We used to own a sari-sari store. As a kid, I spent a lot of my free time there, marveling at the little packs of chichirya hung like banderitas during fiesta. I also had fun watching my grandmother, uncles, and aunts attend to customers. I found the whole ritual of reciting prices, getting payment, handing out change, and wrapping the purchased goods intriguing.
One day, I saw my aunt break the usual protocols. Her voice was lower than the usual, and her sentences shorter than the standard spiels. I also noticed that she wrapped the purchased item in a sheet of old newspaper instead of plastik labo.
“What’s that?” I asked my aunt.
“Sandwich,” She answered, her voice still different from what I was used to hearing.
What she was wrapping looked like a pack of mini-sandwich, indeed—square and a bit thick, soft-looking like two slices of loaf bread, perhaps joined by a generous amount of thick, yummy filling.
Years had passed before I figured the truth about that mysterious transaction: What my aunt was wrapping in old newspaper wasn’t a sandwich but a single pack of sanitary pad or “feminine product” especially made for the so-called “red days.”
According to my mother, red days referred to the three to four days of bleeding that most women experienced on a monthly basis. Others also called it “buwanang dalaw” or monthly visitor, “mens”, or simply “girl thing”.
I did not quite understand it, even though I was also told that I would experience the same thing, too, when I grow older. Also adding to my confusion about such a phenomenon was the apparent weirdness of how it was pertained to and tackled by people at home, as though it were an entirely sinister thing.
“It’s the body’s way to get rid of dirty blood,” a classmate once talked about it. I completely agreed to this explanation of hers. A couple of days prior, I read a newspaper article about a teenage boy who was rushed to the hospital due to an inexplicable pain in his tummy. After several tests, it was found out that he was anatomically female. He and his parents had just not been aware of it. He was already supposed to start menstruating but there was something wrong with his genitals that prevented blood from coming out of his body. As a result, he experienced intense pain and had to undergo an operation. I told my classmate about it, and she formed a theory about it.
“He was poisoned by the dirty blood!”
This made perfectly sense to me, so I thought I already I understood why women at home would talk about menstruation in hush voices, or why women in general didn’t want to be seen clutching a pack of sanitary pads.
Thoughts about these discoveries had stayed in my head that when I started menstruating at 13, I felt so unclean and ashamed. Although in panic and still clueless on how to deal with the bleeding, I considered keeping it a secret. I would not have told my mother about it, if it weren’t for my ignorance on the use of sanitary pads with wings.
Yet the effort to keep things a discreet as possible remained. At school, I resisted the urge to ask anyone, even my closest female friends, whether I had bloodstain on my skirt or not. What I did, instead, was scurry to the comfort room in between subject periods to check for any stain myself. I also made sure to stuff my pocket with a sanitary pad to change with, plus a sheet of scratch paper to wrap my soiled napkin in.
Inside the cubicle, I performed my ritual as careful as possible but without taking consuming so much time. My breathing almost stopped as I slowly peeled the pad off my underwear, trying not to raise suspicion among the girls waiting for their turn to use the bathroom. My hand shook as I wrapped the bloody piece of evidence in scratch paper and threw it into the trash can. My hand’s trembling went on as I stuck a fresh piece of sanitary pad onto my undergarment’s crotch panel for I was worried about not doing it right. Mislaid pad, after all, could result in bloody leaks.
When I was done perfecting the position of the pad, I put the underwear on. Then quickly, I checked the toilet bowl for any traces of blood. If there was none, I unlocked the door and went out of the cubicle. It was only then that I could finally start to relax—but only for a short while. As soon as I felt blood oozing out of my body, I’d start getting that familiar icky feeling again.
Just a couple of months after my very first period, I was already convinced that it was indeed a curse. I was even reminded of the story saying that menstruation was given to women as a punishment for what Eve had done at the Garden of Eden many years ago. Naturally, I felt so guilty and thought that maybe, I really deserved it.
Or maybe not.
In third year high school, I had a very humiliating experience involving menstrual blood. I was sent to a campus on the other side of the city one day to participate in an inter-school essay writing competition. I was on my period, and I was using a regular pad without wings. It was a cheap brand, so it wasn’t made of highly absorbent material. I didn’t mind at first, thinking I was just going to sit most of the time, anyway; no big movements to cause leaks.
When I was done with my entry, I went to the nearest comfort room to pee. It was a huge public high school with limited facilities, so I had to queue and wait a couple of minutes for my turn to use a cubicle. When my turn was fast approaching, I noticed that the other girls were already giving me weird stares. I was just when I remembered that I was actually on my period and I realized that I might be having a period-related emergency.
I was right. When I pulled my panties down, I was greeted by the bloody truth—my sanitary pad had failed me. Not only was my underwear stinky and reeking with fresh blood, a continent of blood also formed on my skirt. Since there was no water supply inside the stall, I had to run outside and get a makeshift tabo and filled it with water. I took it with me as I ran back inside the cubicle. I tried to wash the blood off my skirt and though the mark faded a bit, its reddish outline remained.
Outside, people were already complaining that I was taking so long. The sound of them grunting and irritatingly asking why I wouldn’t come out of the stall yet contributed to my already shooting anxiety level, so I thought that maybe I should just finish what I was doing and leave that place. Then, to hide traces of the map on my skirt, I turned it around until the stain was already on my front. That way, I could easily hide it under the sling bag I was using.
The humiliation intensified later that day, as I was called on stage for the awarding ceremony. I had just snatched an award in the competition, but I was not happy at all. What was supposed to be a fun and victorious experience turned out to be a nightmare. That moment, all I wanted to do was find quiet corner and sulk, yet I couldn’t. My coach was already throwing me an angry look, probably wondering why I wasn’t walking toward the stage for my award yet. Her stare frightened me, so I thought I would just have to go with the flow and pretend that I was just okay.
After the awarding ceremony, I felt the urge to run to a friend and rant about my unfortunate experience earlier that day. However, deep inside me, I also hesitated. I just thought telling her about it would just be too gross. And so I decided to just keep things to myself. I also thought that I was the one to blame for such a misfortune. I could have been more careful but instead, I chose to be too complacent.
Addressing period leaks was one thing; dealing with menstrual pain was an entirely different story. On the top of the paranoia concerning maps that might suddenly appear on panties, skirts, or pants, I also had to learn the art of conquering period pain as a teenager.
Still in high school, I trained myself to sense foreboding menstrual pain, so I could prepare myself early as possible. Whenever lower back pains fell on dates that were close to when my period was supposed to come, I’d immediately take painkillers and cut down on coffee and other food which, according to the Internet, could worsen the pain. This strategy worked, generally, although there were days when my menstruation and its symptoms came like my least favorite relatives on Christmas day—unannounced, unexpected, and most of all, annoying.
Of course, like some unwanted guests, menstruation and it symptoms could not be avoided so easily. There was no way to drive them away, so all that was left to do was simply deal with them while pretending things were okay. This usually worked, except when my lips failed to cooperate, or when things got too much that I began to throw up all of a sudden, due to dizziness.
Too much drama was how it looked, especially to those who thought I was simply exaggerating the pain. The classmate who rolled her eyes when I was excused from one basketball game in our PE class, the friend who judged me when I ran to the university’s infirmary instead of attending a class, and the school paper adviser from another high school who, despite her ignorance of what I was going through, thought it was okay to invent a story about me intentionally skipping a session during a week-long training for campus journalists—these people had no idea about the pain I had to endure, and I honestly wish I had the audacity to wipe some of my period blood on their faces so they’d at least get an idea about how what “making a scene” actually looked like.
One of the reasons why, I think, menstruation has always been a big deal among people as though it were a public performance, is that it remains surrounded with a lot of mysteries. Many people are still ignorant about it, mainly because they refuse to talk about its nature. In our family alone, there are already too many superstitions built around the concept of menstruation.
In her teenage years, my mother was prevented from taking a bath whenever she was on her period. Showering during menstruation was believed to be harmful for the body. I also heard stories involving older women who had to perform a couple of rituals when they bled for the first time, like skipping three steps on the stairs to ensure one’s period would last for only three days. Some were also told to smear blood from on their faces to avoid pimple breakouts.
Bad luck was also associated with menstruation. Once, my uncle lost in cockfight and when he was asked about what had gone wrong, he just said, “Bad luck!” My aunt and cousin were on their period that day, and he was convinced that their bleeding caused his loss.
“If I were a boy, I wouldn’t have to menstruate!”
My housemate sang, to the tune of Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy.” She was in the bathroom while I was right outside it, waiting for my turn to take a shower. I had heard it clearly and I thought it was clever.
It was just one of the many days menstruation was mentioned in our boarding house, which was a normal thing since it was exclusive to female boarders. It was where I began to finally feel comfortable with my own body its various functions. And like other bodily functions, such as respiration and digestion, menstruation was definitely normal. There was no point making a big deal out of it. Neither was it fair to surround it with myths that were not really helping women who had to deal with it.
This also meant that I no longer thought of sanitary pad shopping as an upgraded form of walk of shame. There was even a time when, on our way to our group meeting at a café inside a mall, I shamelessly asked a male friend if we could drop by the pharmacy to buy a pack of sanitary pads. The guy, who was from a household dominated by women, agreed to do so. He even found it cool that my preferred brand of pads was the same with his mom’s and sister’s.
Many times, I’d also find myself discussing period with some female friends. Together, we would talk about the changes in our respective bodies before and during menstruation. Others might find this gross, but I thought it was educational. Although I was aware that women’s bodies differed from one another and no two women could have exactly the same symptoms, such sessions were still fruitful. Most importantly, I gained confidence in discussing such matters, even in public, through those talks.
Besides their educational value, those discussions were also therapeutic in some sense, for they allowed me to openly talk about my struggles as a menstruating human being. In a world where periods were usually portrayed as an ever-amazing experience, complete with pretty teen celebrities worry-free in their white pants and miniskirts, I could not help but feel frustrated. No wonder, other people, especially men who didn’t know any idea about women’s struggles concerning period, could easily dismiss our difficulties as mere attempts to start unnecessary drama for added attention.
“What’s a tampon?” I asked my mother when I was a child.
We were talking about models and beauty queens that time and I wondered, out loud, how they managed to wear bikinis while on their period. My mother said they were probably using tampons. Mama did not explain what tampons were, although I guessed they were like sanitary pads, too.
It was just in college when I became fully aware of what they really were. One of my closest friends at the university took up swimming for her PE and according to her, she had to use tampons so she could still swim while she was on her period. I just nodded as she told me about them, even though I didn’t have a clear idea of how tampons really worked. I had already seen photos of them online and I was already aware that they looked like sticks, but I could not imagine how they were inserted and taken out of the vagina after use.
I wanted to give them a try. I knew they would not end all my period woes altogether, but they could surely lessen the burden that I had to carry regularly. I imagined how lovely it would be to stroll around the city on a hot summer day without worrying about the icky feeling and rashes that sanitary pads usually gave. I also thought of all the activities that I could do even when menstruating. Perhaps, I could also go to the beach! The picture I had painted inside my head seemed so appealing, and I could not wait to free myself from some of the burdens menstruation usually came with. I also pictured myself in a pair of white capri pants, running wild and free, completely mindless of the blood gushing out of my body, as though it didn’t exist at all. Maybe I could finally feel as carefree as those Modess girls on TV!
But of course, even tampons were not free from prejudices. In fact, I was sad to find out that even fellow women found the whole idea of switching tampons gross.
“So, you’re going to insert it into your hole down there? Yuck!” A female friend commented when I shared about my plans to give it a try. While I understood that some didn’t like tampons because they could cause toxic shock syndrome, I could not fully grasp why the idea of inserting such a product into the vagina could easily gross people out.
It had to do with the whole obsession with virginity, I realized later on. No wonder, menstrual cups, which were considered a better option than tampons, were also viewed negatively by many.
I still wanted to explore, though, and other people’s perception could not stop me from doing so. To me, it was clear that as a woman, I had control over my own body. What to do with it was completely up to me.
After carefully weighing my options, I decided to skip tampons and shift directly to menstrual cups instead.
“Oh, it looks so big!”
Although I was already aware of how it was used, I was still a bit surprised when I finally got my first menstrual cup.
I’d be lying if I said that I did not have any difficulty using it for the first time. My hands trembled as I folded the cup and inserted it into my vagina. Even my feet were shaking, as I was maintaining a squatting position.
The struggle did not end there. I knew it had already popped open inside, yet I was worried that it might still need some fixing. Unsure of whether it was positioned properly or not, I used my index finger to touch the base of the cup. Yes, it had popped open inside but it still needed a little fixing. Now using both my thumb and index finger, I tried to reposition the cup by slightly turning it, pulling it a little, and then pushing it. Again, I checked if it was already fine. It was, and I felt victorious.
Of course, the idea of having something in there was still new to me, and sometimes I’d stop whatever I was doing and think if I could really feel it. It was probably because I was conscious that something was in there. But the absence of any leak and stink of blood for 12 hours was worth it. For the first time, I felt freer despite the fact that I was bleeding.
After the recommended number of hours, I took out the cup to drain the blood it had collected. As I shamelessly poured the liquid red with clumps of maroon tissues into the toilet bowl, I could not help but feel proud of myself. I was able to transform from that little girl at the sari-sari store, so naïve that she believed what her aunt had handed the customer was a pack of sandwich, into the woman that I was right at that moment.
Right then and there, I knew there was no turning back.
A shorter version of this essay can be found at www.sinayacup.com