Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama, Alyssa Mastromonaco, wrote her first book Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? about her life in the White House and what it was like to have spent over a decade working with Barack Obama.
The book opens with Mastromonaco’s observations that toilets in the West Wing were far and few. Women’s toilets basically didn’t exist. There was nowhere to buy tampons if you had forgotten yours – and the time-consuming security protocol meant that you could not nip out to get some whenever you had the need, because it would take forever and there was never time for that. She eventually negotiated a tampon dispenser to be installed in one of the toilets.
I explained this bit to my friend when I told her about the book. “Isn’t that a bit lame, to make such a point of being a woman by writing about your periods? Surely her menstruation was not the most important thing in the White House? “, she proffered. I was not sure. Was it?
There was a time when my periods almost became the most important thing in my professional life. Or, rather, hiding I had them. In my early thirties I had a job which required me to travel quite a bit with my boss. We once had a small 8-seater jet to transport a small bunch of us. I had my period, and it was hell. The tiny plane had a toilet, but there was no proper door. Despite the usual airplane noise, we might as well have relieved ourselves on the aisle, so close was the toilet and so useless its door.
It is a universally known rule that toilets on board any means of transport shall be avoided. However there’s an exception and it is this: when you’re bleeding dry and know that unless you immediately stuff yourself with more bleached cotton wool, a mortifying red pool will be left on the beige leather seat once you stand up to leave with the rest of the delegation.
I did not want to announce to all and sundry that I had my period when I lurked to the tiny makeshift toilet, so I put up a solid effort to simultaneously navigate the holding of the piece of shit sliding door closed, open the cellophane of a tampon using my teeth so as to liberate my other hand for removing the old tampon and fix the individually wrapped-in-plastic pad that had multiple sticky surfaces and wings and bells and whistles whiletrying to figure out where all the plastic crap, pads and stuff should go, as there was no bin anywhere. I nearly failed, dear reader, but my colleagues’ moment of enjoying their Ruinart was not ruined.
Throughout the trip I was drugged to my eyeballs, as the cramps were becoming intolerable. The only thing that lifted my spirits was arriving at a dining hall where the chairs were upholstered in dark red velvet – if disaster struck, no-one would know. I didn’t know at the time that the excessive bleeding, cramping, diarrhoea, throwing up and fainting were caused by endometriosis that was operated a few years later.
A male-dominated environment that it was, I actually scheduled the surgery to take place during my annual holiday, so that I could avoid having to request my (all male) management for medical leave to deal with “some women’s issues” (this is how my colleague’s difficult IVF- process was described as). I was desperate to remain one of the guys. If it meant pretending that I did not have a functioning uterus, so it was to be.
Since the operation I have been on hormonal medication to treat endometriosis, which means that for years I’ve lost any sense of my natural cycle. Therefore I do not really think about periods at all. I came across Notes to Self by Emilie Pine last week and her essays brought this topic right back on my radar. Interestingly, I also just watched Amy Schumer’s Growing, which came out last week. Both Schumer and Pine discuss periods, menstrual blood and why they are still such a taboo.
While periods clearly only ever concern women’s bodies, there is a political side to them as well: access to hygiene products. There are hundreds of thousands of girls and women in Europe alone who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads regularly (10% of girls only in the UK!). Addressing this is a political decision.
The shame of both talking about menstruation and ensuring that any blood always remains forever hidden, however falls on women’s shoulders alone. This is astonishing in many ways. I spent decades bleeding and stressing whether I’d left red marks on the chairs or sofas at my friends’ homes (I did), whether I’d soiled a man’s bedlinen with my blood after spending a night (I had) or whether I’d ruined the only pair of Levi’s 501 that I owned throughout collège (that’s French for junior high school) by bleeding into them, then soaking them in a gardening bucket (I was a resourceful child) so that my mum would not see, and the soaking just made it worse and left the jeans covered in faintly rust-coloured blotches.
How I hate the pseudo-feminist slogan of how a woman can do anything a man can do, and do it while bleeding! I could barely hold myself upright on the worst days. Women have always been over-identified with their bodies, by having to prove their intellectual capacity over and over and over again, but there’s rarely a threshold for claiming menstrual pain, other than “being female”.
Mastromonaco, Pine and Schumer make for an excellent combination for food for thought on this issue – and periods are not the only thing they discuss, far from it. I recommend Mastromonaco to anyone who’s ever had or would like to have a cabinet job. Pine’s Notes to Self is heartbreakingly excellent contemporary Irish writing, and I cannot recommend her essays strongly enough. Amy Schumer’s Growing is currently available on Netflix and it is brilliant.
Related: the case of unisex toilets
I see the point of them, and I’m totally fine with the idea. Who needs the segregation of sexes when you just need a bucket to pee into? Totally fine in many places where you are not exactly expecting to spend a long time and/or to have the state of the art comfort.
At the same time only women get periods. While we should all be lassoing our tampons around in public and embrace the lovely gift nature gave us, periods can be painful and messy. No-one in Ally McBeal was ever caught fiddling with the noisy wrappers of their tampons or sanitary pads in the office unisex toilet, where the cubicles were flimsy enough to facilitate the transcribing of whispered conversations.
Maybe that should be the goal; that we are all totally fine with each sharing the information about our bodily fluids and functions at all times with the rest of the toilet-goers. The first step, however, needs to be the total removal of any shame that comes with menstruation. Period.