Terri Harris, Education & Wellbeing Specialist for Brook in Bristol, fights tirelessly every day to challenge period stigma and bust myths so that young people feel empowered to take control of their menstrual health. This is a week in Terri’s shoes…
I was eleven years old when my first period came and I wasn’t very clued up about what was happening. I can remember willing it to disappear and immediately feeling dirty. For my mother, the day my period came was a huge celebration – she sang it from the rooftops. Yet, the intrinsic shame and embarrassment I felt was hard to kick despite her motivational speeches about this being the best day of my life.
It’s this embarrassment and shame that we’re trying to dismantle through the Let’s Talk. Period project. It’s a challenge because it is so ingrained in young people’s consciousness.
From adverts whispering the word period to swapping tampons under tables and hiding them up sleeves – society is telling young people that periods are something to be hidden.
Every day we are battling with this. The majority of the time that involves busting myths and sharing facts about their anatomy, but sometimes it involves just lending an ear to their experiences. Of course every young person’s experience of menstruation is different, which means that every day in my role is completely diverse.
Today, I wanted to give you a taste of a week in my life as a Menstrual Health Specialist, and a small insight into the world of period shame, stigma and taboo. So, what does our average week comprise of?
1. There are vulvas everywhere
Every day begins and ends with a vulva; illustrations, hand-made, big, and small – vulvas in every shape and form.
The majority don’t know much about their vulva and their extremely self-conscious about the way it looks. So my day-to-day involves busting myths around labia size and symmetry, discussing the existence of pubic hair and highlighting that urine and periods- come from separate holes!
2. We distribute around a hundred period products a week all over Bristol
Every day we pack up our purple suitcases and wheel them off to various schools and youth services. We await the day a stranger asks where we’re going on holiday so we can turn around and bust some period taboos right there in the high street.
3. We constantly have to navigate period shame.
At the beginning of almost every session the young people resound with “erghh! I’m not talking about that”. There is an automatic repulsion to periods even for those who haven’t started. When I ask who thinks period blood is dirty almost everyone says yes, and that they feel ashamed.
The reality is that 48% of girls feel embarrassed by their period – and when you include transgender, non-binary and intersex people into that statistic it only rises.
4. We hear EVERY word for vulva.
Doing this job I have heard every word for a vulva! Our sessions aim to empower young people to use scientific terms when discussing periods and their anatomy.
To ensure we are all on the same page at the beginning of the session we ask for everyone to shout/write/whisper the names they use for their vulva. I’ve heard everything from a moo to a rainbow garden plus all the derogatory and inflammatory words in between.
5. There’s always intrigue about reusable products.
Every day I pull out a menstrual cup or pair of period pants to show young people, and the majority have never seen them before. At first there are looks of bewilderment and curiosity but once we explain the cost-benefit and environmental impact young people are in awe!
Every day is completely different but always involves slowly changing young people’s mind-sets.
The thing about periods is that they are so enmeshed with other taboos regarding pleasure, consent and body confidence, that once you open one door you end up discussing it all!
What we do on a day-to-day basis is teach young people to be curious about the workings of their bodies and to question the norms which society imparts on them – and I’m proud that we’re slowly chipping away at those norms one period product at a time!