Tackling Taboos

Mum and Dad bought their first house when I was six; they were very happy to live on the ground and have a garden and Mum said we wouldn’t move again now we had our own house. But the new estate was a long walk from the shopping parade in the little town. Luckily the greengrocer came round in his van, the butcher’s boy came round on his bike and the milkman delivered a box of groceries weekly.

 When I was old enough to go cycling off on my own I would be sent on urgent errands to the little parade of shops on the next estate. Sometimes Mum would give me a note to hand to the lady in the drapers. She would reach under the counter, put a packet in a brown paper bag and give it to me, these were Mum’s sanitary towels.

We emigrated to Western Australia when I was eleven, exactly five years after Mum said we weren’t going to move again. After a few weeks at school the summer holidays started and so did my first period. I was not shocked because my mother had told me what to expect, but I was mortified and furious that it had happened so soon, ruining the holidays. One day I came home and said Christine’s mother wanted to take us all swimming. Mum said Did you tell her you had your period. I replied that I had been too embarrassed. Going to the local chemist was also nerve racking, the sanitary products were not hidden away, far from it, illuminated signs advertised Modess in larger stores. But if I went into the chemist and there was a man behind the counter, or a male customer walked in, I sneaked out empty handed.

I started at my new high school of fourteen hundred pupils. One day all the boys were ordered to stay in the classrooms and all the girls ordered to the largest quadrangle to be addressed by the headmistress. The talk was about the correct use of the new incinerets being installed in the girls’ toilets. I was always rather nervous of these machines.

By strange coincidence they were discussing periods on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio Four, just as I started writing this blog; no taboos on this daily programme, they talk about everything, but modern schoolgirls still feel periods aren’t treated a normal.

 Men would not put up with it, or perhaps not survive. Forty years or more of our bodies getting ready to conceive every month, keeping the equipment working when we may want to use it only once, twice or never. Suffering varying from cramps to endometriosis laying you up every month. In my mother’s young days at the bank she was dispatched every month in a cab to deliver her poor colleague home, ill with her period. They must have had an understanding boss. Modern life has not dispatched with the age old problems, but recently there has been a flurry of discussion from every angle.

A while ago a marathon runner apparently decided to run without period protection, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. It sounds like my worst school PE nightmare come true and I’m not sure what she was trying to prove, that we shouldn’t be ashamed presumably. There are plenty of cultures where women were and still are ( according to the posters in Ladies’ toilets at motorway services ) expected to go and sit out in the desert till their period has finished. Some major religions connect menstruation to spiritual impurity.

But even when periods are treated as normal and healthy there are other aspects which have come up for serious discussion lately.

 There is the environmental issue and some women are making their own reusable pads; things have turned full circle, my mother and her sisters made their own pads out of torn up old sheets and had to soak them in a bucket of salt water.

Then there is period poverty. At first we smugly thought it only happened in third world countries and to refugees on the move with none of life’s necessities. Then it turned out many school girls in Britain can’t afford to buy sanitary protection, making my teenage trials and tribulations seem petty. Scotland is leading the world in supplying free products to all schools and colleges. In the rest of Britain charities are donating products to schools and food banks. 

My novel Quarter Acre Block is inspired by our family’s migation to Austalia. The story is told from two points of view, eleven year old Jennifer’s and her mother’s.