Ahead of the release of the movie Padman movie , I reflect on my relationship with the humble sanitary towel through biographic writing and an artistic photography collaboration...
I slouched against the kitchen doorframe as my mother fried another batch of lentil piyazus. She was too deep in concentration waiting for optimum oil temperature, anticipating that precise moment when the orange batter, browns to crispy perfection, to enquire what I was doing. She probably assumed I was hungry. There was still an hour and a half to go until it was iftar*, but she wasn’t aware my fast had already broken: I’d just got my first period.
I was 10 years old and it was Saturday afternoon. I was back from my weekly excursion to the library where my parents assumed I went to swat up on extra-curricular reading, when in fact I used to wonder the streets with my school friends undertaking far more skillfull tasks, like daring each other to walk behind doors that said ‘keep out’ and sneaking into the local church to scare the congregation. It had been a usual day and I felt nothing out of the ordinary, no pain, no cramps and my fantasy about snogging the new ginger haired boy at school was at its usual horny levels. But when I got home and went to the loo there was a brown stain in my knickers.
Up until this point I had absolutely no idea what a period actually was. I knew my mum had a fabric belt and kept ‘Dr Whites’ in her wardrobe and that my sister who I shared a bedroom with also had acquired a version of Dr Whites, but hers were in blue packaging. In the end I showed her my knickers and she handed me a pad, before she broke the news to my mum, who told me to immediately eat a date.
They say when you become a mum you instantly know what to do. Similarly instinct kicked in. Though no one had ever demonstrated it to me, it felt automatic, adjusting to wearing a pad…or so I thought. I carried on as normal, putting my legs up at the side on the sofa when I watched TV, pushing my knees up into fetal position as I slept and as a result the blood got everywhere. It leaked onto my underwear, stained my bedsheet, even tattooed itself onto my mattress. I didn’t realise the pad would move and at that moment in time, if winged pads existed, I didn’t have access to them. Mine were the cheapest, most uncomfortable pads on the market, a nappy like rectangle with one sticky strip down the middle, purchased from the local pre-Poundland store. They squished up in the middle and moved around which meant the bleeding was not always soaked up.
Getting through that blood-stained weekend was just the start of the trauma that awaited. Come Tuesday, my life changed forever. After the main morning’s assembly Year 6 were asked to stay behind. The caretaker appeared on the stage along with our form tutors and head of year. A serious situation had occurred. The caretaker (he nodded proudly) had found a sanitary towel in the toilets the day before that had caused a blockage. Someone in that hall had started their period and they needed to know who. As a maturer than the average 10 year old I felt rather proud and excited, but a few hours later I regretted telling them.
By now the entire staff room and whole school knew It Was Me. They clocked every time I had a period because from now on, as the only girl in school who had fully hit puberty I had to use the staff toilets located on the staff room corridor in a separate building across the playground. Everyone saw me do the walk of shame across the painted hop-scotch pitch on the concrete floor to get the to the ‘staff quarters’ and sometimes while there, I’d be watched by teachers, placing my towel inside the ‘incinerator’ – there were no bins, just a noisy machine that drank my blood.
Sure I attracted some fame, the school bully even crept up beside me on a walk back from a PE lesson in the park one day and made out she was interested. I proudly shared my experience until she blurted out: ‘what’s the worst thing about having a period?’ I thought about it and was going to explain about my blood-stained bedsheets but she cut me short and declared ‘it’s when you poo. Eeugh. Poo and blood.’ To this day her words still haunt me – being made to feel ashamed of two completely natural body functions. Fast forward 25+ years and every time nature calls during my period I see her NHS frames and pigtails staring at me with disgust.
I’m still using sanitary towels. I’ve twice unsuccessfully tried to insert a tampon and recently sat down with a friend to watch the moon cup tutorial video – yes it’s environmentally friendly but when I’m fat and bloated, eyes streaming with PMT tears, with a heat pad stuck to my knickers to rid the pain, the last thing I want to do it have a fiddle with an alien object. I have deep respect for any woman who can and any woman who still goes to the gym, or does physical activity, as the only place I want to be is in my bed with a lavender pillow and chocolate stash.
The biggest change I’ve noticed in myself as I get older is that I spend more time looking at mypad and what comes out of my body. When I was younger it was a case of whip it out of my knickers as quickly as possible, replace the towel and pull up my pants. But these days I like seeing how different pads react, the more expensive they are the more the discharge is hidden underneath layers, but opt for a cheaper version with less absorbency and I can appreciate the beauty of what comes out; every little dark red globule, clump of sticky residue and melting down of tissues that symbolises fertility. When I bleed it’s Mother Nature being Mother Nature and I am lucky that being a woman I’m privy to this, the essence of life, and despite the inconveniences it sometimes causes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
IMAGES:Creative Director & Artwork: Halima @ MakeUpSurgery
*It was the Islamic month of Ramadan when I got my first period and iftar is the meal you eat when it’s sunset and time to break your fast
Padman a biographic film about the man who invented the low-cost pad for Indian, releases in cinemas on 9th February. This post was also publsihed on website Gal-Dem.