Breaking Barriers


Men on Menstruation

Breaking the silence around menstruation requires mutual and coordinated efforts to create and continue dialogues around accessibility, health, and hygiene. It cannot be sidelined as a women’s-only issue. The need to encourage more conversation finds validation in the fact that a lot of men are coming forward to understand what their partners, siblings, and mothers, and men who menstruate go each every month. Manasa Ram Raj spoke to a few men on their experience in comprehending the experiences of, responding to, and supporting those who menstruate and here is what they had to say in response to these questions:
“When did you first learn about periods?”
“What is your experience on the stigma around it?”
“What are you doing about it?"

I work in advertising now and my first understanding (rather misunderstandings) of periods came through TV commercials. I watched commercials for sanitary pads as a kid and figured that they were something women wore if they wanted to wear white pants or white skirts. My mum ensured I did not live the rest of my life with that idea. She’d often send me to the chemist to buy pads for her and when I did ask her about it, she just mentioned women needed to use them for their health and hygiene. First small step in the right direction. The fact that sanitary pads from the shops came covered in newspapers or black plastic bags initially hinted they weren’t too welcome in the open. And there was generally a hush hush around the entire concept of it. As far as I was concerned, if it’s hush hush around me, then it probably isn’t the best thing to talk about. I walked into high school biology lessons expecting to educate yourself, but the teachers themselves weren’t too comfortable with it and we finished those chapters in fast forward mode. Surprisingly though, the school had scheduled a session for the class with an expert in SexEd. That session changed/educated a lot of us. Here, was an adult who was talking to you and your female classmates together about menstruation, sexual health, etc. in a regular conversation, treating us like equals. We learnt about what our classmates faced in their lives and their households because they menstruated. This was the first time I saw girls from class open up and talk about it comfortably and I’m sure most of the boys finally understood what it meant -- as peers, this was our first step towards normalising periods. From this point onward till today, talking about periods is entirely normal around friends, but still not, within the family. I’m honestly doing nothing at all to help ease pain when/if people around me have painful episodes while menstruating. At best, I’ve engaged in conversation to ensure my friends feel comfortable and I try my best to help out. I’ve seen friends properly suffer from cramps and I’ve tried in whatever extent to be available. I’m told ice cream helps, so that’s always my go to option. I’d love to know more and I want to do more. I think men everywhere should properly understand mensuration, it’s a humbling experience. Women are kicking ass everywhere, and they’re doing it while bleeding.
I can't quite remember how I came to learn about periods. It wasn't taught in school. This wasn't a conversation my parents had with me. I must have seen it in pop-culture and googled it afterwards to try and understand it. I am not intimately familiar with the stigma and taboo attached to it, this was one of many things that I wasn't really exposed to as a child. I've never heard of either of my parents as much as mention the word before I was in my 20s possibly. I am familiar with it from having existed on the internet and having social media. How do I support those who have pain when they menstruate? Nothing at all, sadly. I will always be supportive in any way I possibly can if those around me who choose to let me know that they are on their period, but even then - I would not immediately know how best to assist them.
Simply put, I didn't really understand what women go through until I was well past college. I just knew that some people menstruate every month but I never really understood what it entailed. For me, my sister is everything and I see her suffer with cramps. Earlier when she was younger, from what little I could read up, I realised that chocolate helps relieve some of the things women experience during their periods. So I used to consciously try getting some when she said that she had pain. I learned that people here (Chennai) saw the natural process as something offensive. If a girl had to take her sanitary napkin out of her bag, she would have to do it very discreetly. I remember people making fun of a few such incidents. I always felt like that was the wrong way to look at it. It is a human experiencing pain so if one cannot help them feel better, at least they shouldn’t worsen what they feel. If I do know someone is on their period, I try asking them (if they're comfortable being asked) if they need anything at all. I realised over the years that different things provide comfort during periods and I unfortunately am no expert apart from reading by googling.
Until 10th grade, I never really knew that such a thing as 'periods' existed and learned about it (very very minimally) at school. School lessons on periods was very brief and 'academic'. While words like 'physical and hormonal changes' were stressed upon, there was no mention of the existing social stigma, or the emotional/physical consequences it has on the one menstruating. The general idea was to whitewash and pass it off as just another science lesson. I remember my parents buying sanitary pads from the stores, but I was always confused as to why it was wrapped separately in a brown paper bag and not with the other goods. I've also noticed how girls at school exchanged similar small brown paper bags, albeit in a secret below the table manners. Being a kid, I just assumed that sanitary pads were like diapers because girls/women couldn't hold their pee. Didn't realise it had a different utility until we learnt about periods in school. While I never really understood why the hush-hush system existed or why it continued to exist (among my school peers), it did help me realise that there is something else going on here, socially. As I grew up and friends became close confidants, conversations around periods eased. I got to understand the stigma around periods, especially within Hindu Brahmin households (my immediate circle). Behaviours and attitude (from men) towards a woman on her period continues to exist on a wide spectrum in my family. On one end, ‘traditional’ men stayed away, didn’t converse or even look at the woman -- any interactions were done via the kids or the maid. Little inquiry was made into their wellbeing. Women were allocated separate baths and floor corners (to sit and lie down) and utensils. This was also made common knowledge to everyone present in the family. The women were generally forbidden from entering the kitchen or the pooja room, or to take part in any family functions. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few men who understand and empathise. They try and be an ally in any way they can be, buying and stocking the house with more pads or tampons or the appropriate medicines, etc. I've noticed this behaviour more among the younger males and/or in nuclear families. However, some men are either blissfully or intentionally unaware of what happens. Things got a little bit more serious when my sister hit puberty. While my dad is usually indifferent to my sister's and mom's periods, and always trying his best to make my them comfortable, he often has to work within the constraints set forth by my mom. While mom doesn't care much about traditional customs, she does insist on my sister sleeping on a separate bed, washing her clothes and her bedding separately for three days during her period. They call periods as 'theetu' (traditionally in Tamil means impure). Logic fails if I were to ask her why the fourth period day isn't theetu. Am I doing anything to be an ally,? I think so. I do try. I normally do not follow any of these traditional customs. Being there for them like on any other day, I think that is all that matters.
I am not sure if I can recollect how I learnt of it, but I think it was during college when I was dating. When you are dating someone, it is obvious to you when that person is physical discomfort once a month. Due to people speaking in hushed whispers I knew there was something I didn't know. So once I knew that my then-girlfriend had her period, I dug up information from the internet. What surprised me then and even now is the cloak of secrecy around something like this. Even then when I would ask her if she was having cramps in public and she would have a horrified expression on her face and ask me to not be so loud, I would wonder. I took some more time to understand the stigma around it. Through reading mostly, and due to being engaged with some organizations who worked preventing gender-based violence, I realized how something so natural, and important, is actually used to discriminate against half of our population. Throughout the years I have come to realize that different women experience period differently. So whenever someone I know experiences periods, I first try to understand how they normally deal with it. Some get horrible cramps and take painkillers, some just have ice cream and watch movies. So I ask first because I really don't think men, in general, are in any position to advice on how to deal with it. I offer to help in whatever manner I can. In the case of friends/colleagues offering to do some of their work to ease their mental burden. Some people I have dated would like chocolates, and some just wanted to be left alone for that period. So its more about understanding that people are different and asking the woman in question as to what they want, and try to be as helpful as possible.
I first learnt about periods in the 10th grade. My experience was seeing people during their periods - framed in a room, not allowed to use any other space in the house, confined to a pillow and a bedsheet and washing it themselves after 2/3days. I am trying to see periods as it is, as biological changes, which is usual and nothing to be framed as an untouchable event, hence being inclusive.
If my memory serves me right, the first time I heard about periods was when I was in the 7th or 8th standard. We had gone swimming with some friends and I noticed that some of the girls from our grade, weren't comfortable with getting into the water. They all happened to be very good swimmers. None of the boys understood why and although a few of the boys forced them to jump in, some of us knew that there has to be reason and its best to respect their decision. As soon as I came back home, I asked my parents about this and I remember clearly, my Mom sitting me down and explaining the reasons, what the process is each month for women, etc. I did feel bad that some of my friends forced the girls to swim but then again, it was the lack of knowledge or awareness around the subject that caused them to do so. I'm glad my parents told me. It helped me understand what periods are and what women go through as well. With regard to the stigma, I honestly feel, things are changing in a positive way. There is more awareness and acceptance these days. It's a natural thing for women and we must respect and embrace it rather than be negative. In terms of video content, many filmmakers are addressing the stigma around periods or menstruation and its all being done to generate even more awareness. While there might still be a stigma around periods, I believe as a society, we are in a much better place than we were even 5 years ago. From our perspective, we do a lot of films and videos in the social impact space. This includes work that promotes women's rights, women empowerment etc. We always encourage people to talk openly about menstruation. Even in our friend's circle, these days the women are very open and if they can't attend an event or gathering because they are not feeling up to it, they just tell us that they are having their periods. They don't lie and try to cover it up by saying they have a headache. This is possible only if you talk, share, gain trust and have a comfort level. Again, to reiterate, periods or menstruation is part of life. There is nothing wrong or bad about it. Its natural and the more we embrace it wholeheartedly, the better it will be for the next generation.
Ever since I was a child, a menstruation cycle was always perceived by people around me as something impure. See, I grew up in a traditional South Indian home and my earliest understanding of periods was that time of the month when my elder sister or mum won’t enter the pooja room. Of course, I would ask them why, I used to ask all sorts of questions growing up. But often was I brushed away. To be honest, I still don’t know how my folks would divert such hard-hitting questions. Then came the commercials and boy did that confuse us a lot. Blue ink with those bright animated visuals and kindergarten-esque jingle surely didn’t help anyone. But I always knew that a menstruation cycle or what my idea of it, caused great discomfort to the women around me. Sex-ed classes in my high-school were nothing but ‘free period.’ Of course, we always wondered why no teacher came to attend the 40-odd children sitting in the computer lab for a whole one hour. But then again, we couldn’t be bothered because it was 2008 and we were just given access to one-hour of free computer. Games? Sure. Porn? Sure. But let me tell you, there was no sex-education. I never quite understood the stigma around it. I never understood why pads had to be wrapped in a newspaper when you buy it. But then again, we also live in a society where condoms are handed out as if they are illicit drugs. Nevertheless, I definitely feel the education system has become much more comprehensive on this matter and that it will only improve towards its full potential in the coming generations. As for me, years have passed and for the record, I definitely don’t think menstruation cycles have anything to do with purity. In fact, I know that all I have to do now is to have an empathetic understanding and offer help if and when asked.