Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Etiquette for menstruation

November 19th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Photo courtesy of

Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to lend an excerpt of my recently released book to the UK Sunday Times Style magazine. The mostly fashion-centric Style magazine is not really known for its edginess or risk-taking (except perhaps in the realm of shoe and make-up choices) and so I was happily surprised when the editor told me that the subject matter discussed in my book that she happened to find most interesting was, in fact, menstruation. I had expected her to want to focus on condoms perhaps, or just my personal story, but no, she was keenly interested in what I wrote about periods.

The argument I make in my book is that how we feel about hormonal birth control is inextricably linked to how we feel about menstruation. In a sense, many of the newer methods of hormonal birth control, as well as the newer uses (running packets of pills together, prescriptions for cramps or heavy bleeding) show an effort to get rid of the period completely, rather than just hide it away. I also discuss in the book, briefly, menstruation activism. However, I do defer to the far better work done by the likes of SMCR’s own Chris Bobel who writes on this topic with far more knowledge (not to mention wit).

You can read the feature in full here at my website (it’s otherwise behind an online pay wall and frankly I’m pleased to rob Rupert Murdoch of a few pounds by making it freely available).

In the end, the feature was not exactly an excerpt from my book – more so it was quotes from the book mixed with quotes from a long interview with the editor. Therefore I didn’t quite know what would be published in the magazine. The finished piece covered a range of controversial topics seen here at re:Cycling regularly – menstrual outing, reusable femcare products, the potential health benefits of ovulation…

If the high point of my career was getting the word “patriarchy” into the notoriously right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, I think I had another peak seeing this sentence in the Style (notorious for its high priced designer fashion spreads) – “This movement believes the act of stopping and hiding our periods with hormonal contraceptives and sanitary products is a mark of corporate ownership of our bodies.” I take great pride in also getting a discussion of menstrual extraction on to Style’s pages, and therefore onto the breakfast table of approximately one million British people – “an entire period’s worth of menstrual blood could be removed in a few hours instead of being experienced over days.” Well, if we can have Page 3, why not menstrual extraction?

The editor who did such a great job on this piece was Fleur Britten and in a funny twist of fate I realized, during our conversations, that in my first full time working position after college, at the publishing company Debrett’s in London, I worked as a production assistant on one of her books – Etiquette for Girls. At that time controversy surrounded Fleur’s section on the proper etiquette for one-night stands (I think it was something about getting out quickly, quietly, but leaving a nice handwritten note). So, it made me smile to see her skewer the etiquette of menstruation in the opening paragraph of this piece: “Many women are bored with having to take a whole handbag into the ladies rather than carry a tampon in their hand. Men say “I’m going to take a dump,” but we don’t say, “I’m just going to change my tampon.””

When I was carrying the proofs of Fleur’s book to the printers back some seven years ago, little did I know we would be conspiring to get the British public to say “I am menstruating” today over tea and toast.

28 responses to “Etiquette for menstruation”

  1. ST says:

    Hey, wow! Awesome! Way to go!

  2. Sourceress says:

    Had to play a little ‘Blood in the Boardroom’… I can make life, honey… I can make BREATH….

  3. Sourceress says:

    When I first started making and distributing an alternative to disposable pads, lovely cotton and terry pads that can be washed, in 88, there was a parallel evolution of 5 others beside myself, who completely unbeknownst to one another, and living in a 50 mile radius, who all began making cloth pads in that same time period. When the World Wide Web first became a reality, or rather, search engines became a tool for public use, I used to search for hits on the word ‘menstruation’ and there was 1. US. The Moonwit Collective… I am old now and no longer make cloth pads. My daughters are all grown and on their own now and menstruation is a part of my past as Cronehood takes me to other callings, however I wanted to share that the day that I googled menstruation and there were over 400,000 hits of options for information, I knew I could lay down my baton of determination to educate women about the workings of their reproductive marvels and let the next wave of brilliant, informed minds take up where I left off. Thank you from the bottom of my menstruation loving heart!

  4. Becca says:

    Except that life without one’s period is awesome! People may think its symbolic of “corporate ownership of our bodies,” but I see it as a triumph of modern medical science.

    Those who have read the sequel to “Harriet the Spy,” a book called “The Long Secret,” may remember the characters grappling with menstruation. Harriet’s best friends, Beth Ellen and Janie, each describe menstruation in a way that is consistent with their characters. Beth Ellen tells of how her grandmother taught her that menstruation is caused by rocks inside of a women’s body. Harriet is horrified, so Janie, the aspiring scientist of the trio, explains the biology. Harriet finds the real explanation just as bad and implores Janie to find a cure. When I read that as an adolescent, I too wished that someone would find the cure for menstruation, as I found it completely miserable. I thought to myself that someday, somebody like Janie will find a cure. I lived with that hope for years.

    Fortunately in my early twenties, I found out about the Mirena IUD. One of the side effects of the Mirena is greatly reduced periods. In fact, I’m in the lucky minority that has almost no period at all.

    You cannot imagine how freeing that is. It is GREAT.

    Is it a mark of corporate ownership? Or self ownership?

    I believe it is the latter, and I have no regrets.

  5. Louisa says:

    Prolonged hormonal control is not recommended due to side effects of anti contraceptive pills. If you can get away with pills for the pain, it’s better to avoid hormonal methods.
    Ask any doctor.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I agree with Becca above. How could anyone not want to make it go away if they could?

    I didn’t start taking the pill until I was 30, having been scared off by all the horror stories of bloating, acne and mood swings they cause, and I can tell you it’s a miracle drug for me. Before hormone supplements I had literally NO IDEA when a period was going to come. I counted off the days on the calendar like all the books tell good little girls to do, waiting for the fabled “pattern” to emerge. Well, the pattern I established over those 20 years is anywhere between 27 and 72 days. That is to say, none at all.

    So I learned, in my teens, to constantly, every waking hour, keep one corner of my mind steadily trained between my legs to react to the slightest feeling of moisture. “Oh god, is that blood? I’d better go check!” And off to the toilet I’d run to see if I needed to put some protection in my pants. Apart from the first 20 days after the last period, this was ALL THE TIME.

    Twice in my life I’ve ruined other people’s furniture by unexpectedly gushing blood all over it. Moreover, I have severe vestibulitis today — which means extreme pain on penetration, whether sexual or gynecological. My theory is that after 20 years of constant vigilance against any form of moisture between my legs, I trained my body not to produce the fluids I need. If someone had put me on hormone supplements in my mid-teens, I might actually like sex today. (On the other hand, the pills they had back then were much stronger and more harmful than the ones available today.)

  7. Ducky says:

    I don’t like menstruation much either. In January I will have been doing it for 39 years. No kidding. In my 50s and it still comes along every month and now so heavy it’s hard to manage the flow. I’d like to get rid of all the cramps and I’d like to get rid of PMT and I’d like not to have to use a super plus extra tampon every 90 minutes for the second day.

    But get rid altogether? No. It’s mine. Hands off.

  8. Laurel says:

    I have found myself in the minority many times over this same topic. I remember the first day I started my period and proudly announcing to my family that I was a woman now. We went out to dinner and celebrated.

    I’ve never liked hormonal birth control. I tried the pill as a teenager but eventually went on to rely on condoms. I requested the copper (non hormonal) IUD, and was told I’m not a good candidate and that I should consider hormonal methods by a doctor. When I said that I loved my periods, I almost felt condescended to, as she replied, “You are unique in that.”

    I got a second opinion and the IUD.

  9. Natalie says:

    I got my first period when I was 12… No one ever told me I would deal with as much pain as I do, I went threw hell for years till when I was 17 I finally was told why? I have endometriosis and extremely painful periods… There is a name for my second condition I just can’t pronounce nor spell it…. I’m still dealing with it, I tried depo, and other birth controls that lessen the frequency of your me narration but it only seemed to make me worse… It is really disheartening when your life is affected like this, especially when doctors don’t care that your sick of living like this… Did I mention I’m unable to take painkillers they make me sick to my stomach… Any ideas I’m open to hearing them!
    Losing hope in Ontario,

  10. Jen says:

    For those with cramps, dysmenorrhea, or other complications, periods are not worth it. I would take enough aleve and midol to pass out from age 11 until 18 when I could go on the pill (my mother was against it for fear of increased clotting risk). It wasn’t until age 22 I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome. The pill allowed me to actually operate those one to two weeks a month my period lasted. I switched to Mirena last year when I aged out of my parents’ health insurance. I’m already going to get it removed because it also gives me two week periods. For me, the pill is my miracle drug.

  11. Amanda M. says:

    I always had a rather normal/plesant period, as far as periods go… predictable with some cramps, some stained underwear, but never furniture-staining, random classroom gushing etc. that I hear so much about.

    However I always felt limited and forced into gender rolls because of it.

    For example, I was always annoyed at having to carry a handbag AT ALL. Men just put their wallet in their pocket, grab their keys and go. I was forced to carry a bag due to the fact that a pad or tampon applicator rarely fits into my pockets, and because of the possibility that there may not be a place to dispose of a used tampon/pad (I certainly wasn’t going to put THAT in my pocket). And once I started using cloth pads, obviously not carrying a handbag wasn’t an option.

    As a teen, if I was on my period and a friend came over randomly and said “Let’s go to the pool!” I would often have to ask the driver to stop at the store first. “Why?” they would always say. And then I’d have to say “I have to get some tampons.” My mother lost her period rather early into my period career, and then declared that she would no longer buy sanitary products. So I would have to, with my meager teenage earnings, buy them myself (while still ensuring I had enough to get into the pool). I’d go into the store, fearing that the cashier would make smalltalk about what I was buying, as cashiers sometimes do, or that I would get the cute male cashier.

    So often, instead of dealing with all that, I had to just say “No, I can’t go.”

    (Now I realize there are other options, that there’s no reason to be embarrassed; and that if I had told my dad what my mom said, he would see it as something akin to toilet paper, something that should be coming out of the family money. But as a teen I had no way of knowing all that.)

    As I got a bit older (before I discovered that I could make my own cloth pads), the fact that I always had to purchase sanity products, always had to ensure there were some in the house – THAT made me feel as if there was corporate ownership of my body. At one point, shortly after we became a one-car family, I ran out while my husband was at work. I felt so stupid, and I couldn’t call my husband home from work to bring me some. I would have been too embarrassed to do so if I could – not embarrassed that I was on my period, at that point, but embarrassed that I had allowed myself to run out. I had to put a toddler in a stroller and make a trek to the nearest convenience store, which was quite a walk away, and then overpay for a small amount of pads.

    And no matter how comfortable I was with my period, it doesn’t mean men would be as well. Though sex is the best cure for cramps, some guys flat out refuse to do it.

    And don’t even get me started about the challenges of managing a period when I was homeless.

    I don’t need blood stains to prove to others that I am a strong female capable of doing something that many others can’t. At one point I needed it to reassure myself that I wasn’t pregnant, but now I’m familiar enough with my own body that I don’t need that.

    I HAVE heard others say “I’m going to go change my tampon/pad” in the same way that people say “I’m gonna go take a dump”. I’ve had “I’m on my period” discussions over tea and toast. The only reason this is mostly discussed only with other women, is because guys can’t relate. We can all relate to taking a dump. We can relate to things like breaking a bone or getting a headache. Even if we have never experienced that exact thing, we have something similar we can use to relate. But guys have nothing at all like menstruation.

  12. Moses says:

    Hey folks, female tomboy here.

    I will say that the male counterpart for saying “I need to change my tampon”, would probably be something more like “I need to go masturbate”, or in some cases “I need to get my prostate examined”, both things I’ve never heard guys say when leaving for the bathroom. It’s not just us; society is rather weird about sexual fluids for everybody. That said….

    I find this recent trend toward the erasure of the period in birth control to be somewhat…disconcerting. Since I’m fairly comfortable with my cycle and therefore only use birth control for what it says in the title, I have no desire to erase my cycle and I sincerely hope that this new trend doesn’t end up supplanting the more mild stuff I prefer.

    I actually have a theory that some (though not all cases) of severe PMS might actually be caused by psychological suggestion from an early age. Think about it; how many times have my fellow commenters here heard their monthly recycling week (lol), referred to as “the woman’s curse”, before they had their first period? I know I heard about it no less than a dozen times, but ultimately I didn’t really believe it, or the idea about massive mood swings, or any of it. I thought it was bunk.

    Considering just how much psychology can affect the body and how one of my fellow commenters has mentioned possibly changing the flow of her natural fluids as a result of this, I’m curious as to how much of our PMS problem is actually manufactured by sexist myths about our bodies…

  13. Amanda M. says:

    Well, I have to say, my periods were NOT pleasant enough for me to liken them to masturbating 😀

    You do know guys don’t get their prostate examined in the bathroom, right? :) And I don’t consider menstruation to be a sexual fluid any more than amniotic fluid. Maybe nocturnal emission could somewhat be seen as a parallel, but then again that is an actual sexual fluid, just excreted in what may be an embarrassing way….

    Totally disagree with the power of suggestion thing, though. Before I got my period, the extent of what I knew about it was a very basic. That I’d bleed once a month and had to wear a pad (I didn’t even find out about tampons until a little later). I only watched old sitcoms, black and white type stuff, where the husband and wife couldn’t even be seen in the same bed – there was no talking about PMS. If there was it was done in such an analogy type way that I, not being in on the joke, didn’t get it. My parents did not talk about it at all. Yet before even my first period, when I had no idea it was coming, I got PMS. And then POST menstrual syndrome as my hormones changed again.

    I did not learn what it was called/that PMS existed, did not learn of the “woman’s curse” thing, etc. until years later. Quite honestly, a part of the reason I use hormonal birth control is because it regulates my hormones. I could take a separate hormone-regulating medication, but why? What is the good part about having a period?

    For thousands of years, women would have constantly been pregnant or breastfeeding and so wouldn’t have had periods.

    But I guess if you see it as akin to masturbation, then I can see why you’d want to have it 😀

  14. Cassie M says:

    The “psychological” thing might apply in some cases… But not all, and it’s probably a mix for some. Dread, shame, worry, etc can definitely cause muscles to tense, making any muscular problem worse, but that doesn’t explain away all pain (though it is part of why drinking alcohol while on your period can help get rid of cramps).

    I hadn’t even HEARD of a period until I went on mine fairly early (yay the South! -sarcasm-), and I’ve always had painful, sickening ones that induce migraines and crash my immune system (plus only extremely heavy-duty pain meds work for me, so I can’t even take something to dull the pain). So yeah while regular birth control should absolutely be available for people who don’t have bad periods, it’s a serious medical condition for others. I actually wish they’d just make meds focusing on controlling the menstrual cycle rather than preventing pregnancy – I get the feeling that might be more useful, and it’d be nice if there was actually labeling about how something would impact your period.

  15. Moses says:

    I definitely wouldn’t suggest that suggestion was a universal cause. What I am curious about though, is how much of our pain is caused by taboo, and how much isn’t.

  16. Moses says:

    “Well, I have to say, my periods were NOT pleasant enough for me to liken them to masturbating”

    I was likening based on the fact that both semen and menstrual blood are both fluids with a distinctly sexual origin, not based on sensation. You didn’t have your period before puberty, did you?

    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been having hormonal trouble. My argument was never that period-reducing or erasing pills shouldn’t exist for people that do have severe problems, but rather that we shouldn’t push it on ladies that like…well, me, don’t really have that problem.

    “For thousands of years, women would have constantly been pregnant or breastfeeding and so wouldn’t have had periods.”

    Not really, actually. Birth control methods have existed in various odd forms for thousands of years (think mistletoe for instance).

    High birth rates existed in more rural environments, so that the mothers would have plenty of younger hands to support her and hopefully her husband when she got older. City-living women rarely had such large families if they could avoid it, and for the most part, they could! There’s actually a type of fennel that was used for birth control during the Roman Empire. It was actually so popular that it ended up being driven to extinction.

    So yeah, women have probably had periods since, like, forever.

  17. Angie says:

    reading this article and these posts has been so awakening for me! I’m inspired to write my own ‘period’ story. My experience has been completely different from all of your yours yet I feel connected to all your stories in the sense that its something we ALL experience and those experiences are as diverse as we are. The one thing I take away from this is that women SHOULD talk about these things for several reasons-to support each other through common life experiences, to move toward change so we can feel confident that the products available to us are to help us, not just make it more comfortable for men or to line the pockets of pharma companies and to eradicate shame and mystery and make it better for our daughters.

  18. Angie says:

    I started my period at age 12 in the bathroom of the bar my dad hung out at when he remembered to pick us up from school. I thought I pooped my pants. I was mortified. Then I remembered the 4th grade movie we had in school. So I told my Mom and in her usual non nurturing way she said-well youre a woman now guess I have to buy you some pads.I had debilitating cramps that would hit anytime anywhere as I could never predict when my period would come. my classmates hadnt gotten theirs yet so I was alone there.I would throw up a day or two take so much tylenol and ibuprofen that ending up in a coma in the hospital was preferable to what I was going through. I heard about the pill when I was 19 and after a lecture from a young catholic dr about how I should just get pregnant i got the pill and a whole new world opened up for me. I could drive, I could work, I could go to school. my anxiety was greatly reduced because I wasnt a prisoner to not knowing what was happening to me. I began to experience pms and went off the pill at 28 with no incidence-had one period and got pregnant with my daughter.

  19. Holly says:

    Thanks for the comment Becca.

    Although I understand that some women feel their period is a real burden, whether that’s due on pain, PMS, or inconvenience, I however strive to make sure we can contextualize these feelings. None of us make decisions in a vacuum, and however independent we feel we are all influenced by exterior forces. There may be very real reasons for us to dislike our periods and there may be some bound to cultural and social messages, not to mention corporate messages. Social pressure may make some of the very real issues more of an issue than they might be in a different social and cultural setting.

    I find it hard to accept the idea of self-ownership in this case as it involves the denial of a part of one’s self in a sense. Through history women have seen their selves as separate from their bodies and have described menstruation as something that happens TO them instead of something that is a part of them. Good or bad, periods are something that women do, not something done to women.

    You may find this article I wrote for Dame regarding menstrual suppression interesting:

    I believe full information is crucial to informed consent. We must know what we have before we decide we are happy to get rid of it. If we are fully informed and we do decide suppression is our best choice – so be it, and here we welcome the progress of modern medicine.

  20. Holly says:

    Thank you for the comment. Yes, there’s more information out there – but plenty more misinformation too! We are still working to put the information into informed consent and help women untangle the ideology from the science. Thanks for your work towards this cause!

  21. Holly says:

    Perhaps, but we must remember that many women experience negative sexual side effects from birth control pills including pelvic pain, pain during sex, decreased lubrication, decreased orgasm, lowered libido, desire, and sexual thoughts. I had one pill that made me bleed like I was dying every time I had sex – it thinned the cervical wall producing tearing. The doctor made the correlation, so not speculation here.

  22. Holly says:

    Yes, unfortunately, although the IUD is gaining in popularity the majority of the medical establishment prefers the Mirena hormonal IUD over the copper. This appears to mainly be because it is considered to lighten periods or get rid of them altogether – this is generally seen as a benefit and a bonus to every and any woman. Also this is seen as a non issue medically speaking.

    In a culture with a menstrual taboo the bias will be towards the Mirena. Even if some women experience MORE bleeding as they have consistent breakthrough bleeds, spotting, etc and not regular periods.

    I have also heard stories from women who have been refused the copper IUD. Good for you for seeking a second opinion.

  23. Holly says:

    Hi Natalie,

    I’m sorry to hear this. It is worth checking out the work of Dr Jerilynn Prior, a member of this society, as she has developed alternative protocols for dealing with such issues that treat and cure the problem instead of masking it.

    Also worth looking at the book ‘Woman Code’ by Alisa Vitti – she cured herself of PCOS with diet changes and is head of FLO Living. Lots of great success stories from her protocol.

  24. Holly says:

    Hi Amanda – you may want to check out my quick article over at Dame as it explains some of the myths of menstrual suppression.

    Comparisons to the experiences of primitive women are actually founded in one particular work, produced by the man behind several hormonal birth control options that have since made a lot of money for all involved. There’s very little real evidence, it is only speculation.

    As you will see in my article above, menstruation and ovulation are linked within the hormonal cycle. We are being taught that periods are not important and there’s no consequence to suppressing them, but research suggests otherwise, and there’s little research to prove that assertion.

  25. Holly says:

    There are people working on treating and curing menstrual cycle issues:

    Hormonal imbalances produce many of these problems – heavy bleeding, pain, PMS, etc – and these can be treated and cured. The Pill however does not treat the root cause, only the symptoms. When you come off the Pill the problems will return.

    Often a root cause is diet and exercise – Alisa Vitti’s ‘Woman Code’ addresses this. If not, there is the progesterone therapy you can read about at the above link.

  26. Holly says:

    Moses – there are those who believe we are part of a feedback loop and that the negative messages we receive regarding menstruation do impact our experience – both in causing more tension, stress, anxiety and therefore more pain and discomfort and in causing our periods to be an “inconvenience” and “unmanageable” because of the pressures of our every day lives. Our society is not structured to fit women having a period, and so we have pressured women to fit the society by not having a period. Our society and culture does make it very difficult to have your period, in many different ways, despite the apparent efforts to make things more convenient with disposable pads etc.

Readers should note that statements published in Menstruation Matters are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.