CHENNAI — "What is this?," my curious seven year old asked, picking up a pack of sanitary napkins, as I found just the right position to take a picture to accompany an article on a menstrual hygiene movement in Chennai.
I paused for a minute, and replied, "These are like thin diapers that girls wear for around one week every month."
I was caught off guard, and mentally kicked myself for the diaper reference. He looked suitably impressed with the design on the package and inspected the pads as well. We don't have cable TV so he hasn't been treated to the "happy period" advertisements with girls frolicking in white outfits, or sanitary napkins looking more suited to soaking up ink than body fluids.
So, this was my chance. I took out a pad and said, "You know how I don't feel my best sometime during the month? Well, on those days, I have my period. It's when the tissue in my baby pouch aka the uterus is shed."
He has seen pregnant women in the family, so is familiar with the term uterus.
We never really talked about periods openly at my all-girls school, or among friends.
It's not easy explaining the inner workings of a uterus to kids under 10. So I started small — with the baby pouch in my belly that prepares for an embryo every month (embryo, like the ones they've studied in science). But when there is no baby inside, the uterus has to shed the tissue, and so adolescent girls and women have to use a pad, tampon or a menstrual cup to collect that body fluid. I explained related conditions like stomach cramps, body pain, general discomfort and changes in mood.
My son now understands when I have a body ache around my period and even gives me space on his lap to take a nap if I'm visibly in pain. It's a relief, compared to the hushed "Aunt Flo" or "Mother Nature" references we made when I was in school. Back then, purchasing pads was an adventure in itself. Wrapped in newspaper and then covered in a black plastic bag, they'd be passed gingerly across a shop counter. I'm sure contraband was available with less shame.
It feels like a lifetime ago, when I hit puberty. My father, a doctor, would throw around medical jargon at the dinner table, and biology was his pet subject. So I had heard of ovaries, uteruses and the like before I hit menarche.
I remember the day it happened, all women do. My mother came over, handed me a packet of sanitary napkins, and explained what was happening to my body and what would follow. My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, was a repository of wisdom and warmth. She told me how this was something normal, that all girls go through it and that I should talk to dad and mom if I was in pain or uncomfortable.
Health workers distributing free sanitary pads — Photo: Abhisek Saha/SOPA Images/ZUMA
It was a very matter-of-fact talk. But we never really talked about periods openly at my all-girls school, or among friends. We only knew to say something if we spotted a stain on a skirt, and would quickly pass a sweater to wrap around it.
I wish I had access to something like the Menstrupedia manual back then. It's an informative and age-appropriate comic, handed out at schools across the country now.
I discovered it only recently. It introduces the concept of menstruation with the right biology, yet with empathy and a sense of curiosity that sits well when you approach a nine or 10 year old. The manual, translated into 15 Indian and foreign languages, has found traction among parents and educators alike. I highly recommend it to anyone gearing up for "the talk."
The time is ripe for such conversations. In 2018, Period. End Of Sentence., a short film on the culture around menstruation in India, won the Academy Award for best documentary (short subject) and Pad Man in Bollywood dramatized the story of the ‘Menstrual Man," Arunachalam Muruganantham.
Just this month, Zomato announced paid period leave for its employees. There is thankfully more visibility for conditions like endometriosis and PCOS/PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome/Disorder) as young celebrities like Sara Ali Khan open up about their struggles. And on the Humans of Bombay site, a recent post brought into focus the story of Rutuchakra, a movement started by a teenager in 2018 to address conversations around menstrual hygiene.
We still have miles to go to normalize the conversation around menstruation, across the yawning rural-urban chasm. But simple conversations at home, with children across the gender spectrum, go a long way.
*Anisha Menezes is a freelance writer based in Chennai. She is an art enthusiast and is passionate about environmental causes.