I did not know what to do with my body till I was eighteen years old and even then, I was uncomfortable about it.
The one thing about my body that puzzled me to no end as an eight-year-old was menstruation. Getting your period in junior school (Class 5) was all the craze. It was a proper reason to gossip in my school like scathing Indian aunties, “Do you know the real reason Nandini isn’t doing PT today? It’s because she has got her,” and here their voices sounded like they were being strangled, “period.”
I did not know that that period blood was supposed to be red. I knew that it was blue, like water, because the sanitary pad companies made me believe having your period was like riding on the Ganges, a sure way to heaven if you wear their “all-night comfort’ whatnot. I looked forward to the experience, thinking it would be the ‘new thing’ to flaunt.
The spell broke in a couple of ways. First, I accidentally walked in on my mother in the bathroom, and I saw bloodstains on the floor. I thought she was sick. The second time happened when I finally got my period as an eleven-year-old, right before my cousin’s thread ceremony. The pain was maddening, the flow unstoppable. Looking back on it. I was probably overreacting because I had not known this was normal. For me.
Even though I joined the group of women who bleed, our all-girl’s Convent school did not excuse us from sports, academics or dances. They wanted us to soldier on despite the odds and that it was ‘normal’. It happens, we deal with unimaginable pain for three days, we move on. They treated it as an external demon that lives with us for the duration and torments us while we silently succumb to it.
Supporting this trope was the group of girls who did not experience menstrual cramps. They sought to nullify the entire experience of the ones who faced menstrual cramps by acting like the latter were a bunch of ‘weaklings’. I don’t remember which side I was on but probably the first. That is because for me, the cramps did not start until I was fourteen.
My menstrual cycles were pretty irregular but things reached a head when it took a break for eight long months, when I was fourteen. I finally dragged my parents to the gynaecologist, who took one look at the ultrasound and said, “You have PCOS. That is, you have multiple cysts in both your ovaries.” She laid me on the bed in the chamber and pressed her hand on sides of my lower abdomen. Immediately, I felt two oval structures. She said, “You feel them? Those are the ovaries and yours are slightly larger because of the cysts.”
She reassured me by saying it is a common condition and that there are ways in which I can combat it like eating healthier and exercising regularly. She simply prescribed medicines for heavy bleeding and irregular periods and simultaneously told me not to take them until the cramps were unbearable or I was three months late respectively. “These medicines have serious side effects and I do not want to burden you with these. You are just fourteen.”
I maintained her orders religiously. For a year and a half. My cycle consisted of two months. Everything should have worked itself out. But the cramps spread out in my lower abdomen and back in a joyful proliferation. I never took the pills Dr. Dasgupta prescribed because I always thought the pain was unbearable and I was always made to feel like “it’s normal”. I still don’t take medicines because I am used to the pain.
I cannot walk when it’s the first and second days, I cry all through those days and then I have to carefully walk around the house so as not to ‘stain’. Through all this, I keep reading articles by sportswomen asking women to suck it and get back to the courts, cups et al. Because this is what it means to be a woman.
I am sick of being told how to behave like a woman, I am a human, I feel pain, I deserve to be heard.
So do you.
By Riti Bhattacharyya. The article has been written as part of Health Over Stigma, a community and women-led campaign by Haiyya to address sexual and reproductive health rights of unmarried women. Follow the campaign on Instagram @healthoverstigma.