Feb 28, 2022 | Menstrual pain | 1 comment

Pleasure in pain?

Menstrual pain | 1 comment

Are painful periods a gift we can all learn from, or is it time to stand together in saying our pain doesn’t define us?

Written by Katie

Katie is a content creator and writer from Birmingham, UK. Passionate about menstrual, environmental and social justice & driven by the need for integrative education and intersectional advocacy.
Our silent reminder of inequality comes around every month. No matter how much we talk about painful periods, when it comes down to it, we go through the trauma on our own.

Squatted down in the break room toilets, trying not to scream out in pain – “she was only nipping to the loo” said her line manager, “why is she taking so long?”.

We try to move through the ordeal without attracting too much attention, in fact, without attracting any at all. It isn’t very ‘lady-like’ to reveal information that could shame us, so we protect ourselves, hiding instead. But for anyone with dysmenorrhea or endometriosis, this level of harm is totally normal. I’m called into HR again, too many sick days without a reasonable explanation.

Doctors’ notes aren’t always possible to get when the doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with you. Constant pain causes irritability. It causes arguments. When you can’t explain your low mood or short temper without embarrassing the company you keep, arguments spiral and relationships are tested.

Is it so surprising to lose your temper when you’re suffering alone?

Perhaps if people felt they could talk about their experiences, the burden would not be so heavy. It is one thing to experience extreme pain each month – it is another to have to hide it. If we take away the need to be discreet, we open up the possibility of having real, honest conversations about our welfare.

However, it is essential that these conversations are steered by those who bleed.

I have often heard menstrual health be referred to as something that gives us strength, defining our experience on this Earth. While it may be true that people enduring such pain have many shared experiences and develop shared strengths, is it reasonable to suggest that we benefit from this pain?

My gut says NO. I may be stronger now than I was at 12. I’ve learnt essential life skills such as: being sneaky and furtive to hide the fact that I just stained my 4th pair of pants this week; developing a strong character that can withstand days of non-stop pain and still smash that presentation at work; or flourishing into a deeply empathetic, nurturing person who can spot the moment someone is in pain. However, there is more than one way to ‘skin a cat’.

Those that don’t bleed can still develop these characteristics and do so in their own time…
without the experience of excruciating pain.
This is surely an advantage. In suggesting that we grow strong, resilient, hardened in some way – and closer to our ability to reproduce – we are completely written out of the conversation. We are no longer individuals who deserve relief from this pain, we are a collective served by ourselves with no need for outside input. The reality of painful periods becomes an open and shut case, one that the medical world need not investigate, one that employers need not mitigate for, one that we need not reach out about, because we must learn on our own. It is this sort of archaic attitude that has justified the neglect of women’s health for centuries, describing pain as a fact of life for us to endure alone.
Historic ideas of female inferiority affect everyone who bleeds today.
Medical research has been founded on the understanding of an average white male, excluding both women and people of colour from accurate diagnoses for generations. Women’s health often describes extreme pain as ‘discomfort’, undermining our experiences and subduing our requests for help. Women have been viewed as helpless, over-emotional and erratic, perpetuating the belief that any suffering we should experience as part of our reproductive health would only benefit us, helping us fulfil our ‘true purpose’. These beliefs about perceived strength and suffering as a martyr to human life seem to be the crux of the argument that we can – maybe even should – handle this pain.

As I squat over the toilet for the fourth time today, a tear slipping down my cheek and into my mouth, I feel a pang of resentment. “If it were men who bled, they would surely have access to more effective pain relief, they might have monthly prescribed days off work and they might actually get a diagnosis!”. My teeth are gritted with rage. When I sober up from the pain, I realise the absurdity of making such grand assumptions about a theoretical role reversal. But I understand there is a grain of truth within my frustrations.

I want more research, more medical intervention, employment rights and better diagnoses for people living with endometriosis, dysmenorrhea and other such conditions – I want it for everyone who bleeds. On average, people who bleed will do so for a total of 10 years (combined). For those with endometriosis and dysmenorrhea, that means spending an average of 10 years in extreme pain.

But how do we break out of being so polite about our pain, in a society that doesn’t necessarily respect it? Conversation.
We need to be brave and talk more openly about our experiences, take a risk on telling an employer, a partner, a friend, a teacher. The more we talk, the more the world understands our pain, and the more we understand each other’s pain too.

But it isn’t a one-way street, we need those that do not bleed to listen and really hear what we are saying. We may have much to learn from the notion of Stubborn Optimism, made popular by Christiana Figueres. She talks about ‘Stubborn Optimism’ in relation to climate advocacy, as the practice of persistence and stubborn conviction – essential to maintaining stamina in any form of advocacy – while sustaining the hope that things will get better, so that we can share our vision effectively and inspire others.

This resilient approach will be essential in conveying our experiences and breaking free from traditional stigma about periods. Affecting change is no easy feat when suffering from chronic conditions, but together we can all be stubborn optimists, paving the way for a new attitude of respect for menstrual health.
It’s time to say no, I will not accept this level of pain and nor should you either. There is so much potential for medical relief – we just need to demand it.