Menstruation is something that's viewed as a big, dirty secret. I've lost count of the number of boys/men I've come across who have absolutely no idea what it is or how it actually works, despite dating many girls/women. I've lost count of the number of GIRLS AND WOMEN I've come across who don't really understand what's happening to their body, they just know it's gross and dirty and something to be ashamed of.
Look: I am not going to sit here and pretend to be Sally Feminist, Spokeswoman of Rejoicing in Your Bloodtime. I know that periods can be terrible. Like, really terrible. I know they can make us feel sick or uncomfortable or alien in our own bodies. But they do happen. They are natural. And the avoidance and "EW GROSS" attitude that a lot of men (and women) adapt around them is ridiculous. There are all sorts of stigmas and stereotypes attached to it. That it turns females into raging hosebeasts for no apparent reason. That it makes them burst into tears because you didn't compliment their haircut. That they eat a lot of junk food and dress in sweatpants and watch reruns of *insert super girly show here* and generally forget how to be sexy and desirable in any way.
Obviously, these are all incredibly sexist stereotypes. It implies that a woman's job is to always be a sexual creature for the pleasure of others and that if she can't be sexual (aka she's on the rag and EW GROSS WHO WOULD GO THERE), then she turns into Frumpy McFrumppants. It implies that one of the biggest differentiating factors between men and women (the fact that we menstruate and they do not) heightens our stereotypical irrationality and bitchiness. Yet, these stereotypes are perpetuated by BOTH sexes. Constantly.
Premenstrual Syndrome is a very real thing. It can cause bloating, hormonal mood swings, cramping, fatigue, food cravings, and all of that. It's silly to pretend that this isn't reality. That said, it is blown wildly out of proportion and is largely misunderstood. Some women experience very severe PMS and need to be treated medically. For ACTUAL MEDICAL ISSUES, not "hurr hurr bitch so crazy she needs Paxil." Others experience very few, if any, symptoms. However, if a woman puts a toe out of line and acts in a way that doesn't perfectly fit with the ideal of the nice, kind, sweet, hospitable woman, what happens? BITCH MUST BE ON THE RAG. ARE YOU ON YOUR PERIOD OR SOMETHING? Never mind that PMS occurs PRE THE MENSTRUATION and most symptoms alleviate when a women is actually menstruating. Misconceptions are fun!
All of this is goofy. Utterly goofy. Many women continue to feel sexual while menstruating. We experience frustration, sadness, and anger due to the events happening at the time, not due to the state of our uterus. We do not become a barren wasteland of femininity. Some of us continue our lives in the face of discomfort, pain, and stress. Some of us don't get periods at all. People don't ever consider how potentially hurtful and nasty it can be to make a period comment to a woman struggling with infertility or gender assignment or hormonal balance issues, do they? Not that period comments aren't generally nasty anyway, but you know what I mean.
What's my point in all this? I think menstruation is something that's all too commonly glossed over in fiction. I'm not suggesting that we include it if it doesn't fit the story at hand, just as we don't normally include using the toilet or showering unless it's relevant to the plot. But we should work on the attitude of avoiding menstruation because it's GROSS and ICKY and NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT THAT. Teenage girls are already menstruating, or they're getting ready to start. There is no better time to establish the foundation that their period is NOT something to be grossed out or ashamed about. This is part of their lives. It helps to explore the themes and metaphors of discovering sexuality and womanhood (or even the emotions involved with NOT having one's period normally and how that can make them feel).
I mean, avoidance is a common thing. Can't deal with periods in a romance because EEEWWW SO NOT SEXY. Can't deal with it in adventures because the girl's fighting evil, she can't be bothered with PERIODS. There are vampires in a high school who GO BONKERS WHEN THEY SMELL BLOOD, but ew ew ew let's not talk about the school full of menstruating girls because that's sooooo nasty. Come on. We can man and woman up about this.
I remember being ten or eleven years old and reading ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET for the first time and being completely floored that these characters were talking about periods like normal girls. They asked each other what it was like. They shared their stories. They felt worried and excited and scared. I was on the cusp of puberty! I could relate!
There's so much rich material to be explored in coming-of-age stories, if only we're willing to let go of our hang-ups and stereotypes. And again, I'm not suggesting we include menstruation just to make a point or if it doesn't fit with the flow (har har) of the narrative. Maybe I'm just asking us to think critically about our own perceptions and guilt issues and annoyances about menstruation and look at the way we are (or aren't) portraying it in fiction. Even something as simple as rethinking period jokes ("Ohmigod, Jodi is being such a bitch, is she on her period?") is a start.
What say you, readers?