What do we talk about when we talk about periods? If you’re a woman with a uterus, or you love someone with a uterus, there are a LOT of bases to cover. As a woman growing up in India, where menstruation comes with its own baggage of shame and stigma, almost everything in my life has revolved around my flow: the discomfort, the pain, the hassles and, of course, the bane and offshoot of my menstruating life: Polycystic Ovarian Disorder (PCOD, a condition with no universal definition, but commonly manifests in symptoms such as irregular or absence of periods that lead to other debilitating health problems). So when we talk about period, it’s mostly got to do with it happening, and the fact that we gotta soldier on and endure it. And just like that, every woman I have grown up with and around has lived with one belief: that the discomfort, pain and the messiness of it all are their own homes in others.
This was until last month when I stumbled across this piece on a radical movement in the UK, where women are cancelling their period. Yes. Just like that. No period! “When a new wave of feminist authors and activists are calling on women to embrace their periods, the idea that some do not want a monthly bleed and are seeking to avoid having them altogether can seem radical,” writes Nicola Davis in The Guardian.Let’s face it. South Asia is notorious for its regressive views on menstruation, where we worship menstruating goddesses in some parts but ban menstruating women from places of worship and their own homes in others, all in the same breath. And to top it all, there’s a common medical misconception that periods have to happen. Sure, there’s the body and health-positive #HappyToBleed and feminist menstrual products in our lives now, borne out of oppressive perceptions around them, but the one misconception that endures is that regular menstruation is a sign of a healthy, well-functioning body, and that if it errs, you err.
However, research over the last few years has surfaced and told us that menstruating can be a choice, and that "period suppression" is a very valid option. “Ninety-nine percent of women don’t need to bleed,” Dr Anne Connolly, the clinical lead for Women’s Health for the Royal College of GPs, told Davis. She also added that there is no health benefit to menstruation, and there are no known health risks to the women suppressing them either. And so, medical advancements—in the form of surgeries such as the intrauterine device (IUDs) and hormone injections, to oral contraceptive pills and birth control patches, and vaginal rings—have almost rendered the idea and necessity of menstruation, well, kind of obsolete.
This is especially important for those with crippling, messy and just awful manifestations of menstruation. “For many women, period elimination is a welcome side-effect of various hormonal contraceptives on the market, but there's a lot of confusion and misinformation about whether skipping your period can have negative health consequences,” says this report on Science Alert. “Let's face it, periods are downright awful and happen way too often. By evolutionary standards, human females are hard done by, because most other mammals don't menstruate, and even if they do, it's less frequent.”In India, most of us with a uterus still live with misinformation about this choice. “Most Indians are obsessed with their period,” says Mumbai-based gynaecologist Dr Munjaal Kapadia, who has been practicing for 15 years in India and runs a popular podcast on women’s sexual and reproductive health. “A lot of it has to do with the myths that surround it, the most common of which is that it’s to rid your body of impurities, which is absolutely false. Getting periods is not an excretory mechanism for the body; it’s not a waste disposal system. Another version I’ve heard is that if you stop periods, the blood will start collecting inside, which is also a misconception. What’s actually happening when you’re not menstruating is that the menstrual lining isn’t shedding. It’s not like you’ll put a plug and it’ll overflow from the other side.”
Research also shows that misinformation about menstruation is common among most young girls in India. But, as Dr Kapadia says, things could be changing as we speak. “I’ve got patients who’ve told me that they don’t want period in their lives. Maybe some of it has to do with more knowledge and people being more open. They know they don’t want kids, or want a device that can be inserted into their uterus that stops periods and menstrual pain. They don’t want to end up fiddling with medicines and doctor visits. They just want something permanent,” he says.In my search for answers, I also speak with some Indian counterparts, who are few and far between, but determined to bring this small but powerful note of dissent to India. Bengaluru-based fitness coach and writer Chitra Balachandran (34) tells VICE how inserting an IUD in her uterus in 2017 to treat endometriosis (extreme thickening of the endometrial lining that causes extreme menstrual cramps) has now made her almost period-free. "If you’re someone with endometriosis or PCOS, your hormones are pretty much all over the place,” she says. “IUD helps with normalising that because it leads to steady but slow hormone release. Physiologically too, it has made things better—from my digestion to energy levels. I’m not constantly hormonal or PMS-y or bloating. Another bonus is that my skin is fantastic.”
Mumbai-based marketing professional Poornima Sharma (29) tells VICE about experiencing a period cycle once in a few months after her first flow at the age of 15. Doctor visits led to this being diagnosed as PCOS, and she was asked to choose between taking contraceptive pills,, or letting the cycle be. But a few years ago, Sharma decided to altogether drop taking medication to induce her cycle. Her reasons detail the oft-heard South Asian experience where a woman’s health instantly triggers concerns about her fertility.
Concerns with “abnormal” period often stem from when the higher-than-normal levels of androgen affect the release of eggs (hence the irregular or absence of periods), which means that the sperm will not be able to fertilise it. Which is why a very common question asked by gynaecologists and doctors when confronted with menstruation issues is: When do you plan on conceiving? It’s also the unwarranted advice of the elders: ‘Have a baby, and it will go away.’
“Can you imagine being told to have a baby again and again, since the age of 15?” asks Sharma. “Where, instead of thinking about how to feature in ‘Forbes 30 under 30’, you’re thinking about how to have a baby?! Being torn between what I want and what the doctors and family want is sure as hell problematic, stressful and unfair. I’ve been told that if I’m unable to conceive later on, I’ll carry the guilt for the rest of my life!"Sharma stopped her pills at 22 (without which she gets her period once in 6-8 months). “I realised that [stopping] it made no difference to my body. No weight gain, or hot flushes, acne, excessive hair growth, drastic mood swings, temper issues, etc. I still remain perfectly active, healthy and cheerful.”
The association of living with painful period and childbirth is especially interesting in the case of Simran Kaur* (30), a teacher from Lucknow who decided to go for endometrial ablation (a surgery that removes the endometrial lining of the uterus, which reduces menstrual flow and acts as birth control) so that she doesn’t have to “bear the pains of childbirth”. “I made this decision because I didn’t want a baby. Plus, I always knew that you don’t die if you don’t get your period,” she tells VICE. “I remember telling this to my gynaecologist, who couldn't understand at first. She must have found it peculiar considering I wasn't even married back then. I was even told I should reconsider my decision until I get married because, in her words, the husband might put some sense into me!”
This individual act of defiance is momentous, especially in the light of ingrained apathy towards the female body and the pain it must endure for the sake of patriarchy. “I’ve been told that the most important thing for a woman is to be a mother and periods are important for that,” adds Kaur. “There are more myths too: If you don't have periods, you die. Irregular periods imply that if you’ve committed some sin in a past life, and you’re being punished for it. Don't go to the temple because you’re impure. Don't touch pickle. Don't tell male members of your family about it. The last one made me deliberately ask my brother to get a sanitary pad for me when I was in school, which really bummed my female relatives.”The defiance also breaks generations of hearsay about menstruation in Indian society, most of which has little to do with health. “Sometimes, what you hear in your childhood has a tight grip around your psyche that’s very hard to shed, and this is probably why most Indian women don’t want measures to stop their period,” says Dr Kapadia.”They know they’re acting stupid [when they say they can’t get rid of their period] but, psychologically, they feel bloated and fat. So much of the discomfort with letting go of menstruation is psychosomatic.”So far, the benefits of cancelling periods point towards women taking control of their bodies to lead healthier, and less painful and messy lives. “It's okay to not have a uterus that bleeds because even if it does, people will not be happy. Ho jaaye to apavitra ho, na ho to muh kaala karaya (If it flows, you’re impure, and if not, you’re immoral),” says Kaur.Balachandran adds, “I would definitely advocate the choice of not having periods but today, if I'd talk about opting out of periods, I’d instantly be bombarded by how unwomanly I am, likening us to transgenders and a whole bunch of conversations in that direction. Down the line when the IUD kicks in, I probably won’t have periods at all, but that won’t it make me any less of a woman or any less healthy. If anything, I’m healthier now.”*Name changed to protect privacy.Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.