No, not the punctuation mark. Yes, the other thing.
Periods tend not to show up in fiction, probably for the same reasons that urine and shit don’t show up in fiction. They’re quotidian elements that don’t really add anything to narrative unless they’re indicating sickness or a dramatic turn — pregnancy, miscarriage, sudden reproductive potential, and so on. But the fact is that unless your novel or short story takes place in a span of less than 28 days, your female characters of reproductive age are going to experience them. You could brush over this, but it’s a missed opportunity to actually explore some things with character, setting, and worldbuilding. For example, in Charlie Stross’ Glasshouse, one of the protagonists swaps sexes for an anthropology experiment in historical modelling, and she has a rude awakening upon realizing how exactly periods work. I loved this because it reminded me of a moment I had in adolescence. I was at theatre camp (yes, theatre camp) and I’d made friends with all the older kids (or they’d sort of adopted me, I guess, speaking of anthropology experiments) and one girl, Dallas, told us all about the horrified reaction her boyfriend had when he realized how periods worked.
“He was like, Don’t you just get up and take care of it? And I was like, Well, yeah, but it’s an ongoing process. And he’s like What do you mean, ongoing process? What, it like, lasts a long time or something? And I was all, Uh, yeah, it lasts like five days, and he was totally terrified.”
Then she showed us this really sweet letter he’d written in her yearbook with silver pen. So. Here are some things you should know, if you have to depict somebody having their period.
- Everybody’s period is different. Your period and your best friend’s are probably different. You might have easy ones and she might have hard ones. Or the reverse. Think about what has the most dramatic potential and go with that. Don’t just give your lady easy periods so you won’t have to talk about it. That’s lazy. And if you try to weasel out of it because of post-humanism, or the Singularity, then fuck you. You’re a thoughtless, cowardly asshole who doesn’t want to to any of the real work of thinking.
- Period blood is not always red. Fresh blood is. Old blood oxidizes and rusts like all other blood. If you don’t know this, it’s because you’ve a) never experienced your own periods, or b) never handled a woman’s underwear in a domestic setting.
- Periods change over time. Sometimes they’re really tough when you’re a teenager, and they get easier into adulthood. Or they’re super easy before you have kids, and they suck afterward. Or the reverse. Hormones change, so periods change too. My periods were never fun, but after I turned 25 they turned awful. Now I’m 30 and I take special prescription drugs to deal with them.
- Sometimes a doctor will prescribe you a birth control pill to deal with your periods. Or an IUD. Or high-octane painkillers. Sometimes you don’t have health insurance, but you do have Jack and Coke with microwave popcorn. Or orgasms. Those help. But they’re another post entirely.
- Red meat helps. Or rather, foods with high amounts of iron help. This is why women’s mutivitamins have iron in them, and men’s don’t. We need the iron. It’s also why you’ll sometimes find women who take iron supplements even if they don’t take any other vitamins or supplements. Because sometimes you get up from a toilet and it’s full of blood, and that’s kind of rough on the ol’ bone marrow. So red meat helps. Lentils, spinach, and tofu help, if you don’t eat meat. But I find that eating red meat once a month works for me. Once my tongue senses animal blood spreading through my mouth, I feel other systems coming back online. (“Iron? Check. Protein? Check. Ladies and gentlemen, we are go for launch. Let’s take Carrie to the prom.”) Ditto Guinness. Guinness makes everything better.
- Sometimes you’re late because you’re stressed out. Or you’re early because you’re stressed out. Once I got my period early after a really spectacular fall in my kitchen. I got soaked in the rain and slipped in a puddle of my own drippings, and for a while there I just lay on the floor trying to breathe and figure out whether or not I’d broken a toe, knowing that there wasn’t much I could do if I’d broken it and that my best bet would likely be some popsicle sticks and duct tape and was the tool box too high for me reach? Probably. Then my period came.
- PMS is a real thing. But really, the fact that a woman snaps at you (or your character snaps at someone else) just before or during her period has nothing to do with her period, and everything to do with the simmering pot of rage she keeps a lid on for the rest of the month. She’s angry at you because you fucked up during a time when she’s bleeding and in pain. Your timing was bad, but so was your fuckup. If you want people to not be angry with you, consider not fucking up.
- Cramps are not universal. Some women never cramp, but have terrible mood swings and wind up crying alone in the shower because Facebook says that bitch who was mean to them in seventh grade just got engaged and they’re single and they’re going to be single forever and they should just start saving for their time in the retirement home where maybe some guy in his eighties will mistake them for his wife because he has Alzheimer’s and they’ll take it because it’s better than nothing, right?
- Sometimes it’s just migraines. Only there’s no such thing as “just migraines,” because migraines are the kind of headaches where you can’t move without vomiting. Now imagine that happening once a month.
- Cramping is awful, but it can be less awful or more awful depending on the month. Sometimes it just feels like those virginity tests they’d administer during the Salem witch trials. Sometimes it feels like Joan Crawford is slowly wringing out your uterus between her trembling, white-knuckled fists. Sometimes the cramping is just in the front. Sometimes it’s just in the back. Sometimes it’s the whole sacrum. But basically what’s happening is you’re having contractions. You know, like a pregnant lady. Only you’re not pregnant. That’s why it feels like someone’s digging out your insides with a rusty trowel/tuning fork/Excalibur.
- You can feel blood clots leaving your body. You know how it feels to swallow tapioca pearls whole? Now imagine them passing through your vagina.
- It’s often easier to just sit over a toilet for a while.
- Not least because you’ll be doing some epic shitting, because all the muscles in your lower body got the “let go” message at the same time.
- It’s normal to feel dizzy when standing up.
- Sometimes your joints will swell up during your period. Totally unrelated joints, too, like your knees and ankles. Maybe this what it feels like when your bones go to work making more red blood cells. Or maybe God just hates you.
- The first day is usually the worst. Or the awfulness will be spread across all the days, if you’re on the pill. Sometimes your period will seem to have finished, and then it’ll come back the next day, like a masked killer in a teen slasher movie. Surprise! More blood!
- For as bad as all this is, menopause is worse. When you’re going through menopause, you start keeping a mental catalogue of all the cleanest public bathrooms in your general area, because there’s no telling when you might start hemorrhaging. One woman I knew got out of her car to go grocery shopping and noticed a pool of blood in the driver’s seat when she stood up. You start keeping a change of clothes in the trunk. At the job I had in high school, working retail at Value Village, I once found a puddle of fresh red blood under a rack of used blouses. At the time, I had no idea how it had gotten there. Had someone’s stitches opened up, or something? But no. Probably not stitches.
- Dogs know you’re on your period. Dogs sniff crotches eight days a week, but when you’re on your period they get this panicked look on their face that says: “Oh no! Are you okay? What’s going on? Why did your pack leader let you go outside? WHY ISN’T EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM SCREAMING?!” So if you’re writing a story about, say, werewolves, and they don’t know that your protagonist is riding the crimson wave, turn back to Page 1 and start over. Ditto vampires. Ditto mer-folk. Ditto monsters in general.
- Kittens will occasionally try to play with your tampon strings.
- Gym teachers will tell you that exercise can help with cramping. If your gym teacher tells you this, ask her when she had her hysterectomy. She obviously hasn’t had a period in a while.
- Some people really love having period sex. Sometimes period sex will only work (i.e. lead to orgasms) if you’re in one position and not another. Experiment. Take notes. Put down some towels.
- Sometimes you’ll crave sex right before your period arrives. Usually this happens when your skin looks like pizza and your breasts are really sore. And you’re like, “What the fuck, body?” and your body’s like, “I don’t know. It was worth a shot.”
- Getting your first period does not make you a woman. It makes you reproductively available. Your womanhood is not measured by your ability to reproduce sexually.
- If you miscarry, or you have trouble conceiving, it’s not because God hates you or your body is wrong or the universe is telling you that you’re an unfit mother. It’s because conception is actually really difficult. It’s about as difficult as sending a small missile down a tiny opening at the end of a narrow trench. A direct hit, and only a direct hit, can initiate the chain reaction. May the Force be with you.
That’s a long list, I know. Please feel free to add to it in the comments. But really, my point is that this is an experience that will probably grab at least some of your character’s emotional, physical, and attentional bandwidth in a story. Don’t just write it off. Use it.
Oh, and mainstream radio? This song isn’t about menstruation.