When my now mother was about 12, she got her period at home in New Delhi. 25 years later, also at twelve, I got mine singing a solo in front of the school choir (thankfully in black jeans).
I shuffled home at the end of the school day, whispering to my white best friend that I crossed the rite of passage we’d both anticipated with a combination of awe and “whatever, it’s nature.” Before bed, my perceptive grandfather saw me make a pit stop in the bathroom and called Amma at work saying, “She’s a little…off.”
Amma knew. She came home, shed a few tears, made me salt-free foods for a week, and we never hid the secret between us or with my dad and brother.
Our experiences couldn’t have been more different.
At 12, Amma had no idea hers was coming. With old Hindi movies as her only reference, she’d come to the sad conclusion at the sight of unexplainable blood: her inevitable demise was upon her. Sniffling, she’d gone to my grandmother, asked her not to freak out that she had bad news, and told her that she had cancer. My grandmother asked her why she thought that, and it was only then Amma found out that she was not, in fact, facing impending doom, but that she’d see this sight every month for the next forty years or so.
I think about that often.
My mother and her two older sisters kept the “secret” to themselves, excluded from family activities, sleeping on separate beds, and not allowing physical touch. But the natural process of menstruating was never divulged–no one told my mother that she’d join the club and not to worry. She never wanted the same stress for me.
Periods shouldn't mean mindless isolation
We come from a strict, Telugu, Hindu, priest family. For possibly thousands of years, women isolated themselves during their periods, sleeping on a separately designated bed or mat, having food brought to them, not touching anything in the house, and avoiding the kitchen and pooja area. I distinctly remember my nine-month-old cousin trying to crawl to his mother while she was on her period, and people keeping him away as she sat on her mat and watched, encouraging him to go to other family members instead.
That’s how I was raised.
I avoided the temple during poojas and the kitchen if food was being prepared for it— but otherwise, I was free to carry on. I washed my hair on the fourth day under the impression it was a cleansing ritual. We used Telugu euphemisms to soften the reality that I was bleeding within the home.
Amma, however, had bucked that tradition in her twenties. Surrounded by six siblings (three sisters) and a three-bedroom flat, she was fed up with always having someone in isolation when space was a luxury. One day, instead of allowing food to be brought to her on her mat, she got up and sat at the dining table.
When all her siblings, sisters included, got up and left her alone, Amma persisted. She ate in tears, telling her parents it made no sense to “sit out” when women were working, space was limited, and life had to carry on. My grandparents went to another room, discussed their options, and decided the girls would no longer separate themselves.
Where did this need for secrecy come from?
Questions have always lingered about why it was so secretive.
I was always under the impression it was because periods were considered dirty—after all, the secrecy around them, the lack of male involvement, the isolation from religion and from people…what else could it possibly mean if it’s so hidden away? That’s often what I heard from friends’ families: periods are dirty. Those words were never uttered in our home, but the secrecy led to that conclusion for me, and I’m sure, for others.
On a religious front, I was conflicted. So, I did some research, spoke with my dad (a Hinduism scholar, but also a man) and women knowledgeable in Ayurvedic principles. Things that never get discussed within the context of being Hindu is the directionality of temples, Ayurvedic flow, yogic concepts, and how periods can feel suboptimal.
Now, reader, whether you believe that is up to you, but it did raise a question for all people who menstruate: why have periods always been viewed within the context of dirtiness and human value, rather than with any practical basis that didn’t predicate on a person’s worth?
Rather than empower people to cultivate relationships with their bodies, biology, religion, and society, periods have always been discussed underneath a veil of shame. Why?
The answers lie in thousands of years of inequities: patriarchy, casteism, access to knowledge and sanitary supplies, misunderstanding, misogyny, gender identity, medical education, reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights. The list goes on.
I’ve recognized the privilege that allowed me to find a comfortable place within my body, sexuality, our home, religion, and more. I realize not everyone is so privileged.
A new, positive view of periods
Until I was in college and graduate school, completing degrees in women’s health, we didn’t open the conversation. It took years of candid (sometimes embarrassing) conversations with my dad, brother, and men I dated for me to own my experience with menstruating and to acknowledge that the men in my life didn’t need sheltering. Even the men didn’t think they needed to be sheltered, but instead didn’t feel comfortable asking questions because they were taught women wouldn’t want to talk about it either.
Now, I’m at peace with my period. I’ve had the opportunity to explore my deeply religious beliefs and balance them with what works for today’s world. I still avoid the temple, but only because I can’t think straight, and I do believe my optimal spiritual flow (no pun intended) is a wreck to pray through. I wash my hair on the fourth day because it feels refreshing after three days of being a bum.
There is no embarrassment anymore. The men in my life no longer use euphemisms and we are all candid about our bodies. The comfort and trust between us has grown as a result. I also advocate more for people who menstruate because of the ones who did the same for me.
I honor my mother and all the people fighting against period inequities—the struggles of the people who came before me that allow me to carry on with my commitments and my life without feeling as though my biology makes me inadequate or dirty. For that, I’ll always be thankful. I owe other menstruating people the same.
Born in Delhi and raised in central Pennsylvania, Annika Sharma followed her Penn State-loving heart to college in Happy Valley. She graduated with two Bachelor's degrees in Biobehavioral Health and Neuro-Psychology, and two Master’s degrees from Penn State and George Washington University in Early Childhood Special Education and Public Health respectively.
She is a co-founder and co-host of the podcast That Desi Spark, one of the largest independently run South Asian podcasts globally. She is a lover of endless conversations, college football, social justice, traveling, books, all things related to England, dancing, superhero movies, and coffee. She currently lives in New York City and works as a health communications manager by day, while juggling her writing and podcasting careers by night.