Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

The Truth about Periods: We Don’t Have to Have Them

In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans tries to emulate Biblical practices and so she camps in a tent in her front yard during her period (among other things). My how times have changed. Periods have gone from something that made you “ceremonially unclean” and unworthy of touching anything a man touched (lest it also make him “unclean”) – to Superbowl Sunday Twitter chatter. In 2015, the Superbowl ad that generated the most buzz was an ad for Always maxi pads called “Like a Girl.”

We’ve come a long way.

So far, in fact, that we don’t even have to have periods anymore.

Say, what?!

That’s right.  Unless you explicitly want to conceive (as in grow a baby right now), there’s absolutely no reason to have a period anymore.  The first continuous-use contraceptive pill came out in 2003 and now there are several safe options for stopping your period that don’t involve surgery or affect your future fertility.  But in my experience as a physician, I’ve found that many women are still unaware of this.

The #1 myth about your period is that you have to have one.

 

Read on for my embarrassing period story (with a point).

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I started my period between the summer of 6th and 7th grade – right at the average age, but I was probably more prepared than average.  My mother bought me every puberty book at the local Hallmark store and I pored over them like copies of Teen Beat.

I started my period on the 4th of July.  Whoo Hoo!  Fireworks!  I can grow a baby!  Except nobody should have a baby that young – and that’s the ONLY reason to have one.  In 7th grade, a period is a useful as a unicorn core wand is to a Muggle.

My 7th grade science teacher was incredibly zany and he came up with this great idea to create a sort of “space camp” experience for us.  He planned a full 24-hour mission and designed a “Mission Control” center.  It was a huge honor to be selected as an “astronaut” and I was one of them.  We planned for months.  We bought freeze-dried food and planned experiments.

The DOS computers in Mission Control were linked to our “space ship” with thick cables so we could communicate (this was pre-internet, pre-cell phones).  Our space ship looked like this:

rv1

We put 8 people and a lizard in that thing for 24 hours without opening any windows.  Please, don’t even try to imagine the smell of 8 gleeful co-ed adolescents and 1 nervous lizard.  Thank goodness we had a fan.

Anyway, lucky me, I was on my period!  Yup.  That’s how luck works:  get picked to go to Space and then have to manage the delight of tampons on a rocket ship.  We hadn’t been in Space for very long when we got word from Mission Control that the septic tank had to be emptied.

I was in the bathroom when we got this message.  Someone knocked loudly on the door and said, “Don’t flush!”

What was I supposed to do?  My used tampon was already in the bowl.  The fear sweat started.

They said it would only be a few minutes so I opened the door and acted nonchalant about blocking anyone from entering.

Then, from Mission Control some quick-fire kid typed “OK to flush.”

Those green letters appeared on the screen in our space ship and my fellow astronauts yelled out, “You can flush!”  And I did.

Phew.

Relief.

And then the words, “DON’T FLUSH YET!”

The green cursor blinked like my frantic eyelids.

What?!

The ramifications of this Mission Control error only became apparent the next day after we “landed” and finished television interviews with a local news crew.  (Don’t you just love local news?)

A friend whose dad was a teacher said conspiratorially,

“Someone must have been on her period.”

“Why?”  I asked, dread rising.

“Because my dad had to pick up a used tampon under the rocket with a shovel.”

My tampon.  Off the ground.  With a shovel.  The mortification was nearly unbearable.

Clearly I’ve gotten over it because I’m writing this, but I still remember the hot-faced, breath-holding, gulping embarrassment of the whole situation.  Painful.

***********************

I’m betting a lot of you have stories like this – okay, maybe not quite like this – but stories of less-than-ideal scenarios caused by your period.  The whole point of telling this story was just to be able to say:  What I would have given back then to just not have a period!

And now I don’t.  I can count how many periods I’ve had since my wedding on one hand and I hope I can count the number between now and menopause on the other.  If a woman has a 4-day period from age 12-42, she spends 4 YEARS of her life menstruating.  It’s time for all women to know that menstruation is not an uncontrollable physiologic phenomenon. 

I love being a woman.  The fact that we possess the kind of lifeblood that can grow a new human is something to be proud of.  Menstruating is in no way shameful.  However, let’s be honest, as great as it is to be a woman, “I just love my monthly visit from Aunt Flo,” said Ms. NoOne Ever.  A little truth about periods:

  1. They come on somewhat unexpectedly. Even if you are completely regular, you have no idea what time of day it will start – hence they ruin/stain pretty panties, lovely sheets and sometimes favorite clothing.
  2. Leaks are potentially embarrassing and messy.
  3. They are time-consuming. Having a period is like adding 6 extra errands to your day.  You have to remember to pack supplies, carry those supplies, and remember to change them.  Each bathroom trip is like 5 minutes and by the end of the day you’ve lost at least 20 minutes devoted to something that has never crossed your male counter-parts’ minds.
  4. Feminine products are expensive! (5 tampons a day at 17 cents a tampon for 4-day periods for 30 years = $1,2010.40)
  5. They can cause health problems like pain/anemia. I write a lot of school and work excuses in the ER for menstrual symptoms.

The American College of Gynecology has come out in favor of LARC (long-acting reversible contraception) for adolescents.  Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma about teen birth control use. 

For me, letting my daughter use LARC or continuous-use OCP’s has absolutely nothing to do with sex or birth control and everything to do with preventing menstruation.

  • I want to spare my daughter a “tampon and a rocket ship” kind of story.
  • I want her to be able to compete in sports without worry of leaking through her uniform during a game.
  • I don’t want her to be caught with a tampon string hanging out of her swimsuit. (Which may or may not have also happened to me.)
  • I don’t want her to miss school for cramps.
  • I don’t want her to be late for class because she just started unexpectedly and has to find change for the machine… or a friend… or the school nurse.

“Like a girl,” is an awesome way to do things and there should be no shame in being a woman or having periods.  BUT everyone needs to know that to bleed, or not to bleed is a choice; and the choice is ours.

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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7 Comments

  1. Yvonne

    Is this still contraindicated with history of migraine/aura?

    1. Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

      I am not a migraine specialist – nor am I aware of your personal medical history – but I can say that the in general the increased risk of embolic events is tied to estrogen and the Mirena does not contain/release estrogen. The amount of systemic progesterone hormone exposure with a Mirena is very small. I recommend discussing this with your doctor and I wish you a migraine-free holiday season!

  2. Cyndi

    I started having periods during the “Rely” tampon toxic shock scare, and nobody’s mom would let us use them, so we had to suffer through using pads instead. That meant no swimming at all, difficulty taking a bath, and multiple other inconveniences. While I appreciate your perspective and advice, there may still be people who can’t use the contraceptives or just don’t feel OK with it for whatever reason. Those people should know that there are reusable, washable “cup” devices that are just as comfortable as tampons or more so; a properly fitted one doesn’t leak, either. Of course, they do have to be emptied, but they hold more than the average tampon so it’s not as often. They were developed for Peace Corps workers and others who might not have convenient access to supplies. My daughter loves hers, as do a couple of my environmentally conscious friends who just don’t want to go through so much paper. They’re also great for hiking/backpacking. I’m just grateful that girls now have choices instead of losing three to five days a month.

    1. Kristin (Post author)

      Yes! Diva cups! I read a post on Nicholas Kristoff’s blog today about the trouble women in poverty have gaining access to tampons/pads. Diva cups would be an amazing solution!! Like you say, “who can’t…or just don’t feel OK with it for whatever reason.” Totally true. I think, more than anything, I just want to “get the word out” that NOT having a period is an OPTION now! I am so amazed how many women don’t know that it is. The comments I got on facebook from other women who haven’t had a period in years were almost exclusively other people in medicine. This isn’t a secret. I could say all of the same things about Diva cups. So many people don’t even know they exist! I blame this in part on a culture that doesn’t talk enough about this “out in the open.” Anyway – GREAT comment – and here’s the link to the Kristoff article if interested: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/?module=BlogMain&action=Click&region=Header&pgtype=Blogs&version=Blog%20Post

  3. Yvette

    Yes and yes! I practice this already! Love no periods!! Thanks Kristin for enlightening others! Having friends as doctors really helps. I will help my daughter with this when the time comes. Thanks for the medical terminology!

  4. Kat

    Hehe. Love your story! I thankfully have managed to escape from any horrifying stories of growing up and menstruating. Though in answer to your two questions.
    1. I would love to be without my periods. I even tried a few birth control methods that would allow this but for me; unfortunately, it’s not possible due to adverse side effects. 🙁
    2. It’s so nice to see I’m not the only one to have started thinking early about what I would think about putting my child on birth control. Though my daughter is only 7 this conversation has already been a frequent one in our house though we remain undecided.

  5. Kassi

    I’m laughing so hard I’m crying! Your willingness to share and be open about the most private topics is the most refreshing thing ever. You lift us all when you use your incredible gift of language, not just to inform, but to laugh and remind us, always, we will not be shamed by being women.
    I can’t wait to share this with my DIL’s and my 15 year old granddaughter.
    Thank you a million times over for your compassionate teachings!
    Loving The Magic of Kristin’s Voice.

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