Emma Barnett, host of Woman’s Hour and Newsnight, has suffered from endometriosis almost all of her life, but it took 21 years for her to be diagnosed. A huge advocate for women’s health parity, she has given credence to and brought topics such as menstruation and IVF to the forefront of our political and social agendas. Here, in an exclusive, previously unseen extract from her insightful and thought-provoking book, It’s About Bloody Time. Period. she reveals the sexism and judgement she faced for writing a book about menstruation – considered a more ‘female’ and therefore less important topic than more ‘serious’ subjects such as politics and football – and shares the horrifying stories of women who are still being discriminated against simply because they are menstruating…
Illustration by Chelsea Hughes
‘Please can you sign my copy of your book to my husband? He’s a big fan of your work,’ the woman asked, sidling up to me after my first ever book talk. She fiddled with her hands as I signed. ‘He was planning to come today,’ she added. ‘But then I told him what you’d written about and he refused. He asked why haven’t you written about something more important?’ She at least had the grace to look a little sheepish.
I won’t lie. Her comments, however gently delivered, were a sucker punch. At my very first book event to mark the publication of these pages, in my hometown of Manchester (across the road from the very spot I started my periods no less), I was being told of a boycott. Not a malicious one. Nor a noisy one with placards. But somehow this was worse.
A person who normally appreciated my journalism had decided not to attend my talk simply because he didn’t deem periods to be ‘important’ or ‘worthy’ enough to write about.
Somehow that judgement stung more, a bit like when a parent says they’re not mad, just disappointed – as if I had let him down. It made me feel foolish for trying to unpack a taboo and unearth previously unmentionable stories and put them together carefully – with joy and sympathy – into the book you hold in your hands. As if somehow I had wasted my time and yours.
I am used to taking people on – both personally and professionally. I am, it’s fair to say, one of life’s confronters. It goes with the turf as a live broadcaster. But this guy not even turning up? His absence denied me the chance to even try.
Emma Barnett’s open letter to endometriosis sufferers is a must-read: ‘It robs you from yourself and can steal the colour out of even the brightest day’
I quickly regrouped, penning something vaguely charming into the copy his wife kindly bought for him; my cheeks burning. But it was only later that night, turning over the moment while lying in bed, that I realised I had missed the golden opportunity this man’s boycott presented. I had fallen temporarily into an age-old trap: woman writes book about subject which has been wrongly maligned and dismissed since time began. Woman is then wrongly surprised and upset when she experiences the exact problem she is writing about.
But this woman realised she was being confronted with the issue she tasked herself with addressing. This woman realised she needed to stop being naive, get her shit together, and start tackling said problem. And so that’s exactly what I did, as I started my tour around the UK, talking to groups of women, girls, boys and men.
Hence why I was much better armed for when this problem reared its head, again and again. In Birmingham, another woman’s husband apparently also bemoaned my choice of topic. ‘Why didn’t Emma write about a more serious subject?’ was how he phrased it, his delightful wife bashfully confessed. He wasn’t present at the talk either.
Or how about the broadcaster, whose anonymity I shall preserve, who whispered to me before going on air, that her editor had only ‘allowed me’ on the show to talk about my book in the hope I could also talk about more serious and newsier subjects – like Brexit. ‘There’s no way he would have ever let someone on to talk about periods for half an hour unless they could give an insight into something else he deemed proper, and you can do that.’
Charming. But it also made me relish my thirty minutes live on the airwaves – as I went to town on periods and nothing else. Sparing no blushes or detail. You see, what I have realised since first publishing Period is that my status as a Serious Journalist and Broadcaster (because I cover subjects such as politics considered Important and Serious by both men and women) has been a blessing and a curse.
It has meant that I am taken seriously and been allowed airtime where others may not have been. But it’s also meant I have actively disappointed some who follow my work – because I didn’t do what was expected of me and write a book about politics, leadership or Brexit. And I have faced some weird judgement.
Make no mistake – I am not saying men must feign interest in things that don’t interest them – although periods certainly should (please see the rest of my book as to why). Nor should women, for that matter. People must use their free time as they see fit. What I object to is the downgrading of the importance of menstruation as a topic. Periods should interest everyone. Particularly as it’s remained weirdly and stubbornly taboo, even though without them none of us would be here today.
And do you know what? This always happens to subjects stereotypically marked ‘female’ or ‘wimmin’s issues’.
What I object to is the downgrading of the importance of menstruation as a topic. Periods should interest everyone. Particularly as it’s remained weirdly and stubbornly taboo, even though without them none of us would be here today
Football? Still dominated by men, both on and off the pitch. Therefore: important. Spoken about in the most solemn of tones, as if life and death depended on it. The same goes for most professional sport – which has been, until recently, a male preserve. But fashion? Frivolous, fabulous and, crucially, female. It’s seen as much less important, isn’t it? Despite being, like football, a multi-billion dollar industry. The only time we can talk about fashion with our Serious Hat on is when it concerns its green credentials, and only then because the environment and climate change are Serious Subjects. The fact is, the majority of newspapers are still edited by men who decide the tone, treatment and amount of coverage subjects receive. It is their lens through which many still see the world and blind spots abound.
But the real harm caused by downgrading the importance of women’s issues? Shame. That feeling you can’t see but burrows deep into your soul. This sort of dismissive attitude can make women feel like speaking up about the minor through to the major issues in their lives isn’t worth it. That somehow we don’t deserve the microphone.
Of course, we can’t ignore how social media has changed the dial in helping women’s voices be taken seriously and listened to across traditional outlets. The #MeToo movement could not have become frontpage news without the internet raising a din few couldn’t hear. But still, from the serious to the sublime, women are often being silenced without realising it, as we still live in a society that marks women’s issues as silly. This pernicious attitude sometimes stops us from having a laugh and a cry when we need it most. Or worse, makes us feel sheepish for speaking up at all, so we simply stop talking.
It’s not on. Period.
That was the age-old trap I briefly fell into after my first book talk. Temporarily I felt foolish and silly. Then I had a strong word with myself. I pushed myself to remember the countless amazing and at times, jaw-dropping, stories and comments I have received in person and online since the book landed. To remember those people who come up to me in the street to tell me they didn’t know they needed to read an entire book about periods – until they did. Or a tweet from a woman on Twitter who wrote: ‘It is really rare that you read a book which makes you evaluate and challenge how you feel about your relationship with your own body. But Period by Emma Barnett has literally made me do a 360.’
Now I marvel and chortle at some of the tales I heard on the road such as:
The Birmingham woman who was fined £300 for leaking all over the sheets in a hotel and paid it out of sheer embarrassment despite seething with rage. She now wants black sheets to be an option in hotels – an idea greeted with cheers by the women sitting around us, as we put the world to rights on a Wednesday night in a book store.
Sticking with the hotel theme – the businesswomen behind organic period products brand Freda confided in London that a manager at a major hotel brand could not conceive of the idea of putting free sanitary pads or tampons into their bedrooms. Apparently it would be distasteful to other residents. What? Like 50 per cent of your customers? But sure – just bung the women another shoe horn, sewing kit and Bible. That will help if they unexpectedly come on their periods.
Emma Barnett: Misuse and abuse of nude photos can utterly ruin your life, so what can we do about it?
The woman in Brighton who said that her mother, a modern and successful businesswoman in her own right, used to force her as a child to take her sanitary towels, tampons and bloodied loo roll home with her wherever she had been. All of her waste, as it were. She wouldn’t dream of letting her daughter use the bins at friends’ or other family’s houses. Apart from the awkward subterfuge (can you imagine?) it had the net effect of making her feel dirty as a girl.
The reader who, appropriately at Jewish Book Week, finally explained to me the background to a Jewish period tradition I hadn’t personally come across but kept hearing about after the book landed. Apparently Jewish mothers used to (and still) slap their daughters across the face when they start their periods. Apart from being the time in your life when you least feel like a slapped cheek – the logic was to bring the blood back up and get it pumping. That’s another religious menstrual myth I’m hoping dies a death this century.
There were also those who wrote to me after I shared my endometriosis story. From the woman who was taken to A&E with period pain, mortified at the fuss she was making, only to be ‘recommended your book by a nurse, and finally speak up to my doctor to get the treatment I needed’. Or the man who was inspired to ensure the women’s bathrooms in his company were all stocked with sanitary products, and includes an understanding of menstrual pain as part of the company’s general wellbeing programme.
Since publication there have been some steps forward:
The UK government has launched a cross party inquiry into endometriosis with a view to improving the diagnosis, treatment and lives of those suffering with the condition. Another example of a fusty institution losing its period shame. Its first report has been published, which more than 10,000 sufferers contributed to. While any attempt to reduce diagnosis times is welcome, many feel it lacks the ambition needed to dramatically improve women’s lives.
Chelsea Women became the first football club in the world to tailor their training programme around its players’ menstrual cycles in a bid to cut down on injuries and maximise performance. Is this the nascent template for a sport – a world which has tried to disappear periods through drugs with horrible side effects, or worse still, get sportswomen to grit their teeth, stay silent and play on regardless? I hope so. Periods aren’t going away – so why not work with them and use them?
And what about the fact that periods nearly derailed Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal (which, by the way, should really be known as Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement as it remained largely unchanged – but that’s something best explored in the Serious book I didn’t write)? It is the perfect parable for our times. The tampon tax genuinely nearly scuppered Brexit. Negotiators on both sides worked into the small hours arguing over VAT rules. The EU insisted that Northern Ireland would have to follow EU laws on VAT – despite Great Britain following a new regime. This would mean those in Northern Ireland would still have to pay VAT on tampons post Brexit – breaking a key Tory and Vote Leave pledge. Consequently, Mr Johnson refused to budge and it went to the wire. The EU eventually agreed, and finally Brexit was on, but can you imagine if tampons had cost Boris Johnson Brexit?
But the bigger lesson? Forget women at your peril.
We will and do come back to haunt you – in all sorts of ways you can’t envision if you don’t consider our needs properly, or at all. While the headline direction of travel is largely positive in the Western world, there are still major causes for concern. In one horrifying example, 68 female college students studying in the western Indian state of Gujarat went public after they were forced to strip by college officials to prove they weren’t menstruating. This was so they could access the temple and on-site kitchens. The school is run by a wealthy Hindu sect and the young women were pulled out of their classrooms for an enforced knicker inspection. Some described it as ‘mental torture’ and others as a ‘very painful experience’. I am still shuddering. The college swiftly came under pressure to play down the story and speak of it no more. Can you imagine how many more women are still actively discriminated against because of their period that we will never hear a peep out of?
Got a question about periods? We’ve got the answer to every single quandary
Or how about the horrifying story reported by the Telegraph of the British woman in her thirties who has only just discovered she’s been inserting tampons incorrectly her whole life? She didn’t understand why they worked for everyone but her. Finally, the penny painfully dropped… she’d been keeping the plastic applicator in. This is a well-educated working woman. As the UK prepares to include menstrual education and wellbeing in the school curriculum for the first time, it can’t come soon enough. It seems even just the basics would suffice.
As I toured the country hearing from women, and sharing these stories, I realised:
Periods matter. Women matter. Men matter. Our untold stories matter. Now if that’s not ‘important’ or serious, I don’t know what is. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It’s About Bloody Time. Period is out now. Follow Emma on Twitter/Instagram, and come back to GLAMOUR next fortnight to read the next instalment of her column.