A Walk Down Period Lane - Six interesting historical facts you didn’t know about menstruation

Menstruation has been a fact of life since time immemorial. However, one cannot help but wonder: how did girls and women deal with periods in the olden days? Was there less menstrual stigma in the past? We're ancient women forced to free bleed since menstrual pads hadn't been invented yet?

#1 Women used to have fewer & lighter periods! It is believed that since girls and women ate less nutritious food and carried out laborious tasks in the past, they probably had vitamin deficiencies and experienced irregular menstrual cycles with lighter bleeding. However, it is healthy to have regular cycles (i.e., 21-40 days, but 28 days is considered ideal) and eating a nutritious diet is an important way to ensure normal menstruation.

#2 In ancient India, menstruation was considered auspicious Given that menstruation is considered taboo or impure in contemporary times, it is astounding that menstruating girls and women were considered as goddesses in the ancient era. The remnants of this tradition are found in Assam and parts of South India, where a girl’s first period or menarche is still celebrated. And surely, menstruation ought to be celebrated as it denotes fertility and good health.

#3 Menstrual exile or ‘Chhaupadi’ in Nepal Chhaupadi originates from the Hindu belief that menstruation is a curse on women. This inhuman practice of shunning menstruating girls and women into huts (which is a form of untouchability) is prevalent in parts of India as well, and not exclusive to Nepal. Though Nepal enacted a law in 2017 banning and criminalising Chhaupadi, on the ground reality, it is tough to change the culture or behaviour of people in an effective manner.

#4 Ancient Egyptians used papyrus to make ‘tampons’ It is theorised that considering ancient Egyptians used papyrus plant fibres to create paper, cloth, rope, mats, sails , etc., it is likely that it was used as menstrual pads or ‘tampons’ by women too.

#5 Menstrual blood was considered both a curse and cure in Europe While some ancient Romans were convinced that menstruation can cause weather changes, destroy crops and spoil wine, others in medieval Europe believed that menstrual blood can cure leprosy and signs of ageing. Go figure!

In medieval Europe, period cramps were said to be ‘reminders of Eve’s original sin’ and women would tie a small pouch filled with toad powder around their waist as pain relief. Furthermore, they used to wear sweet-smelling herbs around their necks to mask the ‘smell’ of menstruation.

#6 World War One nurses’ ingenuity and resourcefulness... American nurses during World War One discovered that using cellucotton in bandages made for wounded soldiers was an efficient and hygienic way to deal with their periods. Cellucotton (made from wood pulp) is a highly absorbent material. This is the story of how the modern disposable menstrual pad came into being.

The historical attitudes towards menstruation, especially the various period myths, have guided the present-day outlook.There is still a long way to go in terms of eradicating the silence around menstruation. Admittedly, the expansion of our scientific understanding of menstruation has led to debunking myths and encouraging dialogue.

With the gift of hindsight, we can say that the invention of modern menstrual products (including reusable products such as cloth pads, period cups and period panties) has made the lives of many girls and women comfortable and productive.

In some ways, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) has changed for the better now, but in other ways, the socioeconomic inequalities of today prevent underprivileged girls and women from having healthy periods. Therefore, it is wrong to judge the past as backward or primitive when tackling the issues of menstruation are difficult even in the 21st century.