Or Why I Became a Menstrual Activist!
I got my first period when I was 12 and a half, living in the US, and I was more worried about the social etiquette of whether to flush or not to flush within earshot of guests arriving by the front door than what to do about my period. After all, I’d had the ‘period talk’ at school… you know – they often do it this way in the UK and Ireland, too – the ‘boys go in one room, girls get taken to another, nonbinary kids are totally excluded’ period talk where a lady from a disposable menstrual product company comes in and gives you three facts, two panic inducing warnings, a terrifying true life scenario carefully crafted by a tampon company to make you buy more stuff, and of course, the inevitable free sample, aiming to make you brand loyal for life.
So I have the free sample right there in my bathroom, used it, adhesive side down (a super important detail that is sometimes left out, so I’m told!) and went downstairs to meet my cousins, who were visiting from Colorado. They were loud and aggressive, as cousins go, even to this loud and aggressive New Yorker, and I remember feeling slightly alarmed that they might jovially clap me on the back and accidentally concuss me in celebration that I had joined their older, more reproductive ranks if I told them why I’d been in the loo when they’d arrived.
Instead, I quietly told my mom later that night. So I didn’t get a period party, although later that summer my mom bought me a second hand copy of the awesome reproductive rights independently published handbook Our Bodies, Ourselves. I just sort of got on with it, periods were no big deal. I incorporated the adhesive backed pads into my sticker collection, at least in my mind (although let’s face it, they were never gonna be ask cool as the Lisa Frank holographic unicorns).
It wasn’t until the following winter when all hormonal heck broke loose. I leaked at a slumber party, ruining my Garfield nightgown, my ninety days bullying-free record, and my reputation as someone mature enough to understand the finer points of menstruation management. Even worse: We were snowed in because of a sudden blizzard, and I couldn’t leave. That night I experienced some of the consequences of an education system that not only doesn’t help eradicate menstrual taboos, but by colluding with companies that reinforce messages about keeping periods secret even among other menstruators, claiming to stop leaks while still insisting leaks are the most embarrassing thing that can ever happen to you in the history of anything, and using shame and fear to attract young and brand loyal customers does us all a disservice the moment we hit puberty that takes years – if ever – to undo.
I remember wishing that there was some kind of menstrual superhero who could help me that day, and as I got older and found other reading and joined in with activism that reinforced the learning of Our Bodies, Ourselves I sort of became that hero myself. Introducing: Over Flo! First I used comedy, writing zines and sketches mocking old ads. Then, when I noticed the ads hadn’t changed all that much, the articles became a more serious commentary, and I used my education and drama training to start finding ways to help teachers and youth group leaders challenge these messages in the classroom.
Now I actively encourage supporters to advocate for #periodpositive menstruation talk in and out of school, and particularly in advertising. I’m hoping to influence policy decisions around menstruation education provision in the UK and around the world. I’m always really happy to meet people who feel the same way, and have been really heartened to find that a movement has been growing over the last couple of years to support this work, and look forward to continuing to challenge and cast a critical eye over anything going out into the discourse from corporations and campaigners. I still am a bit torn on how to handle flushing the toilet right before guests arrive though.
Chella Quint coined the term #periodpositive in 2006. You can support her campaign on research by visiting periodpostive.com, or becoming a #periodpositive partner for Menstrual Hygiene Day or signing and sharing her Brands Off! Petition just launched on Sunday!