Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day, and I had no idea that was a thing until Ilana Cohen told me. Ilana is 23 years old and works with Eco Femme, a women’s empowerment project promoting menstrual hygiene practices that are healthy, dignified and eco-positive. Originally from Vermont, she studied Jewish women and gender studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and anthropology at Columbia University. She writes about her work with Eco Femme and menstrual cycle awareness at kolgalgal.wordpress.com.
When I noticed a faint pink stain beneath me on a crush’s bed one day, I took a deep breath, looked him right in the eye and asked if the mark had been there before. He understood immediately what I meant and with a smile said no. We both laughed a little and affirmed that everything was OK. I took the sheet home to wash, and ultimately that incident became part of our bonding together.
I’ve bought menstrual products with a boyfriend by my side analyzing the many different options in the aisle. I’ve had another boyfriend tell me that, having only learned about menstruation peripherally at school, he figured it was “just like peeing blood once a month.” I clarified that the texture of menstrual blood is not like urine at all, and it comes from the uterus through the vagina, not the urethra. Though it was a bit shocking for him to realize, he was excited to understand what menstruation actually felt like. I’ve gotten other body-related questions from boyfriends—“Is it true that the breasts hurt?” (For some people, yes, before or during their period.) I’ve also been asked product-related questions—“Does the blood really come out when you wash a cloth pad?” (If you let it soak first in cool water, it does, completely.)
I also share when I have my period. I’ve had female friends balk at the fact that I shared “that” with my “boyfriend,” but I see no reason not to bring it up with someone when we sleep together, discuss birth control options, and have feelings for each other. It actually becomes a way to make myself more fully known to my partner, as my truest self. Because the fact that I menstruate has became a part of my identity. I’ve had a period once a month for the past 214 months of my life, and I now welcome it as a time of reflection and rejuvenation. When I let my significant other know that I have my period, I do so because it may influence what we do with each other, but also because for me, my period is a sign of health and well being. And I like hearing how he experiences me and my body changing throughout my cycle.
But it wasn’t always like this. I used to “admit” that I had my period, as if I was delivering bad news that would put off my boyfriend. As an adolescent, my experience of menstruation was characterized by the stress of keeping all evidence of my period hidden, combined with uncomfortable, unsatisfactory products. I often felt gross and undesirable when I had my period, and painful cramps made everything even worse. But I made two changes that greatly improved my experience of menstruating and brought me to the place I am today:
- I began to keep track of my whole menstrual cycle, instead of just noting the days of bleeding.
- I started using washable cloth pads.
I claimed my period and my menstrual cycle for myself and let them be part of who I am as a person. I made my period fun by using beautifully patterned cloth pads, wearing special earrings and eating delicious foods. I became familiar with my body and its periodic rhythms. After using cloth pads for about three years, my cramps have all but stopped. I feel more comfortable during my period, and it’s rewarding to see my pads drying in the sun, or to retrieve them warm and soft from the dryer. Menstrual cups are another great product many people find comfortable, cost effective (a single cup can be used for 10 years!), and waste-free.
This comfort and self-love makes me more able and eager to share myself with another person in intimate and sexual ways. When it comes specifically to engaging in physical intimacy during menstruation, I’ve learned that my boundaries have changed over time, allowing for experimentation, and that I can also appreciate intentional, temporary separation. Though I am not strictly observant of halacha (Jewish ritual law), the halachic Jewish tradition of refraining from sexual relations during menstruation rests in the back of my mind. What I take away the most from this practice, found in many religions and cultures around the world, is simply that menstruation matters, and it’s important that I continue exploring how it matters to me and my partner in each relationship I create.
Today is the first Menstrual Hygiene Day; it is a day to start a conversation around menstruation on anything from taboos and personal experiences to facility and hygiene product accessibility around the world. It is a day to reflect on how menstruation might matter to you and your relationship(s). Regardless of the decisions made around intimacy, talking about menstruation can strengthen a relationship and deepen partners’ knowing of themselves and of each other.
*Ilana’s earrings in the photo are made by Pankhuri Singh