Updated: May 31
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
When I was in fourth grade my public school sent all the students to a sex education class. It was somehow separate from the standard curriculum. The tension and discomfort of the adults was palpable, yet they put on a brave, though somewhat flushed face to warn us kids about the dangers of sex before most of the girls started menstruating. The class focussed primarily on body changes in puberty, horrific sexually transmitted infection details, pregnancy, and menstruation. Or more correctly, it was just the girls that learned about menstruation. At a time when gory horror movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street were played at every sleepover birthday party, educators deemed it inappropriate to include boys in the menstruation “talk.” The girls attended that lesson by themselves. While the instructor probably said something along the lines of it’s completely natural and nothing to be ashamed of, the lesson was clear: menstruation is shameful and something to hide.
In Seeing Red author Kirsten Karchmer breaks down the lies that women have been made to believe about their periods. The shame lie is just one of many. Unfortunately, since menstruation is a taboo subject, it’s not surprising that so many people are uninformed about this common, biological process that is critical to the survival of the species. Remember, the boys at my school also got the message that periods were to stay hidden. Since we live in a society where the balance of power lies with men, there is little motivation from those in charge to flip the script. We’ve all been conditioned that the sight of menstrual blood is too gory.
Despite my early conditioning to cringe at the mention of periods, I was very excited to read this book. I was reminded of another book that had inspired me to talk about women’s health. While pregnant with my first child I took a book out of the library as I followed up on the references of a technical journal article about human development. I had planned on merely checking the source, and moving on, but surprised myself by reading the entire book. I just couldn’t put it down. It was called Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. This book contained information about my body that I had never heard before. It was immensely interesting and liberating. I was outraged. How was it that this information existed, and I had never heard about it? It’s not like I had been idle for the 25 years between the humiliating fourth grade sex-ed class and now. In high school I took all the sciences. For leisure, I read countless sexuality, anatomy, and health books. In university, I took a course named Introduction to Human Sexuality. I talked openly and frankly to my doctors and even asked questions. And yet.
.Yet, the information I’d been given was incomplete. I was given some very basic understanding, generalized guidelines, and left to figure out the rest on my own. Imagine approaching other subjects in the same way. It would be like teaching a child addition and subtraction then leaving it up to them to figure out algebra. They might be able to do it, but it’s also possible they’d go through life accepting that was the full extent of math. Especially if they were simultaneously told that math was shameful.
Was I the only one? I started talking about this book to every woman in my life. The answer was an emphatic ‘no.’ They were often just as surprised as me, and this wasn’t earth shattering stuff – it was merely a comprehensive explanation of the female reproductive system as it pertains to fertility. It shattered myths such as ovulation happens 14 days after the onset of menstruation. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, and it isn’t actually a big mystery either way. It was pretty easy to pinpoint ovulation after I learned what the physical signs were. That skill that came in really handy when I wanted to figure out when I was ovulating before my period returned after child birth. Upon becoming pregnant with my second child, it was both amusing and empowering to answer my doctor’s question “when was the first day of your last period?” It was over two years ago but I gave her my exact ovulation day. The doctor was skeptical, but the first ultrasound generated an identical due date estimate.
What about the youth of today? Based on many, many articles I found about sex education, it is still a very touchy subject. There are lots of strong arguments for improved sex-ed, and still many people are against it completely. It seems as though things haven’t changed much since I was in grade four. There are many good reasons for co-ed sex-ed, yet very few of the articles touched on the destigmatizing of menstrual periods and the resulting health benefits for about half the population. An exception is It’s Time To Expand The Menstruation Conversation from The Establishment. Granted, The Washington Post touched on menstruation in their perspective piece Why we shouldn’t be separating boys and girls for sex ed, but most websites I visited didn’t specifically talk about the health benefits of teaching all kids about menstruation.
With all the controversy surrounding sex-ed, I’m thinking maybe the fastest way to destigmatize menstruation is to teach it in science class during an anatomy unit. It would feel right at home sandwiched between the cardiovascular system and the digestive system, and could be disentangled from the (adult) discomfort surrounding sex-ed in general.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to unlearn the shame about periods that sex-ed reinforced, and encourage others to do the same by talking about menstruation like it’s a completely normal biological process. Revolutionary, I know.
For those of you with preteens looking for someone to openly answer their questions about periods, Kirsten Karchmer has them covered, too. They can ask her directly on TikTok @theperiodexpert or check out the content she has there already. The questions asked thus far painfully reveal how little education kids have received about their bodies.
Did you receive sex-ed in school? How did it inform your current beliefs or feelings about periods? We’d love to hear from you. Comment below, email us, or connect through the Book Interrupted Book Club Facebook group! Or better yet, help us fight the stigma and have fun along the way by entering the Book Interrupted's Period Posts Contest.