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Jessica Biel: Understanding My Period Has Been a 30-Year Journey

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There was a joke I heard a lot growing up about people who get their periods. I won’t repeat it here, but believe me when I say it was disgusting, cruel, and harmful. It makes my blood boil when I think of it now, but when I was a teenager under constant pressure to be pleasant and agreeable, all I could do was try to laugh it off. That’s what we were taught cool girls should do—shrug off jokes, even if they were made at our expense.

So many of us still carry that shame when it comes to our periods. We hide tampons up our sleeves so no one will see us carrying them to the bathroom. We keep quiet about what’s happening with our bodies. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way. I’m interested in learning more about menstruation and encouraging young people to ask more questions. Periods are not only natural—they’re also extraordinary. They shouldn’t be so hard to talk about.

Here’s what I remember about my first period: I was in my childhood home in Boulder, Colo. My room was on the second floor, and I shared a bathroom with my brother. Our parents were down the hall. I was 11, and it was the day of the school play. I went to the bathroom, and when I looked down into the toilet I thought, Oh my God. There's blood in there. I'm dying.

My mother swears we’d already had the talk, but I don’t remember it, probably because I was embarrassed. I can picture myself rolling my eyes and trying to get away. That day I was truly terrified. I grabbed my mom, crying, and showed her the blood. She handed me a giant, puffy pad and told me not to worry—no one would see it. This thing was as unwieldy as a diaper, sticking out both sides of my underwear. I’d been so excited to put on my costume for the play—complete with a full beard, since I was playing the grandfather—and now I was horrified. Would I be able to go on? Would everyone be able to tell I’d gotten my period? Would I ever live it down?

Read More: Teaching Girls to Have Shame-Free Periods

Young people who get their periods often feel like they’re limited. What can I do while I have my period? Will I be able to be active? Will I still be able to participate in all the fun activities I like to do? I wish I knew then that there would be nothing to worry about. The show went on. I played my part, and it was great.

But I have to admit that, more than 30 years later, I sometimes still feel out of my depth with this thing my body does. 

Periods can be Mysterious. They come and go. You can find yourself waiting for it, and you can be blindsided by it. Learning your body’s signals can be helpful. When my period is coming, I can get deeply fatigued, sometimes to the point where I’m nodding off in the middle of the day. My midsection often talks to me—I’ll feel very crampy and bloated, and my back starts to ache. Listening to those signals helps me feel prepared. 

I was on the pill for quite a long time, and my periods were mild and brief. I only recently learned that the bleeding you experience while on the pill isn’t the same as an actual period—it’s a “withdrawal bleed” caused by the break from your regular dose of hormones when you take your placebo pills. The hormones in birth control prevent the lining of the uterus from thickening to the same extent as when you're not on the pill, so this bleeding is usually lighter. Looking back, that makes so much sense, because my periods off the pill are real. Now my first few days are very heavy. I'm worried about being out of my house and I'm having to change my sanitary products all the time, sometimes even bleeding through my clothes. It’s a significant mindset shift, learning how to be cognizant of this change in my body and how to best support myself.

But that’s all part of it—my relationship with my period has changed over the years and through different stages of life. Now, after having two kids, it feels more extreme than it’s ever been before. I didn’t expect to have more intense periods after going through puberty and my childbearing years, but here I am. I’ll be honest: I’m trying to have a good relationship with my period, but sometimes she really has a mind of her own. 

I know I’m not the only one who struggles sometimes. One thing that helps me is to remember that still being able to have a period is a pretty cool thing. My body is a pretty amazing machine. And when it gets to be too much, I try to do whatever will make me feel better. Often that means canceling plans. If I don’t want to get in my car and go somewhere, I don’t. It can be hard to miss out on things—there’s always pressure to show up and be part of events, and I never want to let anyone down—but I try to prioritize my wellbeing, even if that’s easier said than done.

I want people to understand that if you don’t feel like yourself when you’re on your period, if you feel sad or angry, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you are not alone. And I want people who don’t get a period to be empathetic and to feel equipped to be helpful to the people they love when they’re going through it.

I try to set that example at home, with my sons. When I was in school, all of the Health Education classes were separated by sex. We never learned about each other’s bodies, which created a Mysteriousness that didn’t serve us. All that secrecy fed into a sense of shame, and there was no reason for it. So I want to talk to my kids honestly about my period, and I want them to understand what’s going on with me if I’m feeling off. I told my 9-year-old recently that I was on my period and feeling irritable—he just looked at me and said, OK. He understood that I needed a little break. If we speak to our kids about menstruation in a way that doesn’t bring in any judgment, they’ll understand that it’s just a part of life.

And like so many things in life, it can sometimes feel like a blessing and sometimes like a curse. But either way, it always helps to talk about it.

—As told to Lucy Feldman

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