This is a memory I can recall vividly to every last, minute detail. In the 12th standard, I sat at my desk in math class, completing an assignment. As I finished the last question, I happened to sneeze – and that’s when I knew. A waterfall erupted from between my thighs (no, not the good kind; math isn’t that exciting), prompting me to look down at my gray pants to find a bright red period stain.
My eyes widened. I looked around to survey my classroom: a ten to one boy-girl ratio, a teacher focused on marking mid-term exams, and a window that I could possibly jump out of to avoid shame. “At least that could explain the blood stains without embarrassing me,” I snickered. But what did I actually do? I sunk into my chair, burrowed my head in my schoolwork, and pretended to work on a problem that I had already solved. I prayed to the holy period gods – yes, I am convinced that there do exist such deities – and hoped nobody would notice.
Of course, I was the solitary girl in that class, leaving me pad-less and afraid. I blame the systemic discouragement of women from entering STEM fields for that, but in that moment, there was a bigger problem to solve. “You can’t focus on the patriarchy right now, you have to make sure to shield boys from the vicious evils of menstruation!” I berated myself. I waited for the bell to ring, signifying the end of the school day. Then, I waited until everyone left. Accomplishing the final step in my masterplan, I sprinted to the lost and found, grabbed a random jacket, and tied it around my waist. I could bring back that ‘90s skater chick look, right? Yes. Totally. That’s definitely why I picked the dirty, stained jacket up. “Mysterious stains are always better than period stains,” I thought, only half-assured.
It’s been a few years since that “accident” (though I’ve faced many situations like it afterwards) and I still continue to struggle with period leaks in public, obsessing over how to prevent period blood stains while simultaneously criticising menstrual taboos. It makes me feel like a bad feminist – does my social anxiety around period stains prevent me from fully embodying my beliefs? I’ve certainly never judged another menstruator for their period stains, but I find myself tormented by thoughts of someone mocking me for mine.
I wonder if I’ve been conditioned to experience period stain anxiety after years of keeping my menstrual cycle all hush-hush and carrying around my pads in a whole Russian-doll situation, that is, pad in pouch in purse in backpack. Surely the boys in my classroom had seen blood before, they were always scratching themselves up on the football field (as stereotypical as that sounds). Surely, I could’ve asked my teacher if it would be okay to go to the washroom. Surely, everything would’ve been alright. But my menstruation-related anxiety persuaded me otherwise.
Since then, I’ve had conversations with my friends about their own stain-related experiences. I mean, haven’t we all been asked to verify if someone’s pants were clean? I’ve even lurked forums about social anxiety and menstruation to search for data about the intersections between the two. I’ve found lots of information that suggests PMS and hormones could cause temporary anxiety or increase feelings of anxiety for those who already experience it, but nobody wants to talk about the specific and independent stress of period stains. These anxieties aren’t just passing concerns, they have harmful impacts and hold us back from achieving our potential; Girls in rural India will skip school for fear of staining their uniforms and I’ve even heard outrageous accounts of how wives will wait until their husbands are fast asleep to wash their stained clothes. Because we’re forced into silence about our periods, we’re expected to keep our period blood to ourselves too – despite the fact that sometimes, it’s just not in our control.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to free-bleed or unabashedly wear white pants during my period like in those TV ads, but I’m working on confronting and coping with my period stain anxiety, erasing the period taboos I’ve been conditioned to follow – one spot at a time. I hope you’ll join me.