Bloody Brilliant: Review of Period. by Emma Barnett

I hinted about it in my last post, so here it is! My review of Period. by Emma Barnett.

The extended title is ‘It’s about bloody time.’ and I couldn’t agree more. (This is also what my boyfriend will say when I’ve finally published this blog post.)

Period. – Emma Barnett
(London: HQ, 2019)

Synopsis from the dust jacket:

Emma loathes her period. Really, she does. But there’s something she loathes even more: not being able to talk about it. Freely, funnily and honestly. Without men and women wrinkling their noses as if she’s pulled her tampon out and offered it as an hors d’oeuvre.

But somehow, despite women having had periods since the dawn of time, we’ve totally clammed up on anything to do with menstruation. Why, oh why, would we rather say ‘Auntie Flo’ than ‘period’? Why, in the 21st century, are periods still seen as icky? Why are we still so ignorant about such a fundamental bodily process?

Now, in Period., Emma draws on female experiences that will make you laugh, weep (and, most probably, squirm), in a fierce and funny rallying cry to smash this ridiculous taboo once and for all.

Because it’s about bloody time.
PERIOD.

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In May 2016, Emma Barnett became the first person in the UK to announce on live TV that she was menstruating. Not out of the blue, obviously, but during ‘The Pledge’, an evening panel show where the topic up for debate was menstrual leave in the workplace. (If anyone has a clip of this, I’d love to see it – the internet has disappointed me in my search so far!) Barnett says her panel was ‘duly horrified’ (27) at her announcement, but her panel was not made up entirely of men. And that’s why Period. exists. Barnett makes it clear from the outset of her book that she’s not just here to reproach men for reinforcing period taboos; the problem, as a woman once confessed to her, is that ‘we women are complicit in the silence’ (57).

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Barnett strikes the perfect balance by using humour alongside cold, hard facts which confirm a worldwide lack of period progression. The topics covered are all-encompassing: religion; education; family attitudes; workplace conversations; parliamentary debates and the infamous ‘tampon tax’; sex and poverty to name but a few.

Barnett also calls out brands such as Always who are meant to be paving the way for period-positivity but often have unrealistic adverts for their sanitary products. She notes that not one advert shown on TV has featured red liquid to signify menstrual blood; the fluid used to display products’ absorption qualities is always clear or blue despite there being no regulations in place against using red. Crazy, then, that brands who are trying to convey more realistic advertising encounter problems when trying to do so. Barnett reveals that Thinx, the re-usable period underwear brand I mentioned in my last post, had to overcome some absurd hurdles before they were able to even use the words ‘period’ and ‘fluid’ in their promotional material. Along with an unexpected section about the until-now missing period emoji, these facts make Barnett’s call-to-arms extremely compelling. We should be ridding ourselves of period shame and questioning those who have been reinforcing stigmas, especially through globally-accessible media.

Perhaps you could dream up your own, very real, period ad… Mine would mainly involve grease: greasy hair, greasy Chinese and a greasy face. Oh, and many profanities nestled within a sassy monologue about my period vibe. And low slung tights. (200)

What makes Period. extraordinary is the inclusion of stories from people Barnett has met during her life and career so far: some empowering, some hilarious — my favourite being ‘Would you go to prison for your period?’ (57), — and some tinged with sadness. Barnett brings to light the difficulties faced by women with no access to sanitary products, as well as sharing stories from a trans activist who desperately wishes to be rid of their period and a woman born without a womb who longs to know what menstruation feels like.

Barnett also shares her personal experience with endometriosis.  I found myself dumbfounded and angry reading about her extreme period pains and the confusion accompanying her struggle to conceive because she’d been told by medical professionals that her cycle was normal. The fact that it was almost twenty-one years before she was diagnosed with endometriosis screams out for more research to be conducted. Our healthcare systems are lacking funding for ‘female conditions’ and this in turn is affecting progression in our educational system. I had no idea endometriosis existed until last year and I didn’t really know what it was until I read this book.

This made me wonder how many people I knew felt that their academic education about periods was sufficient, so I created a simple yes or no Instagram poll. Forty-five out of fifty answered no. A couple of male friends I spoke to told me they’d only ever learned about menstruation in a biological sense, with no emphasis on how it could affect a woman’s mood, lifestyle or other parts of her body.

It can’t be right that when teaching about something so normal and frequent as a monthly bleed, boys are often sent out of class and the person conducting the lesson is generally someone different to the normal teacher… (146)

I distinctly remember a PSHE lesson on periods at my all-girls school being taught by our headmistress, and thanks to Barnett I now realise how problematic that was. Whilst it may have given more emphasis on the importance of the lesson, it felt more like an incredibly formal ‘here for one night only’ event. Surely the headmistress, who had already squeezed us into her busy schedule, would cover everything we needed to know about menstruation? Even if we did have burning questions afterwards, we wouldn’t have felt confident enough to approach her outside of that classroom.

It wasn’t until my higher education that I developed, as Barnett calls it, ‘period-pride’, but Barnett notes that stigmas can still haunt the most open of us, especially in the workplace:

it’s one thing learning to talk to your friends, family and, if necessary, the doctor openly about your flow. It’s something else to bring up your period with your boss and your work colleagues. Or that guy who sits near the loos at the office as you stagger past with your dainty special zip-up bag, waddling the final stretch to the toilet, otherwise known as ‘the red mile’ (too much?), having put off the soggy change for two hours too long. (116-117)

I almost spat my tea out after reading the words ‘dainty special zip-up bag’ because I do, in fact, own one of these and I have frequently waddled to the toilet with it, holding it as discreetly as possible. I’ve been carrying out this act of discretion on auto-pilot because stigmas I’ve been exposed to have insidiously created within me a shame I didn’t realise I had! That’s pretty mucked up. I wouldn’t hide the simple fact that I’m going to the toilet, so why would I try to hide the fact that I’m on my period? Marathon runner Kiran Gandhi didn’t try to hide her free-flowing blood when she ran through London in 2015, and it’s thanks to acts of confidence like this and defiance against ludicrous ‘norms’ that change is underway.

Don’t be revolted, lead the revolt — preferably with a grin on your face and a tampon tucked proudly behind your ear. (17)

Period. is structured in a way that begins with women’s first experiences of blood and then concludes reflectively. One of the last chapters covers the ‘no blood’ period (pun intended), of a woman’s life, and we read thoughts from various women about what menopause and losing their monthly bleed has meant to them. Reading this chapter, along with an earlier discussion of the fact that women don’t technically need periods (unless they want children), made me think reflectively of my period and what it means to me, which, I’ve realised, is not a great deal. I’m grateful to have a relatively stable cycle and low-scale pain each month, but that’s about it. I don’t think my period defines who I am. It’s just something that happens to me and half the world’s population, and this is the crux of Barnett’s message:

Whether you love, loathe or are indifferent to periods, whether you have them or not, menstruation is a fact of life and should be thought of and spoken about as something ‘truly unremarkable’ (270) instead of something dirty and shameful.

Period. is all about ‘finding your fanny voice’, so I’ll use mine to end the review here and urge you to pick up a copy of this book.

It will be bloody brilliant, trust me.

 

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