Why We Should All Talk About Our Periods

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 11.45.45 AMIt might just be the year of the period: In 2016, the phrase “period panties” has entered the American lexicon; lawmakers across the country are fighting to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax”; and the cover of Newsweek has declared, “There will be blood—get over it.” The subhead? “The crimson tide is turning.”

So it’s time to tune into First Time, a period podcast that talks about exactly what you’d expect: the first time guests got their period.

Hosted by comedian Emma Willmann, First Time just wrapped up its second season, now available on iTunes. While the previous two seasons were produced in collaboration with Dear Kate, a company that makes underwear for women on their periods, Willmann is branching out on her own for season three.

Willmann, a regular on the New York City stand-up circuit, didn’t even remember her first Shark Week until Dear Kate emailed her and asked her to share the story, on-camera, of her first time getting her period. The video, which featured more than 20 women sharing their first-time stories—and quickly garnered more than 300,000 hits on YouTube—sparked Willmann’s imagination.

“In the comments, people were like, ‘Oh, this reminds me of the first time I got my period,’ or, ‘I related to this,’” Willmann told the Ms. Blog. “So I was like, ‘Oh, this seems like there’s a lot of conversation here looking for an outlet… Let’s keep the conversation going.’”

So she pitched Dear Kate on doing a storytelling podcast, where interviewed guests would share their own first times and delve into their relationships with their periods, from PMS to period sex. Willmann describes the interviews as “trying to learn about people through their periods, not about periods through people.”

The podcast’s first guest was Emma’s friend and fellow comedian Amanda Seales—whose takedown of a mansplainer trying to tell women to enjoy cat-calling in this CNN clip is epic—and her vivid, no-holds-barred interview epitomizes the podcast’s ethos. If the mental image of a woman’s period leaking behind her like a bloody snail trail makes you queasy, then First Time might not be the podcast for you. (Though Amanda’s story had this writer doubled over in stitches.)

“People will be surprised [by] the amount they have to say about it,” Willmann says. “The reality is, they don’t actually talk about it that much. There is that stereotype where it’s like, ‘Women just talk about their periods!’ Not at all.”

For the host of a period podcast, Willmann’s first visit from Aunt Flo was surprisingly anticlimactic. Trapped on a boat one day at summer camp, Willmann told no one when a “weird, reddish color” appeared in her underwear. Instead, she just stuck a sock into her pants (and avoided wearing a bathing suit). She didn’t want to acknowledge even to herself, let alone anyone else, that she’d gotten her period—she only told her parents when her period showed up again the next month.

“It was like a coming out, me admitting to myself that I got my period,” Willmann recalls. “When I was little, I wanted everyone to think I was a little boy. I wanted even to pass like that. I was just very uncomfortable with it, because I thought of periods as something that women got, so that made me feel weird.”

In fact, before starting First Time, Willmann never quite got over that feeling. Willmann “play[s] around with gender, personally, all the time” and often feels distant from many traditional notions of womanhood, so tackling a seemingly “girly” topic initially felt bizarre. But the more she spoke to people about their periods, the more she realized Aunt Flo’s unique ability to connect different groups of people.

“From doing this podcast, the biggest thing for me is, now my period is not just about me,” Willmann says. “At all. Before, my period was a very self-involved, ‘I have my period. This sucks. Shit.’ Now I think of it more as a communal experience. It can cut through race and class and gender.”

But what is so communal, so universal, about periods? What do all period-having people share? At first, listening to First Time gives the impression that no two periods are the same; while life coach Sara Armour sees surfing the crimson wave as a spiritual time to discover what your body really wants, most other First Time guests just see it as a pain. But maybe the fact that First Time even exists, that people feel compelled to speak up about their periods, is enough.

“The universal thing is that there is an emotion,” Willmann says. “Whether they get angry, they get more creative, they get turned on, they get not turned on, whatever it is, there is a thing that occurs. There is a reaction. Not one person is like, ‘Oh yeah, just another day.’ Nope. Something happens.”

She adds, “And it kind of goes with the thing, ‘Oh, well why do people have to talk about this?’ Because it’s affecting people in some way and it’s important to be able to have a dialogue about something that makes you feel. People’s bodies are so policed and politicized and commoditized, so it’s hard to know what’s what, but I think by trying to listen to people and sharing—that’s a way to start to figure it out for ourselves.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Carter Sherman Headshot

Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.

Comments

  1. Terrific article! But even it has a disclaimer/warning: “If… makes you queasy.”
    There’s always a great story with First Periods, and it’s good to talk about the emotions that all periods bring, even though we know we’re not two dimensional Nice Girl on one side or On Her Period/PMS-ing Girl on the other as the public would have us, and not always without our help.
    I want to talk about ‘on her period’, my hair stood up when I read that phrase. I hate that expression because I have a feeling that the phrase ‘on her period’ evolved from ‘on the rag’, so I find both expressions ignorant and derogatory to/dismissing of women. Is there an evolution connecting the two that we women missed? Because it seemed to have just slipped into our lexicon behind our backs. Behind MY back. Do young women today know the phrase, “on the rag”? The two are just too similar to be anything but a not so nice evolution.
    I’m with Armour. It’s a powerful time for us, a self-reflecting time, a time to pamper ourselves, to celebrate our periods and what they actually mean, to dance our periods or bleed them right into the Earth. To light a candle, go into oneself, create ritual. It’s not for discussion with the public other than a female public — not feminist, but female. (“Newsweek”? Really?) Men have their bonding, their secrets, and we’re losing ours.
    That said, we have the Tampon Tax to abolish, and birth control to rescue not only for our own reproductive freedom, but also for severe PMS (the kind where one passes out and cracks their head on a coffee table on the way to the floor, not the “I’m PMS-ing watch it” so bandied about kind). But remember we’re dealing with a Congress that fines/expels people when they use the word vagina which is in both Webster’s and the Urban Dictionaries. I have to look up “on her period.”

  2. Christina says:

    I agree with the general premise of the article, but–do we have to keep using euphemisms? My period isn’t an aunt, it isn’t a wave. It’s menstruation. I’m not surfing, or hosting a visitor (quite the opposite). My body is shedding unneeded tissue. I think in order to eliminate the tampon tax and secure reproductive rights, we have to be able to talk with lawmakers about these subjects–which right now mostly means men. And I don’t think continuing to talk about it using cute colloquialisms is going to enable that conversation nor make those goals more reachable.

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