Let's talk: the tampon taboo in India
We need to talk to each other about our periods, own our periods, and ensure that we reclaim the options that are available to us.
I grew up believing sanitary pads were a kind of portable ink blotter - handy and always available in case a stream of blue liquid magically appeared and poured out of nowhere. When I was eleven, my mother had The Talk with me. She patiently explained to me that my frantically furtive research of biology in our family encyclopaedia was painful for the rest of the family to watch, and my sudden interest was a result of changing hormones. She reassured me that the changes in my body, which had convinced me that my life was coming to a swift end, was not, in fact, the sign of death, but merely the early onset of puberty. She told me that soon, I would be all grown up - a woman.
Fast forward a couple of years - I had just had my thirteenth birthday, and I was incredibly upset. I was a teenager, finally, but I still hadn’t had my first period. I remember being frustrated at having to wait so long to be ‘all grown up’, and praying every night that I would be able to call myself a woman the next day. When my period finally came, I embraced it, I loved it, I revelled in it - until the first cramp rolled down my spine. By the time I went to bed that night, I felt so miserable and betrayed at having to deal with these growing pains, I would have done anything to not be all grown up. And yet, the day I got my first period, I had a second round of The Talk with my mother. She showed me how to place, use, and dispose of a pad. She bought me pads in different sizes, explained flow schedules to me, and was just so warm and open about it, that I found myself slowly learning to deal with the pain and fall in love with the woman I was growing into.
Fast forward again - I was twenty, I was at college, and I had run out of pads. I asked my classmate if she could lend me one, and when I stretched my hand out to receive the pad without any of the boys seeing, I was surprised to feel a bullet shaped capsule fall into my hand. A tampon! It was such an exotic option - I had to try it, I didn’t have a choice. That afternoon, as soon as I got home, I told my mom all about my first time using a tampon; and I was so excited. I remember telling her, ‘Amma, I didn’t even have to feel like I was on my period!’. The next thing I knew, my mother had taken to her bed, devastated. She said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve just done. I can never accept this.’
I was confused. I could never hurt Mom, not on purpose. And I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. But then she said ‘It’s like you’ve lost your virginity already!’ I couldn’t believe my mother, who was always so supportive and kind about my body and its changes, about my menstrual cycle, about my reproductive health, would react like this. But that’s how it was. Since then, throughout my early twenties, every time the subject of menstrual health came up, and whenever I mentioned my preference for tampons over pads, my mother would voice her vehement disapproval. It’s taken her almost 6 years to control the urge to throw away the tampons I buy - tampons that are very hard to find and buy anywhere outside the big metro cities in India. It’s been a tough battle, but it made me realise, being unable to talk about tampons made it hard to share any conversation about my sexual and menstrual health with my mother. And here’s the thing - My mom and I? We make up the 1% in society. We’re in positions of utmost privilege - I have always had easy access to information, I’ve always been aware of my options. But this awareness stemmed from my mother’s ability to openly discuss menstruation with me. It laid the foundation for me to accept my body in all its messy glory.
Too many young girls in India aren’t afforded this privilege. Too many women still face the stigma of bleeding - their period, their very female identity is a source of deep rooted shame. It is now increasingly important and urgent that we step up the conversation around women’s reproductive health. The narrative needs to pick up steam, and cater to real women. We’re inundated with images of thin, young girls in white pants; prancing around while they bleed blue onto pads, with magical flowers floating around them - but the messy, immediate truth is forgotten. May 28 is Menstrual Hygiene Day, and this year, the theme is spot on - ‘It’s Time For Action’. We need to throw off the shackles of silence, and step up. We need to talk to each other about our periods, own our periods, and ensure that we reclaim the options that are available to us. We need to do so much, for so many - before the moment passes, and we’re relegated into the shadows again.