Last week I attended the launch of gender, sexuality and human rights journalist Anna Dahlqvist’s book It’s Only Blood: Shattering the Taboo of Menstruation. The conversations on the night, between Dahlqvist, the founder of Bloody Good Period Gabby Edlin and the audience were interesting enough, but the book itself stands out as an enlightened piece of writing about the profound impact that period taboos, period poverty and poor menstrual hygiene have on menstruators’ lives.
The book was originally published in Swedish and has been translated into English by literary translator Alice E. Olsson. Olsson was at the launch and discussed the fun (and struggle) of translating some of the menstrual colloquialisms.
It’s Only Blood is not a list of historical period myths, instead it’s a contemporary assessment of how reinforced menstrual shame continues to cause harm on a monumental scale. “Even though shame and silence are experiences shared by menstruators all over the world, the consequences become far more serious when an additional dimension is introduced: poverty,” Dahlqvist writes.
The testimonies, many from school girls and activists from Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, India, America and Sweden, are combined with Dahlqvist’s research of UN legislation to highlight the fact that inaction when it comes to menstrual hygiene, education and resources means that many human rights are being violated, and yet, there’s a distinct lack of retaliation by politicians. The book is also coloured with Dahlqvist’s personal anecdotes and descriptions, which makes this serious book palatable – it’s rare to get a non-fiction book that you can’t put down.
“Power over the period is a necessity, a precondition for participation in public life,” Dahlqvist writes, in reference to the serious social and educational issues poor menstrual hygiene can bring about. When school girls don’t have access to running water or locking doors, their options are rather bleak. If they bleed in public they’ll experience immense shame (the weight of which is only heavier when menstrual myths maintain that seeing or touching menstrual blood is bad luck), returning home to secretly clean and change a cloth at lunchtime, avoiding school entirely or hoping, at risk of infection, that one cloth or pad can survive a whole school day. Unsurprisingly, this has a profound and direct impact on their education. The book also explores how, contrary to popular opinion, these problems don’t go away as menstruators leave school.
One particularly interesting part of It’s Only Blood is the connection Dahlqvist draws attention to between infections, like UTIs and Bacterial Vaginosis, which can be caused by poor menstrual hygiene, with HIV and HPV (leading to Cervical Cancer). Society, including period product providers, encourages menstruators to aspire to be clean and fresh while simultaneously not letting anyone around them know that they are bleeding. With all this shame and secrecy, it’s no surprise then that students in Malawi dry their menstrual protection under their mattresses or that in Bangladesh, one women hides her cloths in the roof, rather than drying them in sterilising sunlight. It’s a public health issue, why aren’t we treating it as such?
Not only is Dahlqvist’s book intersectional in the stories that it tells, it also covers the intersections of menstrual hygiene with poverty, politics, commercial business and cultural and social stigmas. If you’re already active in combatting period poverty It’s Only Blood will spur you on and if you’re new to the discussion, the book will motivate you to join the ranks. Activists’ stories of feats large and small show how desperately change is needed, but also how in some cases, how little it takes to dramatically improve things.
It’s Only Blood perfectly showcases how menstrual shame causes problems for everyone and why shattering the taboos will undoubtedly improve individuals’ lives and society in broader terms.