Recently I’ve been seeing some mentions around the blogosphere about periods in young adult literature and whether menstruation is something authors need to build more into their stories. I haven’t seen any posts yet (and when I Googled the topic, the posts were generally from last year), so if you’ve written something on this topic more recently, please link me up in the comments. However, just the casual references to the topic got me thinking about whether periods in YA is something I even care about.
While I believe there would be benefits to bringing up menstruation more often in young adult books in general, I have to admit that it’s a hard sell when I think about whether adding a character’s period to any particular book would be an improvement. I have never read a book and thought “Wow, this is great. The only thing that would make this book better is if the author had talked about the main character having her period.” If I can’t point to a specific book and make an argument for why adding a period would add something special and essential to the story or to character development, I’m not sure I have any place to tell authors to add it. Still, I think there are good reasons authors might consider it.
Periods Aren’t “one Size Fits All”
Readers typically give a pass to books for failing to represent everyday activities. We don’t generally ask authors to talk about characters brushing their teeth or using the toilet, and menstruation seems to be thrown into this general category of essential yet unremarkable life activities. The problem is that menstruation is not always “routine.” Women experience extremely different types of periods, and dealing with menstruating can play a huge role in someone’s life. Failing to represent menstruation in literature implies there’s nothing to be said because readers implicitly understand how a character’s period must be going for her–yet nothing could be farther from the truth.
Though we live in an age where teens can do a Google search for anything, and easily find articles and studies and blog posts about periods and how other women experience or cope with them, there’s still a place in literature to address what is undeniably an important part of many women’s lives. There’s room for books to explore how different periods can be and help teens readers come to terms with their own. When a book doesn’t mention a character’s period, it’s an implication that the period is not problematic. The character didn’t have trouble finding a tampon. She didn’t embarrass herself by bleeding on something. She didn’t feel nauseous or have cramps so bad she couldn’t leave her bed for two days. Such a uniform portrayal of invisible, barely-inconvenient periods can seem baffling to the large number of women who do experience pain or other issues with their periods. It can make readers feel very alone.
Beyond expanding representation of periods so young women can see themselves mirrored in characters’ experiences, talking more about this issue can also help readers understand other people’s periods. And what is reading about if not helping us learn more about other people and increase our understanding of the world? This may sound ridiculous, but many people do not know as much about periods as they think they do. Many women assume that other women’s periods are exactly like their own. These attitudes can be damaging. For instance, I recently had an argument with a thirty year old man who thought tampons/pads should not be available in public restrooms–because he believed that periods are so cyclical a woman can predict the exact day it starts, and of course it starts in the morning exactly when she wakes up. He believed there was no way a woman could be “surprised” by her period, so if she left the house without the proper supplies in her purse, she was just irresponsible. I have also argued with women (one’s a YA author, interestingly) who insist that, because their own periods are painless, any woman who has to miss work because of the pain is an attention-seeking liar trying to get out of doing her job. Although it’s not necessarily the “job” of YA books to educate people or give them the sex ed they missed, I do believe that representing various characters’ experiences with their periods can only be beneficial in increasing readers’ understanding of how women can experience menstruation.
Young adult books, in addition to simply telling a good story, seek to help teens navigate the world and common issues they might face. Ignoring a process that affects most women every month is a significant oversight. Although I may not be able to point to a particular YA book and say “This would be better if the protagonist had her period,” I can look at YA as a whole say “It feels so frustrating that all these books gloss over something that has such a large impact on my life.” Women think about their periods. Even if a woman has a relatively easy and light one, its presence still influences the decisions she has to make on any given day she has it. What will she wear? How will she get her tampons into the bathroom without waving a banner that says “Hi, I’m bleeding?” Will she go to that pool party, or pass? How will deal with the advances of her boyfriend? Will she even go to school or work today, or are the cramps too bad? When books are trying to address the real world issues teens face on a daily basis, it seems reasonable to expect that at least some of them will deal with periods.