Finalist for the 2020 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in Nonfiction
What do you know about your menstrual cycle?
Your menstrual cycle is your fifth vital sign — a barometer of health and wellness that is as telling as your pulse or blood pressure. Yet most of us see our periods as nothing more than a source of inconvenience and embarrassment.
The reasons for this are vast and complex and many are rooted in misogyny. The fact is, women the world over are taught the bare minimum about menstruation, and the messages they do receive are negative: that periods are painful and gross, that they turn us into hormonal messes, and that they shouldn't be discussed.
By examining the history of period shame and stigma and its effects on women’s health and wellness today as well as providing a crash course in menstrual self-care, Heavy Flow aims to lift the veil on menstruation, breaking the "curse" once and for all.
About the author
Amanda Laird is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist with a clinical focus in hormonal and menstrual health, and the host of the Heavy Flow Podcast — a weekly podcast dedicated to casual conversations about periods and other taboo health and wellness topics. She lives in Toronto.
- Short-listed, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in Nonfiction
Excerpt: Heavy Flow: Breaking the Curse of Menstruation (by (author) Amanda Laird)
Introduction I was, somewhat ironically, in health class when it happened. I didn’t even have to look to know what was happening — the telltale warmth spreading from between my legs told me exactly what I needed to know.
My pad was leaking.
I excused myself from the classroom, tucked a fresh pad into the sleeve of my sweater and stealthily inspected the chair I had been sitting on to make sure there was no blood on it. Thankfully, there was not — my classmates were still talking about the girl who stained a chair the term before. I shuffled my way to the washroom, keeping my legs tightly crossed to avoid another gush of blood and any further leakage.
Sure enough, I had soaked through my pad and stained both my underwear and my jeans. I changed into a fresh pad, but the damage was done — the blood was visible on the outside. Mortified, I spent the rest of the day with my winter jacket tied around my waist. While the bloodstain had been concealed, the jacket-around-the-waist trick was pretty much like sending out a bat signal to every other student in my school that my pad had leaked.
Does this sound like a familiar story? I’m sure anyone reading this book has a period horror story of their own; whether it’s the classic leaky pad in middle school, a bloodstain on the sheets of a new lover’s bed, or a tampon rolling out of your bag at the most inopportune time. Having someone know you’re on your period — or worse, actually seeing the blood evidence — is embarrassing.
Or maybe your period horror story doesn’t have to do with a bloodstain, but the pain that is often experienced with menstruation. Period pain is real pain, and it’s estimated that it affects anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of people who menstruate.
That’s a hell of a lot of “bad periods,” a term that Meghan Cleary, founder of the aptly named resource website Bad-Periods.com, defines as “a condition enshrined in mystery, myth, cultural shame, taboo and clinical gender bias.”
Never mind bad periods: all periods are enmeshed in the same issues. Full stop.
Despite all our advances as a species, menstruation is something that remains a relative mystery for many humans. We can put a man on the moon, yet almost half of the world’s population is suffering on a monthly basis, often in silence, because of a perfectly natural bodily function. Menstrual cramps are the most common gynecological problem in adolescent girls and are the leading cause of short-term absences from school and work.
In a 1978 essay for Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem mused that if men could menstruate, “Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts.” Steinem adds that if men could menstruate they would brag about how long and how much, and menstrual products would be free. For anyone who has ever had a period, the essay is hilarious, but it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways in which menstruation is used as a tool of the patriarchy.
More than forty years later, Steinem’s missive is still relevant.
No such pain institute has been founded, and the options for managing period pain and other related symptoms are still limited — and many have to spend years convincing doctors to take that pain seriously.
We live in a culture that seems to have no taboos left, yet period shame still persists. In a world where the minutiae of our lives are live-tweeted, posted to Instagram, and enshrined online, we wouldn’t dare update our status to “menstruating.”
And menstrual products certainly aren’t free. In fact, quite the opposite — for some they can be downright expensive. The “feminine hygiene” industry brings in about $15 billion in sales worldwide; that figure doesn’t include pain medication and other sundries related to menstruation. There are many people around the world who simply cannot afford to purchase pads or tampons, or don’t have access to them in remote areas, relying instead on rags, grass, newspaper, scraps of fabric, or even cow dung to manage their flow. These found materials are itchy, unhygienic, and unreliable. Rather than risk the shame of having their menstruation exposed, many girls and women simply stay home from school and work.
It’s nothing short of a human rights violation. If that sounds extreme, the United Nations Human Rights Council says the same thing in no uncertain terms: “The lack of access to adequate water and sanitation services, including menstrual hygiene management, and the widespread stigma associated with menstruation, have a negative impact on gender equality and the human rights of women and girls.” (emphasis mine)
During my career as a nutritionist, I’ve developed an interest in menstrual cycles from a health perspective. Although I had a lifelong interest in reproductive health, even sewing my own pads and making zines about toxic ingredients in tampons while I was in high school, I was almost thirty before I learned about how my menstrual cycle really worked and that it was a vital sign, both a promoter and indicator of good health. It wasn’t until I was in nutrition school that I was presented with the idea that period pain wasn’t “normal.”
As a feminist, I see that menstruation is a complex issue that transcends physiology. The more time I spend writing, reading, and researching menstruation, the more I recognize just how far the influence of the menstrual taboo reaches. It’s entwined with feminism and patriarchy, gender and the rights of trans people.
Follow the red thread and you will uncover how the medical system’s paternalistic, “doctor knows best” approach has not just ignored, but denied the pain of so many for centuries and has literally failed women by leaving them out of medical and drug trials because controlling the menstrual cycle is, well, hard — 80 percent of the prescription drugs pulled from the U.S. market between 1997 and 2001 caused more side effects in women than in men.
Go a little further and you’ll see how menstruation is a sister to the conversation around hormonal birth control; cousin to female sexuality, fertility, pregnancy, and abortion. It’s about what we as a society think is okay to do to female bodies.
Menstruation intersects with capitalism, the illusion of consumer choice, and the role that product manufacturers have played in shaping the mainstream conversation around menstruation, for worse and for better.
It is at once a political issue, a cultural issue, a class issue, and a public health issue. Our attitudes toward menstruation mirror our discomfort with seasonality and change, death and renewal. It’s underpinned by centuries of shame and taboo, fear and reverence, misunderstanding and symbolism.
No wonder they call it “The Curse.”
Yet, I believe the curse can be broken.
Reading Heavy Flow is akin to a long chat with a non-judgmental super-cool big sister who knows her stuff. Grounded in a fierce feminist commitment to body literacy as an act of resistance, Laird guides the reader toward better health and body positivity without the saccharine. Readable, inclusive, real and often funny, Heavy Flow is a myth-busting manual and menstrual-cycle roadmap that insists menstruators be seen and heard.
Chris Bobel, author of New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation
Heavy Flow delivers the goods – Amanda Laird gives the menstrual lowdown about why we don’t have to keep periods on the down-low. I love how she consistently challenges corporate messages of shame and shares her own personal, professional and practical ideas while effortlessly introducing stuff from the wider menstrual research community. It’s all done with a fun and enthusiastic push toward body literacy and empowerment – readers will feel like they’re part of the podcast or hanging out with a friend.
Chella Quint, comedian, artist, menstruation education researcher and #periodpositive founder
Somehow Amanda Laird makes the ‘curse’ of menstruation almost feel like a blessing. She’s written an incredibly thoughtful and informative guide to not only understanding your body better, but learning how to have a deeper compassion for it too. Required reading for every person that has (or ever will) experience the flow.
Jessica Murnane, author of One Part Plant and founder of Know Your Endo
Heavy Flow is essential reading for all menstruators. Laird challenges readers to think about their period in broader feminist terms – including that women’s pain is too often dismissed, and how essential menstrual products are out of reach for many. I look forward to having a copy on the shelf of our wellness center.
Caroline Starr, author and co-editor of Through, Not Around and co-founder of The 16 Percent
(5/5 rating) Laird delivers some really valuable and informative content in an easy to read manner without preaching and with a delightfully open approach.
Fictional Fix blog
As fierce as it is fascinating, Heavy Flow outlines the path of the pro-period movement, bringing that red wave right up to your own front door and the reader's personal period experience. What could this cultural moment mean for you and your reproductive health? Laird answers this question with confidence and compassion, skillfully translating the hashtags into clear, honest, and much-needed health information. This is one of those books that's going to be hard to keep to yourself – you'll be loaning it out and losing it to your best friend, your sister, your daughter...
Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening the Pill
Heavy Flow is the book I wish I had when I was a teenager and am glad to have now. Amanda Laird answers questions you didn't even know you had about the menstrual cycle, with topics ranging from political relevance, to practical physiology, to nutritional support for people who menstruate.
Kathleen Shannon, creative entrepreneur, author, and speaker
Amanda de-mystifies menstruation for us in a way that is eye-opening and fascinating. I felt excited reading her book knowing that many women will have access to this information and will be able to take charge of their own hormonal health, and bleed with awareness! I sure wish I had this information when I was popping the birth control pill for over a decade.
Joy McCarthy, bestselling author of Joyous Health and Joyous Detox
Heavy Flow breaks down absolutely everything you need to know about menstruation. Expertly written and easy to understand, this book takes the shame out of menstruation and empowers women to feel great about their bodies.
Ariel Ng Bourbonnanis, author and co-editor of Through, Not Around and co-founder of The 16 Percent
Heavy Flow is an important addition to the global conversation about periods. Periods are coming out in the open more than ever before, and as more women discover the connection between healthy menstrual cycles and overall health, they need a place to turn for guidance. Amanda has put together an encouraging and easily accessible resource for women as they strive for better periods. Amanda's passion for demystifying the menstrual cycle and eradicating menstrual taboos shines through on every page.
Lisa Hendrickson-Jack, author of The Fifth Vital Sign
With Heavy Flow, Amanda Laird has established herself as a leading voice in the long-overdue rewriting – and redefining – of menstrual mythology. Heavy Flow is more than a book about periods written for people who menstruate: it’s a call to action for all of us.
Abby Norman, author of Ask Me About My Uterus