Vagina-Gazing: An Exploration of Menstruation

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“An intimate experience starts with the self. "

 

by augusta statz

it wasn’t until recently that i began thinking of my period as a source of empowerment. maybe it’s because of how stigmatized a woman’s menstrual cycle is. maybe it’s because i had never openly talked about it except with other females. maybe it’s because i had never found a way to manage it that actually felt like i was in control. but, i decided to rethink the reasons i had such a love-hate relationship with my period. and when i started approaching my menstrual cycle differently, that’s when i felt the shift.

did you know that one of our most modern forms of period management—the tampon—was originally invented in 1929? the lack of forward progression in women’s hygiene is, in some ways, astounding, and unfortunately, it’s also not that surprising.

according to medical daily, the history of the period doesn’t date back nearly as long as women have been menstruating, considering most scribes were men and therefore did not keep documents recording information surrounding women’s bodies.

but, when periods are mentioned historically, say, in the texts of many religions, it states that women are to be shunned during their menstrual cycles. in an article written by dominique christina for international business times, she points out a portion of the bible that essentially states, “a woman on her period is to isolate herself for a period of seven days; that whatever or whoever she touches while menstruating becomes impure.” and according to the bible, the fact that a woman even has a period each month is part of a “curse,” the “curse of eve,” and is essentially a price all women have to pay because eve defied god.

despite the ancient beliefs of the period, what menstruation actually is, from a medical standpoint, “is the hormonal process a woman’s body goes through each month to prepare for a possible pregnancy,” as defined bywomenshealth.gov.

however, merriam-webster defines it as “a discharging of blood, secretions, and tissue debris from the uterus that recurs in non-pregnant breeding-age primate females at approximately monthly intervals and that is considered to represent a readjustment of the uterus to the non-pregnant state following proliferative changes accompanying the preceding ovulation.”

as a female who experiences this “discharging of blood,” i find the language used here to be shocking: “discharge,” “debris,” “secretion.” the words chosen to describe what happens to a woman’s body during the menstrual cycle aren’t flattering, complementary or worthy of awe in the way that they should be. the menstrual cycle literally allow women the power to give life, and it deserves a definition that captures that beauty.

when you see how the menstrual cycle has been written about in the past, it’s easy to understand that the stigma around periods stems back to the beginning of time, so it’s no wonder we’ve made so many euphemisms for what a woman is experiencing during the process of shedding the uterus lining: “that time of the month,” “mother nature’s gift,” “monthly visitor,” “period,” “aunt flo.” the list goes on and on—simply because it was decided that a woman shouldn’t dare speak of something so utterly repulsive, especially not in public.

being shunned once a month or being too embarrassed for “period-talk” hasn’t exactly led to breakthroughs when it comes to managing women’s menstrual cycles, either.

the earliest records of women dealing with their periods involved re-using rags, using items from nature to absorb the blood or bleeding straight into clothing, according to medical daily.

then, there was a “sanitary” belt similar to the pads we all know today in the late 1800s. next, enter perhaps one of the most “modern” period management methods: the tampon.

after several iterations, the tampon we’re familiar with today was born in 1933. tampon sales didn’t immediately sky-rocket initially. in fact, robert l. dickinson explained that tampon usage was the most common among the wealthier and well-educated in a study published in “the journal of the american medical association.” he wrote, “the higher the income bracket the greater being the employment of the tampon.”

honestly, not much has changed today. according to thehelping women period organization, “around the world, on any given day, more than 800 million people are menstruating. and at least five million of those lack adequate resources-including supplies, education, and facilities-for managing their periods.”

it’s high time women lost the stigma around periods, and democratized period management. how are we supposed to get to that point, though? the answer: we push.

in my personal journey, the process began by changing the way i looked at my own period. once all women are able to feel more comfortable with their bodies and define what having a period means to them, that’s when real change can take place—and part of allowing women the opportunity to come to understand and appreciate their menstrual cycles is seeing that all women have access to modern methods to manage their periods.

brands such as thinx, flex , lola and more are already working to push the way we manage periods into a modern age. for health reasons and because, simply put—women deserve it!

in case you’re unfamiliar, flex has developed something that’s better than a menstrual cup or tampon. it’s a menstrual disc, and it sits higher up in the vaginal fornix instead of clogging the vaginal canal, as tampons and cups do.

according to the flex founder, lauren schulte, this product was designed to be more comfortable, more long-wearing and healthier—yes, healthier—than tampons.

she said during an interview on the “almost 30” podcast, “if you’re wearing something that’s absorbing internally, it’s basically absorbing all of that good [bacteria] you’re working so hard to produce.” in other words, it’s not just absorbing blood, but also vitamins, bacteria and more in your vagina, which can lead to imbalances that cause yeast infections and other issues. go figure—the product that originated in 1929 isn’t always what’s best for your overall feminine health and hygiene. hence why something like flex is so needed.

then, there’s thinx, the most truly innovative form of period management that i’ve personally tried so far. a few months ago, i tried thinx period-proof underwear for the first time, and it was a completely eye-opening experience. i was skeptical to “free-bleed,” as the brand calls it. why i was so afraid in the first place is a larger issue. but, once i tried it—bleed straight into my underwear, that is—it was extremely freeing. there was no bulky pad, no uncomfortable clogging in my vaginal walls thanks to a tampon. and i’ve got to say—for the first time, i didn’t mind the fact that i was on my period.

these self-proclaimed “period-proof” underwear don’t take the place of other methods of period management, such as pads and tampons, necessarily, but they do make your menstrual cycle more worry-free. so, why was i so skeptical, and honestly kind of scared to try them?

i think it’s because i was afraid of failing. i kept thinking, what if these underwear didn’t absorb like they were supposed to? what if i wound up with a red stain on my outfit? how embarrassing that would be, i thought.

that’s part of the problem surrounding periods, too. it seems as though women are supposed to somehow automatically know how to handle what’s happening with their bodies as soon as their periods begin, and they can be made to feel ashamed otherwise. but, period management, and even more importantly, period acceptance is not that simple. it’s a process, certainly one that i feel i’m still working through. but, if these undies were to work—it would be sort of life-changing, so i decided to face my fear and give it a go. i owed it to myself.

sure enough—they worked! with them on, i honestly feel that there’s no more stressing about leaks. and when i decided i was ready to bleed straight into the underwear—no tampon or anything—i was able to without any problems, and it was completely liberating.

the undies give you more freedom with how you’re choosing to deal with your cycle, and that’s pretty much the best thing ever—at least it was for me. once i wore these, i no longer felt like my period was in control. for the first time ever, i felt like i was in control of my period, and that’s something every woman deserves to feel.
 

and that’s the point. thinx give all types of women—teens, those with disabilities, those dealing with perimenopause—a sense of control. and these are precisely the kinds of products we need in our lives.

beyond controlling our periods, we need to understand them and take ownership of them. by talking about them, not being ashamed by them and overall embracing them, that’s how the stigma around them is finally going to shift.

i’ve only just begun my journey of feeling empowered by my period. every time i own the fact that i just want to sit and watch “la la land” just so i can cry, or tell my partner “i’m sitting on this towel so i don’t leak on the couch” without feeling embarrassed or go for a run while listening to the flex founder talk about period management on a podcast, i feel as though i’m bettering myself inside and out. i’m embracing what makes me, me—what makes me a woman, and one who’s unabashedly unashamed of all that means, at that.

i’ve found that talking about my period with my significant other has helped me feel more comfortable in my body. it’s nice that he and i can be open about what’s happening to my body, how i’m feeling without feeling like i have to be discreet about what’s going on with me for 5-7 days out of every month. by discussing it, it changes what my menstrual cycle means, for the both of us.

personally, i’m beginning to feel more comfortable opening up about my menstrual cycle with anyone, especially when i’m wearing my thinx. it’s almost hard not to shout “i’m free-bleeding” from the rooftops with those things on! so, if “that time of the month” even remotely comes up in conversation, i’m quick to tell pretty much anyone about how much i’m loving my newfound source of strength from period management.

making more time for self-care has also worked wonders for me. taking the time to honor and understand your body is something that will help you be able to love yourself, when you’re bleeding and everyday in-between. it’s ok to have bad days, the point is not to feel limited or less than because of them.

“an intimate experience starts with the self. a lot of times times we look to others to create an intimate experience, but really, the ultimate intimacy is the one that you have with yourself,” is what adriene louise from the yoga with adriene youtube channel said in one of her videos, and it really resonated with me. i’m working to create an intimate relationship with myself and my menstrual cycle, and i am advocating for you to do the same.

take some time to openly discuss menstruation with others. develop a space for self-love and self-care. educate yourself on period management and brands that are working to de-stigmatize the subject and provide access to supplies. then, all women can begin to feel more comfortable in their bodies. however you decide to feel about your period—embrace it. find what it means for you.

as i write this i’m also thinking of which yoga video i’m going to do today as well as fully intending on going through mcdonald’s drive-thru for an apple pie. because you guessed it—i’m about to start my period. and you know what, i don’t feel bad about it for a minute. because it’s all about balance. how will you find yours?

it won’t necessarily be an easy path, but it’s one i’m more than willing to explore. and i hope that my honesty with you is encouraging because through this process i’m finding that vulnerability can be a source of strength. courage is cultivated through vulnerability. once we are no longer hindered by something we may feel is a weakness, we can be strengthened by it.

own your body, period and all, and honor all that it does for you. turning the period into a positive is the most empowering, feminine thing you can do.

it’s time to look inwards and redefine the period in a way that works for us. come on ladies, we’ve got some work to do.

lindsay vancantfort