This piece is by Hadiyyah Kuma, one of SPICY‘s guest contributors. Hadiyyah is an Indo-Guyanese creative writer based in Toronto. “My Guyanese Mom Taught Me Period Protocol at a Young Age—What That Means to me Now” relates her experience with learning about menstruation to the colonial forces that induce body shame and embarrassment, and what she hopes for the future of menstrual education.
My grandmother is one of the greatest women I know, but even she fell into the harmful pitfalls of traditionalism. When my mother first got her period, she was chastised and yelled at for having blossomed at such a young age. Eleven was not old enough to be a woman. In Guyana it was normal to wear rags of cloth stuffed into underwear as pads. So this my mother did, without any guidance, and became accident-prone to spillage at school.
She would never let me have this experience.
My mother first demonstrates the use of a pad when I am eight years old. She takes it slowly out of the package, showing how to open it without tearing the packaging or the pad. You first pull the sheet off that covers the adhesive flaps and you place it gently on the center of your underwear so there is coverage for the both the back and front of your flowage. Wrap the flaps around the underwear and press it gently to smooth it down so that’s comfortable against your skin when sitting or crossing your legs.
As soon as I started developing breasts, this instruction would occur each week before I visited my dad, so in case it came without her or at school, I would know what to do.
Because of the strange and testy universe, I ended up having my first period in the bathroom of my dad’s house. I was ten years old. I stared at the dark red blood with a jolt it my chest. My heart raced. This was a new colour for my underwear, like freshly bought paint, or strawberry jam. This was the moment I had trained for. I started to sweat, but I clearly remembered my mother’s instructions. I had rehearsed it in my mind enough to last a lifetime.
As my father’s violently shaky hand handed me a pad through the door, I almost laughed. “You know what…” to do, he meant to say, but he was so taken aback he couldn’t speak. I was more embarrassed for him that I was for me. When he left, I performed the rehearsed actions with the distant soundtrack of my dad calling my mom on the phone and telling her he was bringing me home.
One day when I was eleven, I woke up and before I could get to the bathroom, a blood clot the size of my palm dropped smoothly and eerily out of me and onto the living room carpet. There were things I was never told about having my period, but that was because my mother didn’t know they would happen. It came with the uniqueness of maturation. That day I cried, and my mother helped me clean the blood off of my legs. I asked why this had happened to me. I started to see it as a curse.
That week, I took pads to school for the first time. I was in sixth grade, and there were no menstrual product disposals in the girls’ bathrooms. So naturally, I was forced to my put pad into the garbage bin. At lunch later that day, I would see that my pad had been taken out and was lying on the bathroom floor. Two girls I would later spend seventh and eighth grade avoiding were standing above it. “Is that a pad? That looks like a diaper!” exclaimed one girl, disgusted. They laughed and shook their heads.
It was even more disheartening when my friends assumed I knew nothing about my own menstrual process. I think the assumption was twofold: I stayed away from talking about “boy stuff” like dating or sex, and I wasn’t open about my sexual development. An Islamic Guyanese upbringing taught me that talking about these things was taboo. However, I didn’t feel suppressed by it. Talking about sex or the concept of dating didn’t interest me at that age, and I hadn’t explored my sexuality enough to formulate discussions around it. That said, it didn’t stop me from feeling left out conversations with the girls around me.
I was embarrassed, but these were the pads that met my needs and I felt safe wearing them. I didn’t tell my mom about the incident, but I tried to change my pads at home in the morning and evening instead of at school. I had no idea that wearing a certain kind of pad or not wearing tampons made you an outcast. Another curse. The arbitrary period aesthetics had got to me.
I have learned to decolonize embarrassment and shame not through education I received in school, but from the Internet. The girls that laughed at my pad and the girls who thought it was strange that I didn’t want to talk about sex were taught by their whiteness to be open with their sexualities. They were simply exhibiting the learned practice of heteronormative discussions about their bodies. In elementary school, that choosing not to be involved because of personal preference and cultural influence couldn’t have been a thought in their minds.
The shame I felt about my extra-large diaper pad was probably miniscule in comparison to the shame my mother and grandmother felt about their womanhood. The institutions that taught my grandmother period shame are the same institutions that told her she couldn’t get an education. She was forbidden to attend school because her grandfather was convinced writing chitthi (letters) to boys was the sole reason for her want to learn. The permeating nature of shaming female sexuality is not unique to my great-great-grandfather’s household opinion. Issues of body and sexualities are not one or two-fold issues. They intersect with other, and there are layers and cross-sections of experience.
Establishing discourse around social comfort zones can only come with education. The more education does its job in teaching kids that there is no one way of maturing, the more they’ll be able to create their own boundaries and respect other’s choices around privacy and intersectional knowledge. There will always be questions, so we have to try to our best to answer our children’s inquiries. Right now, the Internet seems to be a better teacher, and that’s a scary thought.
At a family get-together, my then-nine-year-old cousin privately asked me what a period was like, and I told her everything I possibly could remember about dealing with the monthly gift. I didn’t want her to be anxious about it or skip class to Google her symptoms in a bathroom stall. It’s different for her because she goes to a private school, so her parents must take more responsibility in her sexual education. But when even children in public schools ask these questions and they have no answers, they’re missing out on the essential knowledge they need to be equipped with to manage and understand their own bodies.
Just because I had a certain kind of knowledge taught to me before I started bleeding doesn’t mean it was all the knowledge I needed to understand sexual health. North America’s education system has much work to do in terms of understanding consent, various sexualities, and gender identity.
Not everyone has a mom like mine. My mom didn’t know everything. Things like the
implementation of the old sex-ed curriculum in my home province of Ontario are a step backward when it comes to conversations around sexual health and bodily functions that should really be normalized to alleviate body anxiety and shame, as well as to educate boys or people who don’t have periods about what it’s like. Children who become fathers might have more steadier hands when handing their child a menstrual tool. Some of this might help to deconstruct period aesthetics and challenge what we think is a normal way of talking about sexual health. It’s about how we can help kids and teens decide that a period is not a curse or a source of shame—it’s simply a part of the growth process.
The defeminization of periods is also something I’m hopeful about. Calling tampons and pads “feminine products” ignores a community of people that do not identify as feminine. Trans, genderqueer, and non-binary folks are virtually ignored in consumer stores and media. Trans people are only mentioned once in the interim curriculum and referred to as “transgendered.” The lack of these topics in the sex-ed curriculum means that more attention and value is placed on online sources of information for kids that want to know more about themselves and each other. I cannot speak for these communities; I can only extrapolate from my cis experience which was only racially stigmatized by my place in the social hierarchy of school.
I feel hopeful when I see people speaking openly about periods online. The normalization of such a day-to-day human experience is heartening and comforting. I want my younger cousins to grow up in a society where they don’t have to be afraid to say they see red—where they can reflect upon their histories and learn from them, instead of facing a repetition of the same cycle.
Follow Hadiyyah Kuma on Instagram.