Blood drips onto my ass as the pad I am wearing is swollen with my own blood. My menstrual blood. It is the third time in my life I am welcoming my period into my 12-year-old body. I’m scared and worried the blood has leaked through my pants. I quickly look down to the seat of my school chair and I see my worst fears are realized. I am sitting in a pool of blood. I’m sticky and wet and all I want to do is get up from my chair and run out of the classroom, but I’m stuck. I know I must stay still and not offend anyone with my blood. The blood leaks more, and I wonder if I am starting to smell. My heart begins to tremble and I am on the verge of tears. And then the bell rings.
That is a piece of my own period story. My name is Tara Pokras and I’m the founder of Period Portraits — a powerful storytelling project breaking down the stigma of menstruation through vulnerable interviews and empowering photograph portraits. I started Period Portraits a little over a year ago, during a time when I was just starting to find my own voice in the new wave of feminist activism taking over the world. Over the last year I’ve conducted interviews, roundtable discussions, social events, and interactive workshops around the theme of period stigma. I’ve worked with range of people from adolescent teens that have newly immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia and El Salvador to refugees in Greece to mothers in rural Ghana to young professionals in Washington DC. This just proves the vastness that this issue touches.
In all my endeavors with Period Portraits there is this beautiful moment of people sharing some of their deepest vulnerabilities that they might have never said out loud or told a stranger before. Then there is this sense of empowerment after realizing they are not alone. That is my favorite part. There is this euphoric sense of pride when sharing something you’ve been told most of your life to hide. I truly believe that when we can create safe and open spaces to share our true most authentic stories and selves, is when we can really work together to reduce the stigma and shame around menstruation. It is through these shared stories across the world that we can draw the connection that we are not alone in this shame. That periods are normal. That something I go through, is something they go through half-way around the world. The sooner we can build up this strength of each other’s shared experiences, the sooner we can fight against the shame we’ve been taught our whole lives to hold. It is so important to celebrate the blood that we all share.
Below I have selected some of my favorite portraits for you to enjoy….
“They used to send you to the Queen Mother when you first saw blood. I didn’t go, but my mother did. When you went to go visit the Queen Mother they used to wash you in a river. My mother had to sit in the back of her house for a week each month. Now it is not as common in Humjibre. I used clothes when I first got my period. I didn’t tell my mother either. I will teach my daughter how to wear pads.” – Lydia, Ghana Health and Education Initiative, Community Health Worker in Humjibre, Ghana
“I had my daughter at 20 years old. I had a c-section, but it was no good. Afterwards, I did not get my period. I’m 27 years old. It is very bad. Some people have heart and head problems. This is my problem. No more period for me. I don’t know why. I pray to God to get my period again. In Islam we have 124,000 prophets. I pray for my period.” –Marzia, a refugee receiving services from non-profit The Unmentionables in Athens, Greece
“Sometimes I’ll crave food nonstop. I just need something in my mouth. Then there are times I don’t feel like eating. I just feel so gross at the thought of eating that I don’t want to eat at all. I really don’t like to eat cold things when I’m on my period because I feel like it makes my cramps worse. That is actually a weird Indian traditional thing my mom told me. She said, “Don’t eat ice cream, don’t have ice. Don’t have really cold chilled things when you are on your period because it is going to make your cramps worse.” I’m not going to lie, for me, I don’t know if it is a mental thing, but it does make my cramps worse. So I don’t really have cold things when I’m on my period. Even though I’d want to have ice cream, I’ll choose cookies instead or popcorn. I really love crunchy things like a bag of chips.” – Gayatri, a student at The George Washington University, Washington DC, USA
“At my 13th birthday party I had 8 girls over [my house]. I went to the bathroom and there it was! I immediately started crying…I was devastated. I think firstly, I didn’t want to deal with it. But I think also because growing up as a woman, you hear all this stuff about your period and how you are turning into a woman, and then you know that even if you are not super aware of it, but suddenly you are sexual to a certain extent. I think that definitely contributed to my devastation. I didn’t feel prepared for it. It wasn’t something I was interested in at that point in my life. Or being like a sexual being to men. I’ve read studies that the peak of being catcalled by men is between 12-18 years old. I just wasn’t ready for that.” – Emma, young professional, Washington DC, USA
“It was interesting because it was never something shameful in sense that my parents weren’t embarrassed about it. It’s just that my Dad had never really talked about it before. It was something from a cultural perspective something I had to deal with. In our house, you just didn’t go to the Gods House, but other people’s houses we weren’t allowed to go into the kitchen or places like that. In India, there were certain family’s houses where you just couldn’t even go. I’ll be honest, it is something that I’m struggling with. I’ve been married for 5 and half years, and this is something my husband and I will argue about but flipped! My husband grew up with a mom that was super liberal, like an Indian hippie if you will. They didn’t have any of these rules. So, when we got married we had conversations where I would be like, “Oh I can’t go to the temple” or “Oh I don’t feel comfortable going to this religious event” because I was on my period. And he would be like, “Why are you doing this to yourself? It is not unclean. You should be fine. One day when we have kids I’m never going to tell our daughter she is unclean. Or that she can’t go somewhere.” That was really empowering to me, and made me question everything I knew, but it’s something that we still deal with.” – Uma, a student at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
“I was fat. I was 10 when I got my period. They say fat girls get their periods early. I asked my mom what this was. She gave me some Pampers and it was OK after that. I get pain every month, but it’s OK.” Parvaneh, a refugee receiving services from non-profit The Unmentionables in Athens, Greece
“I was one of those women that started my period and didn’t really know what was happening. I didn’t really even have a chance to talk to my mom and know what was going on. She always avoided the subject or didn’t have much to say about it. Flashing forward into my teens I remember being in a car with my family, and my cousin was getting married, and my Aunt was giving him advice on family planning and explaining when the women is most fertile. My mom was quiet, and suddenly goes “Oh really? I never knew that!” It shocking to me and also hilarious. And then my Aunt goes “Well that’s why you had 3 right away.” That made me realize what a shared experience this all really is, and how backwards it still is, and it still is a subject that people do not want to talk about.”- Annie, a student at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
“When I first got it I was thinking, “What is wrong with me?” I didn’t tell anyone. Then in one of my classes my teacher said it was natural. My friend also told me it is natural.” – Martha, Ghana Health and Education Initiative, Community Health Worker in Humjibre, Ghana
Tara Pokras, is currently pursuing her Masters of Public Health at George Washington University. She resides in Washington, DC. She loves photography, traveling, and of course, a good period story. Follow her work @goperiodportraits, visit http://www.periodportraits.org to learn more, and email firstname.lastname@example.org to collaborate.