January 28, 2023

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Where are all the bloody periods in literature?

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I don’t mean “gory” in British slang. This isn’t about grammar. I mean “bloody” literally. As in menstrual blood.

I would like to know why periods are rarely mentioned in the literature. Are you there, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which lands itself on lists of challenged and book banned books; Carrie; The widows of Malabar Hill; killers of a certain age; Fifty shades of gray. Aside from the latter—a tampon removal for the sex scene—all of these books focus on early periods, or menopause, which seems to be why periods appear (or stop) in novels as rarely as they do. As if the bloody years between the first period and menopause usually didn’t exist.

This is incredibly weird and certainly not a representation of real life at all. Each month my text messages are a rotation of very lolsob gifs when friends get their periods. Most of the time the text messages don’t even contain words, they don’t want to chat, they just had to send the elevator doors out into the world in The Shining opening with blood pouring out, Leslie Knopp saying ‘everything hurts and I’m dying’, and a scribbled one Ovary that gushes only blood. To name a few – I could do this all day.

Ever since I got my first period — in a hotel pool for the worst timing award — I’ve had a lot of conversations about periods — because there’s a lot to talk about. Some people have PCOS, endometriosis, need prescription hormones, need a prescription for spasmodic pain, can’t afford toiletries or access, get scared of their period, get the flu, get clumsy with their period, get migraines, get exhausted being allergic to some pads, can’t wear tampons, can only wear tampons, only use the menstrual cup, tried the menstrual cup and it was a disaster – this list could fill an encyclopedia if I continue.

How is it that something that happens to many people over a long period of time is disproportionately left unmentioned in books? Was there a collective decision to just not go there? Do editors casually recommend cutting out those bits? Don’t writers even try to write characters who menstruate? Is menstruation so stigmatized that we simply avoid the topic in the literature?

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According to Unicef, “1.8 billion people around the world menstruate every month.” That’s a billion WITH A B. And that’s in ONE MONTH. You’re telling me that so many people menstruate and it’s not even worth a sentence in a book? Nobody in a sci-fi novel needs to get on a spaceship and think, “How many tampons do I need to pack?!” Nobody in a domestic thriller needs to take a day off to plan the murder of their spouse to save themselves lying down with a heating pad on your stomach and a cool washcloth on your forehead? Every single person in an apocalypse can bypass their period? Vampires don’t find certain people more attractive once a month?

In contrast, here are things I’ve read more about in fiction than a character even mentioning that they’re on their period:

Every visible detail of a woman’s breasts Men masturbating Say a woman has PMS because she’s upset Men having horny thoughts about a woman they don’t know People crying without knowing they are crying Light colored eyes in comparison to water

As a society, we’re at a place where people are clutching beads because Disney’s Turning Red features a mother preparing for her tween daughter to get her period and Episode 3 of Baymax! has tampon purchase.

So what are we really saying when we say very little about periods in literature? If we don’t talk openly about basic things, aren’t we making it easier for misinformation to occur? To shame? Stigma? If we can’t talk openly about periods as a normal bodily function, when are we ever going to talk about things like menstrual fairness/period poverty and reproductive health education to fix harmful inequalities and problems?

We haven’t talked about abortion, and most people don’t know the basics of abortion, and now the US Supreme Court has ruled Roe v. Wade officially waived. Should we really continue to pretend things like menstruation are infrequent instead of normalizing them? If periods aren’t discussed because they’re seen as a women’s issue in a society that doesn’t value women, what power are we giving away? The same people who are angry that a cartoon mother is ready for her daughter to start menstruating – what are they going to do with the Force? How do you react to the fact that not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women?

Novels should normalize periods, from first to menopause, as a defense against stigma, misinformation, and inequality. So please bloody all the books.

For further reading:

PCOS, Endometriosis, and Other Female Challenges: What We Never See in YA Fiction

Period Fantasy: About Mentions of Menstruation in YA

What you should know about period poverty