As New York becomes the sixth US state to remove sales tax on menstrual products, Evelyn and Hani Khaursar talk PMS, tampon shortages and PMDD, a menstrual disorder that affects millions of women around the world every month. Yeah periods are gross, but with that many people – and their families, friends and workmates – affected by menstruation and its potential fallout so regularly, why aren’t we more open and active about supporting women while they bleed?
E: In my teens and 20s, I never took the pill. I hated the idea taking of hormones and figured condoms were the safest bet against pregnancy and STIs. But now, two children later and in my mid-30s, I’ve decided to take the pill and turn off my womb. Why? The angst and pressure of PMS became so overwhelming I would crash into a severe state of rageful anxiety and then endure a week of black cotton nana undies, and back-to-back episodes of stupid medical dramas on the television because the severe pain stopped me from being able to work. Sugar-free diets, exercise, vitamins, natural remedies did nothing to combat the psychotic beast that would emerge for two weeks of every month. It’s been three months since I started taking a combination of the pill and anti-anxiety medication, and I finally feel emotionally balanced, energised and optimistic. My enormous hormones are so powerful that I have had to dim part of my brain and stop making eggs just to feel normal.
“My enormous hormones are so powerful that I have had to dim part of my brain and stop making eggs just to feel normal”
H: I know what you speak of, woman! I was spared much of the craziness in my early 20s because I got on the pill as a way to combat the neverending acne on my face. In my late 20s when I decided to go ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ I stopped taking them and was immediately hit with an explosion of acne – then came the mood crashes. I have a short cycle, so that means I have about a week’s worth of good mood assigned to me each month. Which is crazy and frustrating. At first I thought every woman went through this, and then I realised that I seem to be the only one, which lead to some more digging and here we are. I’m not alone. It’s just that women don’t talk about this at all. I don’t know if we’re unaware that others go through this, or that we’re ashamed or what really. Either way, the symptoms of my PMS are so severe that often, I feel crazy. I literally can’t work. Anything that involves my brain to work will shut down. I was on a strict diet – no sugar, no carbs, no junk food – just so I could keep my hormones at level. But honestly, who has time for this sometimes?
E: You’re not alone. And you’re right – when you are exhausted, trying to be strict with food and exercise is pretty much impossible. Ovaries are amazing, but menstruation sucks. My ovaries have grown cysts, contorted and twisted, given me pimples and contributed to my premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). But they’ve also been a big part of me being able to have children, so I love them. But they annoy the hell out of me.
“Ovaries are amazing, but menstruation sucks”
Why don’t we talk more about periods? Is it because it involves talking about blood and vaginas? The rhythm that controls so many women’s lives has been silenced. We are expected to individually manage our menstruation when in reality these moments in our lives – estimated at around 3,000 days in a woman’s lifetime – can be really difficult. Our periods affect every aspect of our lives; our relationships, our education or work, our health and our sex lives. Without access to healthcare and affordable tampons and pads, for the disempowered women of this world gynecological issues are another severe layer of disadvantage. Worldwide there is a growing number of programmes addressing menstrual hygiene management. Have you heard of any of these? Like AFRIpads?
H: I had to google AFRIpads there! It looks like a fabulous idea. Having to buy tampons and/or pads every month can quickly add up. As a child I remember my aunty, who used to babysit me, would roll up cloth for her knickers. At the time I had no idea what she was doing, but now I know it was for her period. It couldn’t have been cheap for her to buy menstrual products for herself and her three daughters. AFRIpads would definitely have been helpful then. When I lived in Buenos Aires in 2014/2015 they had a shortage of tampons. Yes, tampons! We were hoarding them – or trying to – because the stores just had none left. It felt a tiny bit like The Walking Dead – Tampon edition. Which makes me wonder why no woman on The Walking Dead ever asks Glenn to “grab whatever tampon or sanitary pad” he comes across during his runs. In fact, popular media never mentions periods unless it’s to make fun of it. We’re kind of trained not to think about this ‘thing’ that happens to almost half the population of the world.
More than just bleeding between our legs, for some women having our period comes with a slew of other symptoms that we have to deal with silently, by ourselves. Sometimes even other women can’t relate, because each experience is different. I’m glad that mental health is slowly gaining traction in the media. I’m hoping that some of that attention will spill over to the mental anguish that some women go through because of the hormonal imbalance caused by menstruation, or pre-menstruation. Not to mention the physical pain. I’ve watched my best friend suffer through immobilising pain every month since she was 11 years old. She dreads the first day of her period. She’s had an operation to remove cysts in the hopes that it will lessen her pain. She has to miss one day of work every month because she literally can’t move.
“I’ve watched my best friend suffer through immobilising pain every month since she was 11 years old”
Sure, research has shown that only about 3-8% of women actually suffer PMDD, but that’s still over 2 million women worldwide, and a figure that’s thought to be an underestimate. Instead we are fed misinformation so we continue to buy products we don’t need, take medication that doesn’t work, taxed for sanitary products, and given the blanket title of ‘that time of the month’ crazy for any emotion that we show.
E: It’s really difficult to untangle the physiological symptoms, the emotional pressure and the feeling of isolation. At times our bodies make us feel powerless, and we feel useless because we can’t control what is happening and we can’t participate in daily life in the same way. I know that among women we can talk about our periods and hopefully find compassion, but for most of us the shame associated with periods is still too strong to talk about beyond our friends. For me, I try to talk about my period – a lot. Because, despite being a universal pain in the arse for all women, it is a phenomenon that we continue to experience in isolation. We have to abolish the stigma associated with periods, and we need to turn more attention towards helping women who, on top of everything else, also have severe periods, and still have to cope with them in silence.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland, and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.
Hani Khaursar is a writer, who covers health and wellness, yoga, tech, food and travel, and sexuality and sensuality. Following a two-year stint in Latin America Hani now splits her time between Europe and Malaysia. Follow her on Twitter.