“Leaders bleed, period.” ~Silvia Young
There are lots of folks out there talking about menstrual cycles and how to support them with supplements and diet and lifestyle changes, etc. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about figuring out how to not hate your period. Because I meet too many women who do. And if we are going to take any of the awesome advice out there regarding our menstrual cycles, we’ve gotta first learn to appreciate them on some level. Instead of just wishing they would go away.
Which is something I did for a long, long time. From the very beginning, in fact.
I started my period in ninth grade, during basketball practice. I was 14 years old and somebody should have better prepared me for this moment, but they didn’t. So, there I was, bleeding and embarrassed and a little bit terrified. I also felt completely alone and entirely ill-equipped to navigate this new and totally normal but slightly messy and also somewhat painful territory.
Not wanting to make a scene, I stuffed some toilet paper into my underwear in the bathroom stall and headed back out to the gymnasium to finish the end-of-practice wind sprints we ran a few times a week, trying to ignore the unfamiliar cramping I was feeling below my belly button and the knowledge that I was currently bleeding in my basketball shorts as I ran.
So, yeah. Not a great introduction to womanhood.
Over the next few years I learned some additional (and not-so-helpful) information about my period that I carried with me for the next decade or so.
First, that it was annoying. A giant nuisance. Every woman despises her time of the month.
Second, that it was something to be kept secret. No one else should know that you’re bleeding and you should go to great lengths to hide your tampons and/or pads so as not to make anyone else (especially boys) uncomfortable by forcing them to confront the fact that you are on your period.
Third, that it was embarrassing and a bit shameful and also gross to be bleeding from your vagina. Nevermind the fact that it is a totally normal and healthy thing to have happen every month. It’s disgusting. Don’t forget that.
Add this all up and it equals a relationship to my menstrual cycle that was rather fraught. I also had very heavy and painful periods from the get-go, which made the whole notion of making peace with my menstruating body even more unlikely to happen.
I now know my story is an all too common one. Too many of us are taught to feel shame around our periods.
And most of us aren’t given the proper education to even understand exactly what’s happening in our bodies every 26-35ish days, which can leave us feeling a bit disconnected from the truly magical process taking place behind the scenes each month.
We need to start demystifying menstrual cycles and we need to start doing so while kids are still young. We need to teach both girls and boys about periods in much more detail than we do and start doing a significantly better job explaining the menstruating body. And we need to talk about female anatomy in full and, oh yeah, STOP LEAVING THE CLITORIS OUT OF TEXTBOOKS.
As I’ve written and spoken about before, I found out about my clitoris from Seinfeld (yep) and I only saw a visual depiction of it in my late twenties, as it was nowhere to be found in any of my health or anatomy class materials during high school and college. Because god(dess) forbid women know their bodies are capable of providing pleasure, huh? Unbelievable.
And unacceptable, if you ask me. And a huge part of the problem when it comes to our capacity to actually appreciate and even marvel at our menstrual cycles instead of labeling them annoying, gross, weird, and embarrassing. Because although the clitoris is not directly related to menstruation, excluding it from sex-ed altogether is a clear symptom of our culture’s discomfort with female sexuality in general.
In order to come into a more peaceful, loving, compassionate, and cooperative relationship with our bodies, we need to change the way we talk about and understand and experience our periods. And our bodies as a whole. Which means we need to learn about those bodies in their entirety.
Because if we resent them for bleeding every month and we aren’t even taught about our own capacity for pleasure, how are we supposed to simultaneously appreciate our bodies for their magic?
I know it might sound a little too woo-y to some of you to hear me talk about how magical your menses is, but it’s just what I know to be true. And I have witnessed some pretty amazing transformations in how my patients relate to their bodies as a whole once they are educated about their cycles and able to come into relationship with them from a place of knowledge and empowerment instead of mystery and disdain.
For me, learning about the details of my menstrual cycle and studying my own anatomy in a way I’d never been given the opportunity to study it in school was life-changing. And understanding the intricacies of my hormonal fluctuations and the changing position of my cervix and my cervical fluid throughout the month and being able to link certain emotions and moods to tangible, physical changes I could track was eye-opening, to say the least.
And then I saw this image of the clitoris in its entirety and was I was like, What the hell have they even been teaching me about my own body? Nothing helpful or accurate, OBVIOUSLY.
That old adage about knowledge being power? It’s true, y’all. And when it comes to feeling safe and at home in your body, I think education is essential. I know it has been for me. In ways that go beyond the scope of this post. But I digress. (As usual.)
If you are a person who resents your menstrual cycle and thinks of it only as a hassle and a nuisance but are interested in transforming that viewpoint and improving your relationship to your own body, here’s where I recommend starting:
GET CURIOUS & EDUCATE YOURSELF.
Learn as much as possible about your body and your menstrual cycle. Read books about your period. Study anatomy. Go look at this photo of the internal clitoris and then try to tell me your body isn’t amazing and fascinating and worth knowing more about. I recommend starting with Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. It is the best and most comprehensive book I’ve found for learning the ins and outs of the menstruating body. Finding this book was paradigm-shifting for me and was integral to healing my relationship to my body and to myself.
TRACK YOUR CYCLE.
Seriously. I know it sounds like kind of a hassle, but there are tons of apps for your phone that make doing so quick and easy. I like the Clue app, but there are many other options to choose from. For me — and many of my patients — starting to track my menstrual cycle was truly enlightening. I began to discover patterns in my mood and energy and sex drive and creative output that reliably correlated with certain phases of my cycle. I can often predict what day of my cycle I’m on just by the way I feel in my body. Honestly. It’s a pretty rad superpower. It can be surprisingly confidence building to be in tune with your body’s natural rhythms in this way instead of feeling like you’re being jerked around all willy nilly by your period and your hormones every month.
LEARN & HONOR YOUR RHYTHMS.
And use them to your advantage. Tracking your cycle gives you access to so much useful information that affects every other aspect of your life. Knowing where I am in my menstrual cycle helps me choose movement that aligns with that part of my cycle and I have learned when I can push my body (typically right before and right after ovulation) and when it’s best to back off a little bit (the week before my period starts through day 1 of the next cycle). I’ve also learned that if I’m having an existential crisis and questioning every decision I’ve ever made, my period is probably going to start sometime in the next 24-36 hours. Day one of my cycle (i.e. when bleeding starts) is a day to take it easy, if possible, while days 8-21 are the days to do more, be more social, get outside my comfort zone more frequently because I have the reserves to recover most easily.
We live in a society that is just go, Go, GO all the damn time. Which means that we sometimes have to push when our bodies want to rest. I know I do. Because there are months I start my period the night before a ten hour day in the clinic and I can’t just not show up because it’s day one of my cycle. I show the fuck up. And we all have to do this. But it’s still useful to know what your personal rhythm is and to do your best to honor it if you can.
Which can mean skipping that spinning class on the first day of your period or saving those heavy lifting sessions for the weeks around ovulation or declining a social invitation on those last few days before bleeding because you know it will be too taxing on you energetically at that time. It can also mean not attaching too much significance to every shift in mood and energy and confidence and coordination and appetite because you have the understanding — from tracking your cycle — that you tend to feel certain ways at certain times of the month. This, my friends, can be liberating. And if you, like me, find yourself having an existential crisis every few weeks, this knowledge might just save you from doing something rash because you’ll know it’s your hormones and not a sign you should burn it all down.
ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF IF SOMETHING FEELS OFF.
Although some fluctuations throughout the month are normal, they should be relatively mild and not so disruptive you can’t live your life as you’d like to live it. Debilitating cramps, very heavy bleeding, irregular cycles (i.e. 21 days one month, 60 days the next, 35 the month after that), absent periods (also called amenorrhea), menstrual migraines, extreme fatigue at the same time every cycle, passing a lot of large clots, or any other symptom that just doesn’t feel or seem right to you is something to discuss with a healthcare provider. And if your doctor doesn’t listen to you or dismisses your concerns or tries to prescribe birth control as a blanket solution to any of the above problems, FIND A DIFFERENT DOCTOR.
Also move on if your doctor suggests that it is perfectly normal and healthy to never have your period. This is patently untrue. Annnnnnd, call me. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can work wonders for everything menstrual-related. I also promise to listen and to take your symptoms seriously. If you told your doctor something about your cycle and he or she said That’s impossible or You’re crazy, he or she is wrong. You are the expert on you. Also: I’ve heard it all. Nothing will surprise me.
TALK WITH YOUR FRIENDS.
Do it. Really. I recently heard Michelle Obama suggest that the greatest disservice we do to ourselves as women is not talk honestly with each other about what’s happening in our bodies. This rang more true than anything I have heard in a long, long time. I can’t tell you how many women have come into my treatment room thinking they are the only one who has ever felt or experienced whatever it is they are going through. But I can tell you that every single time someone laments that they’re the only one, I know with absolute certainty that they are not alone in their experience because I have heard something similar from multiple other people. So, yeah. TALK TO EACH OTHER. You will find out you are not alone. And it will be wonderful.
COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PARTNER(S).
If you are a person who menstruates, having more insight into your own menstrual cycle will benefit any intimate and/or romantic relationship into which you might enter. It will benefit you in the context of that relationship and it will benefit your partner as well. For so many different reasons, not the least of which is that your body changes throughout the month in fascinating and predictable ways that also affect your sex life. Did you know your cervix drops down as you get closer to your period, effectively making your vagina shorter? Amazing, right? This is also why certain sexual positions that feel great on day 9 of your cycle might not feel so awesome on day 27.
Knowing about these subtle changes can A of all) let you know there’s nothing wrong with you if what felt great last week feels terrible today and B of all) be super empowering and OMG so helpful in the bedroom (or wherever) when you’re getting down with another person. (Also: Go read Women’s Anatomy of Arousal by Sheri Winston to learn about how your body changes during arousal and why foreplay is so important. You can thank me later.)
KNOW THAT PERFECTION IS NOT THE GOAL.
Lastly, please remember that having a perfect menstrual cycle is not the goal. There is no such thing as a perfect menstrual cycle. And it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong if you sometimes have cramps before, during, or after your period, or if you feel tired on the day you ovulate, or you have an existential crisis on day 29 of your cycle, or you get a little bit irritable a few days before you bleed some of the time. None of us are in perfect balance (balance is a lie, if you ask me) and minor fluctuations in your mood and energy and sex drive and appetite are normal. It’s also normal to have a totally wonky cycle once in a while, particularly if you are under a lot of stress or there’s been some other disruption to your usual routine. As I said above, if something feels off and your intuition is telling you something is wrong, pay attention and seek help. And if you’ve been having debilitating pain with your period every month or you feel extremely depressed or even suicidal the day before bleeding (I experienced this a lot in my teens and early 20s), find a doctor who will listen.
But if you’re having an off month or a little bit of cramping or if you just started your period and you feel like you need an extra nap, it’s okay. I promise. You are human. You are not supposed to feel the same every day or every month. Your period gives you valuable insights that can inform how you make adjustments in your diet, sleep, exercise, work, relationships, etc. to better benefit your overall health. But perfection is not the goal. So give yourself a break for not having this shit totally dialed in. None of us do. Even period and menstruation gurus have terrible cycles sometimes. I promise.
You don’t have to LOVE your menstrual cycle, but I really, really don’t want you to hate it either. At the very least, I want you to know and understand your own body. Because making peace with your period can actually change your life in profound ways. So call me! Or go pick up some of the resources listed above. Or listen to the Curious & Curiouser podcast episode about menstrual cycles here. And the episodes about sex here and here and here. Oh, and here. Also here. (We like this topic a lot. Clearly.)
And call me if you want a collaborator in this process. I’d love to be that person.