as
its nature is
seen as ugly
DISCLAIMER: If you are experiencing regular period pains, it is advisable to consult a doctor.