Picture this: an 11-year-old child at dance summer camp (they love to dance), hovering above a toilet seat (they have been told it is the most sanitary and ‘ladylike’ thing to do), squinting at the large brown damp patch on the gusset of their underwear. Their underwear is somewhat difficult to see because of the pillow strapped to their belly (with their father’s old leather belt) and the itchy woollen waistcoat flapping by their sides (their mother’s from the seventies). The theme of the camp is Shrek Forever After (a recent cinema release) and, you guessed it, little 11-year-old me has been cast as Shrek (I am pretty chuffed about it, too). This is the day of the big performance.
Upon seeing my underwear, I am confused at first, mainly because I haven’t experienced any out-of-the-ordinary sensations that would explain this unusual brown patch (and certainly none that could match up to the sensationalised expectations of periods in my head) – just dampness and some dull belly-aching. But that could be nerves, surely? And besides, it couldn’t really be my period because period blood is red, right? Or even blue in some TV adverts!
Sometime much later I learned that older period blood can appear darker in colour – which explains the brownness. This is the story of my first period and it’s certainly a memorable one. As I shimmied and swayed across the dusty parish hall floorboards, dressed as Shrek, with toilet paper stuffed between my legs, I knew deep down that from that point onwards, there was no going back – I had entered the dreaded clutches of ‘womanhood’.
This was around the same time I became notably uncomfortable with being a ‘girl’: being seen as one, treated as one and,
worst of all, looking like one
This was around the same time I became notably uncomfortable with being a ‘girl’: being seen as one, treated as one and, worst of all, looking like one. It’s not that I wanted to look like a boy, I just wanted to look like me (a concept that is ever-evolving and at the present moment varies between colourful, preppy, soft-glam pixie and androgynous, grungy, grubby forest creature). At the time I didn’t realise that my distress was in fact dysphoria because firstly, I had no idea what that was, and secondly, I liked a lot of conventionally ‘girly’ things (oh gender roles, how we hate you) like make up and jewellery…and dancing – so I had to be girl, right? Spoiler alert – that’s not how things turned out! I now identify as trans – specifically genderqueer (and sometimes genderfluid) both of which generally fall somewhere under the non-binary umbrella.
* For those of you who aren’t aware, dysphoria is the distress and discomfort that some trans (and/or non-binary) people experience when our gender does not align with our sex assigned at birth – this can be social, physical and/or psychological. It’s important to note that dysphoria is not what makes us trans – however it can be a part of the trans experience.*
With puberty and periods came the development of breasts and with breasts came dysphoria- laden bra-fitting-room horrors, and with all of the above came the hyper-sexualisation of my pre-teen body (cough cough *male gaze* cough cough). All of these things led me to associate periods with a lack of agency over my own body.
Up until fairly recently, my periods were a symbol of shame, discomfort and secrecy – my Catholic school sex-ed classes have a lot to answer for. I’ve spent most of my life hating my periods and hating my body too, to the point where I had an eating disorder for the best part of my teens, which actually caused me to lose my period for two years. I can’t lie, although having an ED was a horrible experience – physically, mentally and spiritually – the lack of periods was, in some ways, a relief. This is due to the dysmenorrhea (extreme period cramps) that I experience during the first few days of my cycle (not to mention the myriad of PMS symptoms that leave me feeling wildly out of control of my health and my day-to-day life). I experience these symptoms as part of my chronic illness, and the pain of my period cramps is hands-down the worst pain I’ve ever experienced and continue to experience each month (and I’ve had glass shards lodged in my feet, so I’ve felt some pretty intense pain – another dance-related incident).
There is this pressure placed on those of us who are not cis men, especially those of us who have a chronic illness and/or a disability, to be ‘strong’ and ‘brave’
The pain is so intense that I am usually bed bound for the first 24 hours and housebound for the next 48 hours. This is accompanied by nausea, diarrhoea, migraines, panic attacks, gas, back pain, bloating and exhaustion. This causes a huge disruption to my life and makes things awkward both socially and professionally. It doesn’t feel very ‘feminist’ of me to ring my boss or my friends and say, “I can’t leave the house, I’ve got my period.” There is this pressure placed on those of us who are not cis men, especially those of us who have a chronic illness and/or a disability, to be ‘strong’ and ‘brave’ no matter what.
I have to regularly remind myself that just because I experience chronic pain doesn’t mean that I am a ‘fragile feminine flower’ perpetuating misogynistic stereotypes by simply existing.
Although I still hate being in so much pain (and the lack of effective pain-medication available to me), the shame of my period-related experiences is slowly but surely melting away. This is largely due to the fantastic free educational resources that I have discovered online through social media – unlearning internalised ableism (and, moreover, internalised capitalism) has been a key part of reclaiming my body as my own. This has also enabled me to make space for a sliver of admiration for my body – shedding the lining of a uterus is hard work and pretty impressive, all things considered. Having said that, it can be hard to resist the urge to compare my experiences of menstruation to others’ (especially those who don’t experience painful cramps) and inevitably get caught in a downward spiral of ‘If I just tried a bit harder…’ thoughts. Accepting myself, even with the mess of dysphoria, ED recovery and disability, is a daily practice. For me, acceptance is much less important than compassion, which I try to offer myself even in the most painful moments.