In the immortal words of the late Joan Rivers: Can we talk?
No one ever really tells you what a mess periods are, do they? Even before they start, no one tells you to expect clotting; or how sometimes you’ll have to wash your hands three or four times to remove the crisp iron scent from under your fingernails. Or how, when you’re stressed, sometimes Aunt Flo shows up unexpectedly and ruins your favorite pair of underwear. How cramps can be so painful, you have to stay in the fetal position with the lights off and a hot water bottle pressed against your belly. And could someone please explain to me how y’all work that Diva Cup?
There’s a mythology about periods that has existed for centuries. Various religions look at this miracle of the body differently, from shunning it to embracing it as a beautiful cycle of life. In one story, it is exalted—the idea that women bleed for up to seven days and don’t die is a power that men fear. In other stories, the body during menses is considered unclean. And as we move through a growing understanding of gender identity, it’s intriguing to think that periods remain attached to womanhood, even as we know that not all women have periods and not all people who have periods are women.
For me, the question is: Where in the public and private sphere do black women have positive conversations about periods? I can only think of a couple of television shows featuring us that have handled periods with grace and love (The Cosby Show and Black-ish); but even in feminist circles, where periods are revered, there is a distinct lack of black women’s voices—particularly in the public zeitgeist.
Even the language my parents and friends used to describe our menstruation—periods, cycle, monthly, “the curse,” “Aunt Flo,” “Shark Week,” “my visitor,” “on the rag”—seemed either to disguise the fact that we bleed, or were derogatory terms that indicate being fed up with our bodies.
Compounding this, among the messages I remember receiving about my reproductive development early on was that men will “ruin” you if you let them. Looking back, it seems like another subtle way that rape culture informs the ways in which we talk about our bodies, both before and after we experience our first period. Men become more than the enemy—they are portrayed as having an unquenchable desire to conquer. And when I became a woman, they would want to conquer me, too. So I had to beware of them; stay away from them, and yet at the same time, eventually I should still have romantic feelings for them, date them and, one day, marry one of them.
Now complicate this with gender identity and sexuality.
My mother is high “femme.” Always has been. Meanwhile, I’ve always been a tomboy. Always wanted to wear boys’ clothing; always wanted to be around boys; never really understood girls. So the changes I experienced from childhood to womanhood were not only unwanted but wrapped up in complex (and sometimes shaming) messages about what type of woman I would become—or, rather, what kind of woman I should become.
And then, of course, our periods are almost always connected to pregnancy. In my early years, the message I received was that pregnancy was “bad”—that is, until I got to my 20s, and suddenly everyone wanted to know when I was having a baby.
This policing of women’s bodies begins, really, right from the moment we are born, when doctors take it upon themselves to name us female (or male), solely based on our genitals. We should be past the ideology of children as property, but we’re not, so in addition to our virtue/virginity, our bodies are first the property of our parents. Then, when we begin menses, this property is fiercely guarded.
As we age, our monthly bleeding—or lack thereof—then becomes an indicator of not only womanhood but desirability, even sexiness. A woman going through menopause is told in not-so-subtle ways that she’s a crone, past viability. Look at our movies and TV shows: How many times have you seen a 60-year-old man with a 30-year-old wife or girlfriend? Now, how many times have you seen the opposite? Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
We are given the message that men age like wine. Women? Like milk.
And when I think specifically about black women’s connection to our sexual health, I am reminded that the so-called father of modern gynecology, James M. Sims, performed experiments on female slaves, and that people of color have endured forced sterilization. So how can we even begin to see our bodies as temples of joyous sensual power?
Womanhood, in its present form, is most often complicated by loss. Loss of innocence; loss of safety; loss of purity. But why? If we really value womanhood, then why is it so constricting? There is beauty in the hormonal changes that arrive with our “friend” every month. I certainly don’t need to bleed (which I don’t, but that’s another story) to feel the changes. But I know that at the end of that hormonal shift, I still feel renewed.
And maybe this is the conversation we should be having about our friend Aunt Flo: That every month, women get to start anew, refreshed and rejuvenated. Maybe we can shift the narrative about black women’s sexual health. We need to use our Afrofuturist minds to reimagine a world in which young black women are ushered into womanhood with kindness, love and joy. The natural processes of our bodies—from the blossoming of our breasts and filling out of our hips to the inevitable hormonal shifts that may (or may not) result in menses—should be celebrated as a step into a brand-new part of our lives.