(Photo: Talia Herman)
“Do you want to interview Dr. Jen Gunter about her new period book?” the email read. I was standing in a hotel lobby in New York, just arriving off a flight where my period had made a surprise early appearance, kicking in my cervix like the Kool-Aid Man and sending a geyser of blood onto the back of my dress and down my thighs. I couldn’t help but laugh.
This was just a single cycle; having hundreds of them over the past 28 years, there have been many, many more bloody incidents—whether it was gushing onto my white shorts at a job interview or frantically shoving TP in my underwear when no tampon was at hand.
Bleeding heavily once a month can feel so isolating, despite billions of others sharing the experience. Now, Dr. Jen Gunter is on the case to empower the masses with some bloody good knowledge. After demystifying vaginas and menopause with The Vagina Bible and The Menopause Manifesto, she’s back to bust all the monthly myths with her period behemoth, Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation.
I sat down with Gunter to discuss busting period stigma, the myths she’s constantly debunking and an easy tip that could make your menses run smoother.
Trying to figure out tampons myself, with no instruction. This was in the late 1970s or early 1980s, so there was nowhere to go [for guidance]. I mean, my mother had told me tampons were evil. I went and bought a box, and I remember sitting in the bathroom with the door locked, just intently reading the instructions and looking at the drawing. You hear things about tampons being difficult or affecting your virginity, but I just remember thinking, “This doesn't align with everything that I've heard, so either the people making this product are super-big liars, or everybody else is lying.” I put a tampon in, and I was like, “Okay, it's not that hard.”
Oh, absolutely. In my practice, I’ve seen women who are 25 to 30 who have never had sex before because of how they were raised. They can't even bring themselves to have cervical cancer screenings. And it's all due to the idea that nothing must go in there. You see it from people from all walks of life, so I think it’s really a very cross-cultural thing; I mean, the patriarchy is cross-cultural. It’s a really great way to control half the population, isn’t it?
One thing is talking about periods like it’s just a body function. Like, if you have a cold, you’re not going to think twice about asking someone if they have a Kleenex. We need to get rid of the stigma.
And the other thing is to teach everybody biologically what menstruation is. When you don’t know what’s happening to your body, it’s pretty disempowering. There are people who think they have blood sloshing around in their uterus, [just] waiting to come out. It would be really great for everybody to learn this, not just people who menstruate.
And just the simple act of knowing if you take ibuprofen the day before starting your period that you might have a better experience, there are people who don’t know that.
On an episode of Schitt’s Creek, Dan Levy’s character was babysitting a girl and she got her period all over some new expensive sheets he’s just saved up money to buy. And instead of yelling or anything, he's like, “It’s a normal biological process, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I think we need to see more real-life menstruating moments like that.
It’s always amazing to me how grossed out people are by menstrual blood, especially in sex scenes. But nobody’s grossed out by ejaculate. How is one grosser than the other?
There are a lot of barriers, unfortunately, to getting care in general, because women are globally viewed as the “hysterical,” and men are, of course, telling the truth, so you come in with all of that societal baggage.
If you look at men between the ages of, say, 16 and 45, they don’t have this reproductive system that can bleed irregularly, that takes them to the doctor, that causes diarrhea, that causes all these symptoms. They’re not going to the doctor over and over again with symptoms so they don’t get viewed by their doctors as problematic.
These are things that we need to teach medical students and residents—that, “Hey, you have to be very careful to understand that when you have a reproductive tract that menstruates every 26 to whatever days, it can come with a lot more problems.” You need to have a separate mindset about expectations, and I think we do a bad job about that.
Knowledge helps to correct a lot of that: knowledge for providers, and teaching people how to deal with a chronic problem within the constraints of the health-care system so there are ways to get started in a 15-minute visit as opposed to just “Here, take this pill.” You could say, “Okay, well, let’s break it down, let’s do what we can today.” There are ways to make people feel that they’re being heard. We need to teach that.
Well, the one that's been around ever since I was a resident is that tampons have asbestos in them and are toxic. I see it popping up now on TikTok, and I’m just like, “Oh my god, please.” Undoing this information is hard. These things become part of the cultural experience. Do you really think if there was asbestos in tampons that someone wouldn’t have figured that out? And then there are the variations on it: if it’s not asbestos, it’s something else that tampon companies put something in your tampons to make you bleed heavier. I totally understand how these myths come out of lack of knowledge. And the patriarchy is invested in protecting the “hymen,” and conspiracy theories sell. All of these things can all mix together to produce this perfect myth.
Another one is that periods are like clockwork. We hear that all the time. And, of course, they're not. A typical person will have a variation of seven days to seven days, cycle to cycle. People can get very upset when you mention that. It doesn't mean you don’t know your body. It actually means we’re terrible at remembering the day of our last period because you don’t really care about something that happened a week ago. There was this fantastic and fascinating study where they surveyed women about when their last period was. And statistically, they were more likely to pick the 5th, the 10th, the 15th, the 20th and 25th of the month. Because if you ask 1,000 women when their last period was, it should be distributed equally among every day of the month, but it’s intuitive that people would round up or round down and not realize they’re doing that.
Oh, and the idea that periods synch. That drives me crazy—the idea that one menstruator can pull another menstruator into her menstrual cycle. [Humans don’t actually have the pheromones that cause this among other animals.] When I debunk that online, I get so much vitriol.
Knowing this was a thing, and that I wasn’t the only one, would have made a huge difference to me. Even menstrual cramps. When I was a teen, people didn’t talk about them. I had to miss school one day a month for two to three years. You would never put two and two together, and it was so isolating. If I had just known that this was something that happened to other people, I would have reframed it in a different way.
The myth that evolution is perfect, especially recently with all this talk about “natural” and if there’s something wrong with your body, it means you're not doing something right.
We’re actually just not put together that well. We’re just a patchwork of duct-tape and this and that and evolution’s kicking you out the door and going, good enough. It’s good, in a sense, because then it makes you feel less like you’re aging or like there’s something wrong with your body and more like, this is just what we got.
There’s been a shift, which I certainly noticed since writing The Menopause Manifesto. It’s great that we're talking about it. If we thought periods were taboo, well, when I was growing up, [menopause] was just a cultural wasteland, no discussion. Then you’re thinking, “Oh my god, this is bad and there's something worse coming? What the hell!”
It is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. Historically, women in menopause have provided great value to their society. So, putting that cultural marker down.
The other thing that I wish I had known personally was the value of strength training. Because when you look at the impact of resistance training on maintaining muscle mass and helping with balance and many of the things that start to become more of a health issue in menopause, I wish I had started working in a gym strength-training in my 20s.
I don’t think I have an answer for that because we don’t have studies where we enroll 1,000 women at age 20 and then follow them for 20 years to see what happens. So, for example, we have that with women in menopause with the SWAN study [in the U.S.]: They enrolled women before menopause and have been following them for 15 years to get data to establish what’s normal over that time. And I’m not aware of studies where we have that for menstruation.
We definitely know, for example, that in the 40s periods get heavier. But what really happens kind of in the 20s and 30s, I don't think we know. My guess would be that changes later in life are probably less hormonal and probably more related to everything that’s going on in the world—what you’re eating, what you’re doing, your relationships, your work, your personal stress. We’re all a product of the world around us. But until we have some large-scale menstruation studies to look at what happens over the course of the lifespan, I don’t think we’ll have the answer to that question.
I’m really excited about the fact that a book with the title Blood is out there. I’m super-hoping it gets on bestseller lists so people have to see it there, just like The Menopause Manifesto; when it came out, it was great to see the word “menopause” out there. So I’m hoping it gets people to break down the cultural taboos, just talking about things. Because it’s just a body function.
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