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 junk food 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 goods for the customers intriguing.
One day, I saw my aunt break the usual protocols. Her voice was lower than usual, and her sentences were shorter than the standard spiels. I also noticed that she wrapped the purchased item in a sheet of old newspaper instead of a clear plastic pouch.
“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.
It was only many years later when I found out the truth about that mysterious transaction: What my aunt wrapped in an old newspaper page wasn’t a sandwich but a piece of sanitary pad or “feminine product” specially made for the so-called “red days.”
According to my mother, red days refer to the three to four days of bleeding that most women had to go through 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 had been told that I would also experience the same thing when I grow older. Also adding to my confusion about such a phenomenon was the apparent weirdness of how it was referred to and discussed 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 with 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. Doctors later 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 the boy’s condition.
“He was poisoned by the dirty blood!”
This made perfect sense to me, so I thought I already understood why women at home talked about menstruation in hush voices and why women, in general, didn’t want to be seen clutching a pack of sanitary pads.
All these negative ideas about menstruation stuck with me as a kid. No wonder when I started menstruating at 13, I felt so unclean and ashamed. Although in panic and still clueless about 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 of the use of sanitary pads with wings.
Yet the effort to keep things as discreet as possible remained. At school, I resisted the urge to ask anyone, even my closest female friends, whether I had a bloodstain on my skirt or not. Instead, I would 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 carefully as possible but without taking so much time. My breathing almost stopped as I slowly peeled the used pad off my underwear, trying not to raise suspicion among the girls waiting for their turn to use the bathroom cubicle I was in. 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 the sanitary pad onto my undergarment’s crotch panel for I was worried about not doing it right. A mislaid pad could result in leaks, after all.
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. That familiar icky feeling came back as soon as I felt blood oozing out of my body.
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 that particular story I heard when I was small. According to that one, menstruation was given to women as a punishment for what Eve had done in the Garden of Eden. Naturally, I felt so guilty about Eve’s actions and thought that maybe, we women really deserved it. Maybe I deserved it.
Or maybe not.
In my third year in high school, I had a very humiliating experience involving menstrual blood.
One day, I was sent to a campus on the other side of the city 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 shorter and thinner than what I’d been used to and it wasn’t made of highly absorbent material. I did not mind it at first, thinking that I would just sit most of the time.
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 have been 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. It turned out that my underwear had been soaked with period blood and a red continent had already 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 inside the cubicle. 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 give up and leave that place. To hide the traces of the period blood 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 when my name was on stage during the awarding ceremony. I had just snatched an award in the competition, but I was not happy at all. Instead, I was mortified. What was supposed to be a fun and victorious experience turned out to be a nightmare. At that moment, all I wanted to do was find a 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. But I had to stop myself from doing so. I just thought telling someone else about it would just be too gross. Also, I was convinced that I was the only one to blame for it. I should 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 top of the paranoia concerning maps that might suddenly appear on my panties, skirt, or pants, I also had to learn the art of conquering period pain at a very young age.
Still, in high school, I trained myself to sense foreboding menstrual pain, so I could prepare myself for it as 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 would come like my least favorite relatives on Christmas day: unannounced, unexpected, and most of all, annoying.
Of course, like some unwanted guests, menstruation and its symptoms could not be avoided so easily. There was no way to drive them away, so all that was left to do was 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 because I had been so dizzy and bleeding heavily, 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. Indeed, 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 what “making a scene” actually looked like.
I think one of the reasons why menstruation has always been a big deal among people as though it were a public performance is the fact that it remains surrounded by 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 periods.
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 to 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 and smearing period blood from on their faces to avoid pimple breakouts.
Bad luck has also been associated with menstruation. Once, my uncle lost in a cockfight. When asked about what had gone wrong, he just said, “Malas!” My aunt and cousin were on their period that day, and he was convinced that their bleeding had caused his loss.
“If I were a boy, I wouldn’t have to menstruate!”
One of my housemates sang to the tune of Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” one morning. 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 ways 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 feel comfortable with my own body.
I was already in college at that time and finally, I had been convinced that like other bodily functions such as respiration and digestion, menstruation was just normal. In fact, I no longer thought of sanitary pad shopping as an upgraded form of the 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 guy friend if we could drop by the pharmacy to buy a pack of sanitary pads. He was from a household dominated by women, so he was fine with it. He even found it cool that his mom and sister’s preferred brand of pads was the same as mine.
In other words, I was already brave enough to openly discuss periods with friends, especially menstruating ones. 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 useful.
To some extent, such discussions were also therapeutic as well as they allowed me to openly talk about my struggles as a menstruator. And yes, I was convinced that people should talk about those difficulties instead of affirming sanitary pads’ unrealistic portrayal of menstruation as an ever-amazing experience that could easily be dealt with while wearing fancy-looking white pants and miniskirts. That way, non-menstruators could be more aware of what we had to go through on a regular basis and therefore stop dismissing our period-related struggles.
“What’s a tampon?” I asked my mother when I was a child.
We were talking about models and beauty queens at the time and out loud, I wondered, how they managed to wear bikinis while they were 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 already in college when I finally learned what they 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 even as she was menstruating. I just nodded as she told me about them, never mind that I didn’t completely understand how they worked. I just knew they looked like sticks and assumed that perhaps one just needed to insert a tampon into her vagina to keep period blood from leaking. That seemed fine to me. 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 would normally cause. I also thought of all the activities that I could do even when on my period. Maybe I could even 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 and completely mindless of the blood gushing out of my body as though my period didn’t exist at all. Maybe I could finally feel as carefree as those pretty Modess girls on TV!
But of course, not everyone thought the way I did. In fact, I was not surprised to know that other menstruating individuals found the whole idea ridiculous.
“So, you’re going to insert it into your hole down there? Yuck!” a female friend commented when I shared 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. Then I was reminded of the whole virginity thing.
Still, I wanted to explore. I didn’t even care about what others would think. It was just clear to me that as a woman, I had control over my own body.
While doing some research about tampons, however, I learned about a period product that was said to be better than a tampon. It was none other than the menstrual cup.
“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 had been squatting on the bathroom floor for god knows how long.
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 could still use some adjustments. And so, 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 still seemed so bizarre to me at that time. There were still instances when I’d simply stop what I was doing and tell myself that I could feel it. But actually, I couldn’t. I was simply conscious of the fact that something was in there.
It did not bother me, however. The absence of any leak or stink alone was good enough for me. I was sold, just like that. And of course, the fact that I could wear it for up to 12 hours was a huge bonus for me. Finally, I could sleep soundly at night even while menstruating!
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 felt so proud of myself. I was able to transform from that little girl at the sari-sari store, who was so naïve that she believed what her aunt had handed the customer was a 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 sinayacup.com