Monday, September 2, 2013

On being a feminist with period pain

Period pain. A perfectly normal part of a woman's lifespan. Most menstruating women will experience it at least once in their lifetime and some, like myself, experience it regularly and strongly to the point where it can reduce their capacity to participate in everyday life. Sometimes it's not completely normal. Sometimes it's a part of an underlying medical condition that requires treatment, and this is particularly the case if it comes on later in life with no previous experience of pain. Generally though, it's harmless if not somewhat inconvenient.

So if it is so damn normal and average and stuff, why is it so hard to talk about? Why is it that this hardcore black feminist, when confronted with pain and depleted energy as a result, finds it so difficult to say "I think my uterus is actually twisting itself into an infinity symbol in four different directions and I simply need to rest"? I mean it is that normal for me that, generally speaking, most months I will need a day away from society or work to rest, and it has always been that way. I hate to say it, but in the quest to be the all-conquering feminist ready to take on the world, I think I unfortunately sometimes see my own body's needs as a sign of weakness and a thing to be overcome. And that, quite frankly, is ridiculous.

Part of the reason I got involved in the trade union movement is because I saw what it was trying to do to achieve equity in the workplace for women and for Indigenous people. Workplaces are still very much set up based on a mainstream man's lived experience, and this is evident by the fact that we are still fighting for parental leave schemes, cultural leave and other such things that will allow for optimal participation in the workforce of people who are not white men. Rather than being seen as opportunities for workforces to grow their capacity and skill pool, a lot of the time these clauses are seen as disruptions and inconveniences at the bargaining table and the reason for this is that they upset a dominant workplace culture. So they damn well should too, because if it wasn't for these dominant cultures being challenged, we would still be having to deal with bosses in the vein of Gene Hunt but lacking any of the residual charm.

Whilst great strides have been made, we are still walking that tightrope of trying to change embedded cultures whilst also trying to achieve as much as we individually can in the existing environments. That whole "women are just as capable as men, if not more" argument will occasionally run aground when the entire system is set up around men and women's experiences are still fringe considerations. This leaves women with a dilemma: do they change to adhere to the current system thus proving how capable they are at succeeding in it, or do they own their own experience and push for recognition of that experience. From the time I was young, I was told that women, and Aboriginal people, could do whatever they wanted but for the most part I have found that this is only true if they wish to do so completely within a white male paradigm. If they don't wish to be swept up in a great big wave of assimilation then we have a problem.

This is where period pain comes into it. Like I said, this is part of my lived experience. I know most months I will be confronted by it. I know that generally it is manageable but sometimes it won't be. I also know that it will abate by the end of the second day because that's what happens. I may have to deal with pain but one thing I have never had to deal with is irregularity and on comparison with other women friends I have found I have clockwork precision; every month, average 28 days between, ovulation smack bang in the middle of it. What's more, knowing my cycle and and all its quirks means that I am pretty in tune with what's going on and I can, and have, used the Billings Method for extended periods of time because of this knowledge. I honestly don't know many women who would be able to do that without having to read up extensively and fuss about with thermometers.

I have though, at times, sought medical assistance for period pain, just to make sure that there isn't anything more problematic going on. They have had suspicions: endometriosis was talked about 10 years ago but nothing was conclusively found. I've had borderline scans for PCOS for years but hormone levels are all within the normal range. When I had a laproscopy a couple of years back for an ectopic, they routinely checked to see if there may be any further complications and found utterly nothing. The short of it is, this is just me. Medical professionals have, however, suggested "remedies". Painkillers of course, but they always suggest the contraceptive pill and I always refuse. I've tried it before and not only does my normal cycle not particularly like being synthetically regulated and tries to stubbornly push itself through, but, like many other women, it effects my moods drastically. Additionally, seeing I have the rare benefit of being regular, then regulating synthetically seems just a tad ridiculous to me. So does cancelling my completely natural cycle so I can wholly participate in a male-focussed society.

So why dance around it then? Because this IS my life, and because all of the workplaces I have ever worked in have had this embedded masculine culture to varying degrees, it still seems like weakness to admit that one has a very female problem in this environment. At times this has led to other people making assumptions about what my physical limitations may be based on other issues I have (eg: ongoing injuries from a car accident) rather than them knowing that I have varying needs. Additionally, because there are certain regulations regarding days off and the like, it sometimes means I have to waste time going to the doctor for a certificate for something I experience consistently and know exactly what to do about. Perhaps it's the fault of those poxy white swimsuit ads because there can be an implicit understanding that women will just "get on with it" and admitting when we can't flies in the face of our perceived capabilities. If we keep pushing on through and not admitting when our bodies are telling us we need a break are we really changing or challenging workplaces, perceptions, society or, well, anything?

Food for thought; for me, and for anyone else who is similarly afflicted. 


  1. Love your post. It's so true, rest. What the hell is wrong with just being still and having even just a morning off. It's also why I hate Codral Cold Tablets and the "Soldier on With codral" song. You're not supposed to soldier on when you're sick. You're supposed to just wait and let your body do what it needs to do.

  2. I love it too! I used to suffer so badly that I'd drive home from work in agony, pip the horn and one of my lovely sons would come and help me inside, lead me to my bed and then bring me a hot drink with requested medication! I'm sure it helped them become sensitive men with their wives/partners etc. As they were growing up I gave them age suitable honest explanations of all things to do with both male and female bodies. No pet names for body parts, just plain facts! Sometimes I also needed at least one day off! It's absolute agony when you get a large 'dose'?
    a warm bed and a good sleep work wonders - being horizontal is a must!
    I feel for you Celeste!

  3. This really resonates with me. Just this past week I've had a particularly bad period, pain-wise. Wednesday I was home trying to study for an exam and just ended up spending most of the day trying to deal with my body tearing bits off my uterus. But like you say, it's not just the pain, it's the exhaustion too. People tell you just to take painkillers and get on with it, but I find that often the painkillers take away the pain itself (after an hour or two), but you still are left with the exhaustion, sometimes nausea, the general whole-body-ache that nothing really helps with.

    What frustrates me sometimes is that the whole pain thing, when it does incapacitate you for the day or several days, has no actual purpose or reason. It doesn't tell you anything other than that you have a uterus. Yay. Maybe that mentality contributes to why people tell you to just get over it and deal with it. Because it's so 'normal.'

  4. I was hoping (well, not "hoping", but you know!) that this may resonate with others. Yep, the pain mixed with exhaustion is killer. I have always been thankful that I don't also experience mood fluctuations like so many other women. But the pressure to keep going is there, and removing pain is just one element.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond!