Róisín Ingle: I’m menstruating as I write this. And I’m mad as all bloody hell

Why is everything to do with periods still embarrassing, offensive or ‘over-descriptive’?

‘You gotta get ’em up there, girls!’: Tampax’s banned Tampons & Tea television advert

‘You gotta get ’em up there, girls!’: Tampax’s banned Tampons & Tea television advert

 

“You gotta get ’em up there, girls!” The first thing to say about the Tampax ad banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland in the year 2020 for the crime of being “offensive” and “over-descriptive” is that it’s factually correct.

You really do need to get tampons right up inside your vagina to allow them to do the job of absorbing the menses that detach from the inner lining of your uterus in a biological tale as old as time. Sometimes, if you are using those smaller tampons that don’t have a cardboard applicator to aid insertion, it’s harder to “get ’em up there, girls!”

As a teenager of 13 or 14, I spent many frustrating hours in bathrooms trying to figure this out. There were times I didn’t “get ’em up”, and then there were mortifying leaks and painful tampon extractions.

We voted for abortion. And for same-sex marriage. We live in the era of Hot Priests, Normal People and (yawn) a gay Tánaiste and former taoiseach. But it seems everything to do with periods is still embarrassing or offensive

This was a very private kind of hell. It didn’t even occur to me that this was an issue I could mention to an adult or seek a bit of help with, even from friends my own age.

The knowledge that one day a television ad would contain the cheering advice of a woman exhorting “You gotta get ’em up there, girls!” would have had teenage me, wincing in the bathroom with bloody fingernails, weeping with happiness for future teenagers in 2020.

The depressing parallel reality, that such a helpful, destigmatising ad would then, in the same science-fiction-sounding year, be banned because 84 Irish people didn’t like the look of it, or were mortified by it or were put off their chocolate digestives and cups of tea by it, induces different tears.

I am raging, I don’t mind telling you. I am mad as all bloody hell.

To be clear about the conclusion of the ASAI’s complaints committee, some of whom you’d hope know what it’s like to menstruate, it said it did not consider the advertisement to have caused grave offence but noted “the level of complaint that had been received and the concerns expressed by complainants about the advertising and considered that it had caused widespread offence”.

We voted for abortion. And for same-sex marriage. We live in the era of Hot Priests, Normal People and (yawn) a gay Tánaiste and former taoiseach. But it seems everything to do with periods is still embarrassing or offensive or needs to be toned down.

The painful, often debilitating cramps are not to be mentioned. (“No, yeah, just need some painkillers because I’ve just got a really bad headache.”) The paraphernalia is verboten. (“Right, I’ll get a tampon out of my handbag, stick it up the sleeve of my professional office outfit and head to the toilet with a nonchalant air. Nobody can know what I am up to. It’s all perfectly normal, but no need to shove it in anybody’s face.”)

The messiness is mortifying. Blood stains on trousers. On sheets. On the toilet bowl. On the floor. On the bit of your dress that accidentally brushed against a blood-soaked pad. If you are cool enough to use a Mooncup but are not good with your hands, the messiness can be next level.

Periods are a vital, messy business. And the thing we must do to be good girls and good women is diminish this part of ourselves because we know without anyone ever telling us directly that this is something we’ve got to hide.

That’s the reason blue liquid was always used in the tampon or sanitary-towel ads. An unidentified blue liquid poured on to virgin-white pads. And the good TV menstruating women went rollerblading then in blindingly white jeans, not a glistening, globular blood clot in sight.

Blue liquid indicates clean and fresh as opposed to bright-crimson or darkly brooding blood, which by its omission from the ads was implicitly unclean. You watched these ads as a teenager and understood all of this subconsciously. Your menstrual reality was just too gross. Periods were gross. Women were gross.

Our periods are amazing. When working like clockwork, they are indicators of good health. They are in tune with the moon, for Goddess’s sake. Part of the great cycle of life. But when does anybody ever put it like that?

You, a teenager trying to figure out how to get a tampon far enough up your vagina (“Get it up there, girl!” nobody was saying to you helpfully, as you contorted yourself on the toilet), were by this logic gross.

You didn’t even live in a country where some women are not allowed take part in religious ceremonies while menstruating. (There’s that implication again: women on their period are tainted, unclean.) You didn’t need to live in those countries to get the message that was delivered and received, loud and clear, from your earliest years: keep your bloody, peculiarly female mess to yourself.

This week, with that judgment by the ASAI, the dam has burst in this particular menstruator. Fifty-one per cent of us will “get ’em up there” at some point, most of us for decades. These are the facts of women’s lives.

I am not hiding for anyone. I am not playing bloody ball.

I’m menstruating as I write this. I slept at a friend’s house recently and I woke to find my blood on her spare-bedroom sheets. I got most of it out by using the gorgeous hand soap in her bathroom, but I had to tell her what happened, because no matter how hard I scrubbed, the faint but unmistakable period stains – unmistakable to the female eye, anyway – they were still visible.

‘You gotta get ’em up there, girls!’: Tampax’s banned Tampons & Tea television advert

People who have periods know what I am talking about. There isn’t a period-having person alive who hasn’t accidentally bled on somebody’s sheets. People who don’t have periods might not understand and might think this bleeding on my friend’s sheets was very careless of me. I mean, I am careless in general, so I understand why they’d jump to that conclusion.

Not that I owe anybody an explanation, but in the interests of overdescription, the truth is that, lately, I don’t know when my period will arrive. The last one before this came two weeks ago. I didn’t expect it to happen again so soon. It’s usually a monthly occurrence, this menstruation business, and my cycle has only recently become irregular, due, I think, to my proximity to menopause, when I will stop having periods but then begin to experience a whole load of other interesting mental, emotional and physiological happenings. Fun!

I am 48, and my periods are now not only erratic but also heavy in a way that makes me worry when I leave the house: will five tampons be enough for the next couple of hours? Should I buy some of those pads that are like the ones the hospital gave me after childbirth, the ones that make you feel as if you are wearing a nappy? Will the nagging cramps clear up by the time I have to take that important Zoom call?

I think I am about the age my older relative was when, as a child on holiday in England, I noticed a patch of brownish red on her pale trousers and was disgusted that she was having her period so publicly.

Stained and shamed, she went to the bathroom, and I heard her say, pleadingly, noticing my appalled expression, “Sorry. I’m bleeding like a stuck pig.” And then my aunt muttered something about “the visitor coming early”, and I wanted to die on the floor of the cafe, and it put me off my scones with cream and all that bright-red, ruined-for-me-now raspberry jam. It was all so “offensive” and “over-descriptive”. I wasn’t even a teenager yet, but I’d already got the message.

Some people are offended by menstruation when the real offence is that women are still being shamed for having bodies and menstrual cycles

One of the great many nasty, controlling tricks played by the patriarchy and colluded in by all of us has been that of making grown women and little girls mortified about this most natural, important, empowering, messy, normal, essential occurrence.

Our periods are amazing. When working like clockwork, they are indicators of good health. They also give us signals, when changes occur, that something might be wrong or need attention in our bodies. They are in tune with the moon, for Goddess’s sake. Part of the great cycle of life. But when does anybody ever put it like that?

And sure why would they when a factual, helpful, empowering ad on the telly is banned because one of the brave 84 – I hope you are all proud of yourselves – wrote to the ASAI to inquire whether it was necessary for the ad to ask, “How many of you ever feel your tampon?”

They wondered who might want to hear such a question and considered it to be “unnecessary and needlessly explicit”. Who might want to hear it? Really, caller? Young women. Older women. Small girls. Teenage girls. It is necessary. There is nothing “needlessly explicit” about how our bodies work, and we don’t need to make any of this more or less acceptable because you are squeamish about something most women and girls live with every month.

It might not sound like it, but I actually do feel hopeful that this ASAI travesty is but an irritating blip in what feels like a bloody revolution around these parts. A flood of straight-talking books about periods has been published. Organisations such as Homeless Period Ireland, campaigning against period poverty and stigma, have had great success persuading the likes of Bohs football club to stock free period products and in getting the issue on the political agenda.

My friends who are dads are talking to their daughters about periods and no longer just leaving it to their mothers. The debut novel Tennis Lessons, by the young Derry writer Susannah Dickey, features a cameo by an outstanding period clot and some delightfully “over-descriptive” menstrual talk. (Encouragingly, the book has not yet been banned or burned.) Not to mention the acclaimed TV programme I May Destroy You, which contains everyday period-themed storylines.

It all leads me to believe that, despite this ridiculous ASAI ruling, the menstrual times they really are a-changin’. Thank you, Tampax. And also sorry, Tampax, that your brilliant, important, groundbreaking ad has been banned in Ireland. Some people are offended by menstruation when the real offence is that women are still being shamed for having bodies and menstrual cycles and orifices and blood that is not blue.

Enough. We’re here, we’re bleeding and we’re bleeding deadly.

It’s about time everybody got used to it.

roisin@irishtimes.com