This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
"Hang on a minute, I forgot my uterus!" exclaims Birte*. She jumps up from her cross-legged position and runs towards a brown IKEA shelf, where a model plastic uterus is hiding among felt blankets and neatly rolled-up yoga mats.
I'm at the start of a five-hour workshop in Berlin, the goal of which is to learn more about 'cycle mindfulness'. It might sound bougie, but the concept is meant to help us understand how we change during menstruation. "Our cycle is a mirror of our interior," says Birte, our teacher.
She grabs the model and scurries back to take her seat in the circle. Her dark brown hair is tied up in a bun and her earrings shimmer in the light as she sits with the flesh-coloured uterus between her legs. We're joined here by six other women, aged 24 to 44.
It's not news to half the population that our menstrual cycles can affect our health, our relationships and our job performance. In the room, a woman wearing a pink turtleneck speaks up about her fibroids (benign tumours in the uterus). Another wearing floral leggings has endometriosis, and one attendee experiences awful mood swings before her period, just like me. Despite our differences, each of us is living with a somewhat rebellious uterus and looking for guidance.
Menstrual diarrhoea is just one of the symptoms that Birte wants to give us a better understanding of today. "The uterus lies between the rectum and bladder," she says. "When it swells up before bleeding, some women need to go to the loo more often." Birte then simulates a contracting organ, raising both arms and makes a swaying motion with her upper body.
I started taking the contraceptive pill at the age of 14 and continued for the next ten years. I used to treat my cycle like a pushy guy in a nightclub: I knew it existed and found it annoying, but I could easily ignore it. But without hormonal contraception, I now have a hyperactive libido around ovulation and painful breasts a week before my period. I also mutate into a very, very angry woman on the 25th day of my cycle. I’m here to get my emotional fluctuations under control, or at least to understand them a bit better.
So here we are, sitting on a white carpet, while a blood red candle flickers in the centre of the room. Two red strings divide the floor into four equal parts, symbolising the four phases or – as Birte calls them – the “four seasons” of our menstrual cycle. Winter symbolises bleeding, summer ovulation. The season metaphor is meant to help us understand how our bodies react to different parts of the cycle. "A woman who knows her body is a powerful woman," Birte says.
Can we learn to love our periods?
I’ve heard plenty of nicknames for bleeding vaginas (Aunty Flo, Shark Week, The Rag), but I’ve never heard someone call their period "the dark season". Birte chose this metaphor because the uterus bleeds itself empty in preparation for a new beginning. Then, in the spring, oestrogen levels increase again and the body renews its energy. Summer is the climax, with ovulation. "With the autumn, the dark season begins". She continues to explain the importance of women saying no to social interactions when they need their space, despite the stigma of PMS. "Society doesn't value the dark period," says Birte.
Birte asks us to walk around the carpet and experience every season of the cycle. As I’m approaching the end of the circle, I cannot bring myself to stop at autumn. My PMS has been so bad over the last few months that I'm almost afraid of it. When I wake up in the morning on these days, I can immediately tell that I’m going to feel insecure and get angry at small, seemingly insignificant things. It’s even taking a toll on my relationship.
I wish I could just bask in the summer sunshine and feel good about myself during my whole cycle. But Birte reminds me that there is no point in trying to stop these phases from happening; you need to accept them for what they are: a natural part of life. The best thing to do is let go of the fear we have for what we know is coming. Above all, it’s important to talk about your mood swings with your partner, your boss or even your kids, so that they don’t feel guilty or overwhelmed when they catch you on a bad day.
The personal is political – underwear included
"Sometimes men comment on my [workshop-related] Facebook posts and ask me: 'what the fuck are you doing?!'" says Birte. She feels especially vulnerable during her winter cycle phase. These comments made her realise how exhausting it is to position oneself publicly as a woman, and to bear the social consequences of it. Work can be particularly draining when you are on your period, "But you can't cancel your meetings because you’re bleeding."
Is this all just emotional coaching for rich people? After all, five hours of 'cycle mindfulness' cost €60 to €80 euros at the participant's own discretion. But women gathering to talk about their vaginas, wombs, and emotions is also political: they are breaking down social barriers that suggest periods make you weak or that you should be ashamed of bleeding.
In February, the short film Period. End of Sentence shone a spotlight on menstrual taboos in India and the misogyny hiding behind them. The film won an Oscar, despite one male member of the Academy describing it as "icky", and refusing to vote for it. It proves how deeply rooted the stigma about women bleeding truly is – in India, in the United States and elsewhere.
Birte wraps things up with a practical guide for dealing with menstrual problems in everyday life. "I communicate openly about which phase of the cycle I'm in," she says. At work, she sits in front of her clients with a hot water bottle. From time to time, she just gets in her car and drives somewhere because she finds it too hard to be around people.
The reactions are always positive, our instructor tells me. "Most people can handle it," explains Birte. "I say, 'Hey, I can’t give you the attention you need today, so I'll see you in five days.'" Maybe someday I’ll also be able to easily avoid conflict by asking for space.
Why not give it a go now?
Hey, I'm menstruating – my uterus is currently performing what I could describe as aerobics, in my belly. My patience has the resilience of a soaked tampon. Please send me your comments on this article in about three days' time. Thanks.
*Birte's name has been changed to protect her identity.