A Conversation on Periods and Shame With Filmmaker Leah Manasseh

Recently, I've been reading quite a lot on Brene Brown, an expert on shame1. And it got me thinking about endometriosis, and more precisely, periods. I observed my own social interactions and realized that still, periods have a certain hushed quality. We don't talk about menstruation openly. We refer to them as  "women issues", and we still pass around tampons like some illegal stash. Most importantly, when it comes to the other half of the world who live period-free, their stance is pretty clueless regarding our monthly bleeds. More often than not, we are faced by a male doctor or nurse who will just prescribe us painkillers because periods "are supposed to hurt".

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This is why I decided to chat with Leah Manasseh. She's a filmmaker, director of I Bleed2, a documentary on the complicated, often taboo, subject-matter of periods. My own first period was an unforgettable event, as I ended up hospitalized due to severe blood loss. I remember feeling cheated. My mother had explained periods to me, but she had never said anything about blood, and certainly nothing about heavy bleeding and intense pain. For Leah, this misinformation around periods was quite familiar:

“We never talked about periods in my family"

Leah: "I actually don’t even remember my mother changing pads or even mentioning her periods …It was truly brushed under the carpet. The first time we talked about periods was when my oldest cousin got her periods. I remember us begging her to show us her pads…and that’s it…I don’t remember talking about periods to friends.”

Leah produced her I Bleed documentary around the idea of how periods get talked about amongst families and how they are perceived within different cultures.

Since you began your project, did you find more stories about stigma surrounding periods, or were you surprised with the opposite?

Leah: "When I first started telling people about the project many brushed it off stating that periods were no longer taboo…at least not in the western world. However, the more I interviewed women the more I realized that there was still a stigma around periods, a lack of information, disgust, and shame.”

I was educated in Catholic School. My teachers were not great at enlightening us with regards to what periods meant. We were told to be discreet and abstain from using tampons. Nobody explained period pain, or how much blood we'd shed. As an adult with endometriosis, I find that doctors seem more intent on keeping me fertile than recognizing how insufferable my periods are. Many don't get that what I want is a decent quality of life. They don't understand what it means to lose weeks of one's life from heavy bleeding.

The stigma around periods comes at a price

Most endometriosis patients will spend years unaware that there is anything wrong with their heavy bleeding. Since the age of twelve, I believed my suffering was normal. If I had known the opposite, I could have been diagnosed sooner and my life could have worked out differently. I wouldn’t have lost so much. It makes me wonder whether I could have saved both my career and my relationship, had I been more informed.

What do you think are the effects of secrecy and privacy around periods?

Leah: "Stigma is a way to control women’s bodies. I came to that conclusion after many interviews, research, and reading books. I believe the way the patriarchal capitalistic society is set, is to keep the stigma around our periods alive and kicking. When you are told that your periods are (...) not to be spoken about but are given access to pads, pills, and painkillers to fix your period problems it's very easy to adhere to this mindset. If periods were talked about more openly you’d have more access to information (...) and you’d have the tools to make the right judgments for your body."

Whenever I hear the words taboo or stigma about periods my heart sinks. I hope my niece and my friends' children will be able to grow up in a world in which there are no hushed, confusing conversations about periods. Where, if someone needs a tampon, it's not passed around like some dirty little secret. A world in which, if there is something wrong with their periods, they feel comfortable to talk with whoever needs to hear about it. I really hope all of this is no wishful thinking.

Leah Manasseh's I Bleed project is a safe place to talk about periods. Aside from the documentary, it is a multi-media digital platform with a series on First Periods, and an informative podcast.

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