Why, when, and how to include menstration in your writing

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about PERIODS. Search for #EditingTipsFromAnna on Twitter to find other topics.

Disclaimer number one:

Previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.

Disclaimer number two:

Apologies to any Americans out there who have gotten overexcited about a thread about the little dot at the end of a sentence. Sorry – but today I’m chatting about MENSTRATION in novels.

This is something I’ve given feedback to clients about numerous times, but always with the caveat at this is an area that is frequently overlooked and ignored in all kinds of published books (and films and TV series).

Who knows why this is? I have a few theories – periods are still the kind of thing we should whisper about, so why would we want to mention them in novels? Periods are a bit icky and dirty, so should be dealt with in silence. Women should be sex-ready machines, so this monthly break many of them take from intercourse is unacceptable.

Just in case it’s not clear – I think all of this is total bullshit. Periods are natural and are a regular part of life for a huge part of the population. Yeah, they can be painful and unpleasant – but that makes it even more important that we include them in our stories and tackle the tough stuff in an authentic way.

However, please don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to include periods in your writing. When something is being systematically ignored it can feel unnatural to buck the trend, even when what you want to add into your stories is something undeniably natural that desperately needs to be normalised.

But wasn’t it incredible when a bloody tampon was shown in Michaela Coel’s fantastic ‘I May Destroy You?’ I was so pleased that the ‘period sex’ song was included in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.’ These moments hold power because they’re breaking down taboos and shedding light on an area that’s still being held in darkness.

I still struggle to think of examples of books that tackle periods in a realistic and honest way. ‘Blood Moon’ by Lucy Cuthew and ‘Diary of a Confused Feminist’ by Kate Weston are both fantastic examples, but we need far more.

Growing up, I didn’t read a single book or watch any TV show or film that even hinted at someone having a period. It meant that when I started menstruating, I was poorly educated about it and felt totally alone. I think we’ve come a long way in the past few years, but there is still work to do. I would hate for any young person or not-so-young person to feel the way I did about my periods for a hell of a long time – that they were weird and a shameful monthly pain that couldn’t be spoken about.

I want to be part of breaking down this stigma. I hope you do to. I’ve compiled a few questions to help you decide whether periods could be included in your story and how to do this in an authentic way…

QUESTION ONE: Could your character be having periods?

Firstly, have a think about the age of your main character. If they are, roughly, over 10 and under 50 years of age, then they could be having periods.

Secondly, have a think about the sex of your character. Remember, it’s not just women who have periods, and not all people who present as female have periods either.

I don’t often think about my character’s genitals but when thinking about properly representing people who have periods, it’s really important to. If your character has a womb and a vagina, then they could be having periods.

QUESTION TWO: Is your novel set over a stretch of time when a period could occur?

On average, periods happen every 28 days. Now, this varies from person to person and from month to month, but you can use it as a general rule. So, if you’ve got a character who could be having periods and your novel is set over a more than 21 days, it would be reasonable to expect menstruation to be mentioned in one way or another.

They might be on the last day of their period on their first day at a new school, so some of their brain is taken up by wondering where the nearest toilets are and whether they’ve remembered tampons. Or they might start crying more than they normally would and realise, as they solve a murder, that they are due on soon.

Even if you decide that your character is on some kind of contraception (remember, there are way more options than the pill), they may still have a monthly (or in some cases more regular) bleed.

QUESTION THREE: How would being on a period/contraception affect your character?

For some people, their period or bleed is just something they need to account for and remember to buy pads or some paracetamol. Bless these people. However, for others, it is an EVENT.

Personally, I have headaches and gut ache for about three days before my period. I’m also incredibly emotional and irritated easily. I have a weird burst of energy the day before my period starts, and then come crashing back down to earth. I have to take three different types of medication to keep my periods to a manageable pain level, and even then I often feel sluggish and can’t stand for too long. This lasts for about three days, but bleeding lasts for up to seven.

This is not an extreme example. Think of anyone with a chronic illness like ME or MS, and all these symptoms (and more) could be exacerbated. If you’ve got a character who can have periods, then you need to think carefully about how this will affect them on a regular basis.

And this problem isn’t magically solved if you decide they’re on contraception (and remember to mention them taking the pill if that’s the route you go down). Some people do report lighter or even no bleeding when on contraception, but this is not always the case.

This is the point when you might have to do some research or find a trusted friend and ask some questions. I honestly believe the work will be worth it. If we can talk truthfully about how periods affect all different kinds of people, then we can lift stigma and misplaced shame.

One other thing to remember is that people think about their period even when they’re not bleeding. They might have it marked on their calendar or have to remember to get in pads on the weekly shop. It’s a regular part of many people’s lives that they think about regularly. And there might be extra things going on in their life that makes their period hold more emotional meaning. Do they feel under pressure to have a child or are they struggling to find a well-paid job? These circumstances (and many others) add a whole other layer to starting a period.

QUESTION FOUR: What genre are you writing in?

Depending on your answer to this question, your approach to describing periods will vary drastically.

If you’re writing historical, then you’ll need to do some research not only into how people managed bleeding each month, but how society treated people at these times. If you’re writing sci-fi you could have some nanobot that stops periods, but does it have any side-effects? Fantasy could be fun – what ways would other creatures menstruate and how would it be treated culturally? It’s particularly important to speak openly and practically about menstruation in YA, as your main audience will still be forming opinions about what’s happening with their bodies and the bodies of those around them. If you’re writing a rom com, where sometimes the ultimate aim is to get busy, then you’ll need to think carefully about how you write about periods. When will your character have one, and how will it affect their relationship with their partner? How do they feel about having sex whilst menstruating?

I really hope this blog has been helpful! Let’s work together to write beautiful stories that celebrate human beings exactly as we are, not as some strange, sterilised ideal. Let’s acknowledge the secret things that need to be brought into to the light and help readers know they are not alone.

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