How often do you hear women talking about their periods openly?
In Asian countries, menstruation is not something that is commonly discussed. There is a taboo that lingers around the topic.
There are over 15 million women in Malaysia. Now, just imagine — most of them have their periods every month. So why is it always hushed up?
I still remember my first period vividly. I was only eleven when I got it. At the time, I didn’t know what it was.
This is a little embarrassing to admit, but when it happened, I thought it was… chocolate.
I tried recalling times I had any chocolate on that day or in the past few days. Of course, I couldn’t remember having any.
So, I quietly changed into a new pair of panties but the same thing happened. I hid in my room and kept changing until I ran out of them. That was when I told myself, ”I guess it’s time.”
I took a few deep breaths, gathered the courage to open the door and told my mother about it.
She looked at my stained undies and called me to her room. She did not say anything. Instead, she began searching for something in her cupboard. When she presented it to me, I recognised what it was.
“Oh… mommy’s diapers…”
I had no idea why she was showing me how to use it. I had no idea what was going on.
That’s how I learned how to use a sanitary pad — not one word spoken, not one question asked.
Then, it was time to go to school. I was so uncomfortable the whole time. At the back of my mind, it felt like everyone in class knew. Another girl in my class had got hers earlier this year, and somehow, everybody knew.
It was so embarrassing to be on my period for no apparent reason. I was afraid to tell anyone about it — I didn’t want anyone to gossip about me reaching puberty, especially the boys.
Eventually, I told a few close friends of mine because it was overwhelming to go through that alone.
After about a year, the girls in my class started getting their periods, and you know what? I was the one they turned to for advice.
It made me wonder, do we grow out of the embarrassment, or does it stay with us?
We used Secret Codes for our Periods
A lot of us grew up using made-up terms to refer to our periods. Visha, a Form Four student said that her friends in school would refer it as the “strawberry”.
Calling your period a “strawberry” is pretty ironic isn’t it? Especially when the experience isn’t that sweet.
“It’s cute, what?” She laughed. I guess it lifts their mood a little when they call it a “strawberry”.
Jessy, who works in a small office with less than 10 colleagues, said that they do not have a word for it.
“Whenever we needed to mention it, we would just keep raising our eyebrows in a funny way — the others would immediately get it.”
Sarah and her colleagues had a more friendly term for it. They would say, “Best friend dah datang.” (“Your best friend has arrived.”)
That’s because your period is like a loyal friend who drops by once a month.
Kah Ling and her friends, on the other hand, are pretty vocal about having their periods. “We have no problem talking about it.”
She said that they would just call out “I’m on my f*cking period!” as a warning to innocent passersby. The one-of-a-kind nicknames that women use to conceal their periods amused me.
What about sanitary pads? Are Malaysian women as embarrassed about them? Do they “Whisper”?
Syamimi admitted that she does get uncomfortable at the counter when she buys sanitary pads and has to pay to a male cashier. “There would usually be no eye contact between the both of us. Like we just know.”
While we’re in school and college (I assume co-ed), we would try our best to hide the sanitary pad while attempting to pass it to someone in need while we’re in class.
To Viv, passing a sanitary pad to someone else feels like top-secret CIA mission.
“We would silently tear a piece of paper, wrap it up and then cover it with books or notes,” she said, bemused.
When she takes her pad out of her bag, she would swiftly drop it in her pocket so that no one would see it.
She added, “We usually have to whisper to ask if someone has a pad. We don’t say it out loud. For me, I don’t want everybody to know I’m on my period.”
That’s because when someone makes a remark like, “She must be on her period”, it would annoy her to no end.
“That kinda just makes my feelings invalid when I’m on my period,” she huffed.
Family vs Friends: Who is more awkward?
Aside from trying to hide sanitary napkins, would there be a difference in the way women talk about menstruation to family and friends?
Sarah, the youngest of five siblings with three sisters, feels “super comfortable talking about it” when she’s around them. Her family understands and supports each other when it is the time of the month.
But she doesn’t feel the same around her friends. “I still feel uncomfortable talking about period with my friends. Maybe because it’s more like a personal experience to me.” She appreciates her privacy when it comes to her menstruation cycle.
Remember Kah Ling, who announces her period as a warning? You might be surprised to know that it is a whole different story at home.
While she’s comfortable talking freely about it with her open-minded friends, it’s almost never brought up in the house. All they would do is touch or lightly rub their abdomens when it was time.
“That’s just the way it is at home,” she shrugged.
Her mother never talked about it, so she followed suit while growing up.
Do You Wish Things To Be Different?
Viv, who’s Hindu, hopes that people are not so embarrassed about it. “It’s not like it’s a big sin or anything.”
A widely known taboo in the Hindu community hinders women from visiting the temples when they are on their period.
She said, “Women shouldn’t be stopped from going to temples because of their periods. We’re not dirty. It’s part of life.”
Syamimi, on the other hand, thinks that the blame should be laid squarely on our education system. Schools should take sex education seriously.
“Everything has to be taught from a young age, especially on something that impacts a person’s self-confidence and self-value,” she asserted.
She strongly feels that teachers should talk about it normally like how they would talk about anything else.
“I wish our teachers back in school did not lower their voices or make faces when bringing up topics about menstruation,” she lamented.
Their hushed tones made her automatically feel wrong to talk about it openly.
For Jessy, she is certain that things are changing within the country.
She pointed out the recent trend of bold and creative advertisements promoting sanitary pads. “I see things getting better over time,” she said, pleased.
Jessy believes education is key. The public needs to be educated about the facts and truths of menstruation. “Stop hiding it with black plastic bags!”
Whether it’s “the time of the month” or the “strawberry”, we are all talking about the same thing. Period.
It takes action from all quarters of society to transform our archaic views on discussing periods.
Everyone should have the freedom to discuss women’s reproductive health without fear of judgement or shame from others. Let’s talk about it – openly!
Do you think we have a problem talking about periods? Tell us in the comments!
For more articles on menstruation and women’s reproductive health, read Oh No, Aunt Flo: Malaysian Women Share Their Worst Period Mishaps and I Use Birth Control for My Out-Of-Control Hormones. This Is What I Learnt After a Year of Taking It.