Here’s a bit of trivia for ya: Courtney Cox was the first person to call a period a period on national television. The year? 1985.
Menstrual taboo has been a thing long before the 80s, though. There are many societal, cultural, and religious customs across the globe saying what can and can’t be done during a period. And pop culture has been equally unkind.
Thankfully things are slowly catching up, but a lot is still left wanting. One way to shed this period taboo is to simply talk about it — call it what it is.
It’s not “Aunt Flo coming to visit,” “that time of the month,” or “shark week.” It’s a period.
There’s blood and pain and sometimes relief or sadness, and sometimes it’s all that at the same time. (And another thing: They’re not feminine hygiene products, they’re menstrual products.)
We reached out to a doctor and a bunch of people with uteruses to get the lowdown on what it’s like to have a period — from puberty through menopause and everything in between.
Before we start, it’s likely many of us with uteruses have had our pain not taken seriously. Maybe you were taught this was just how periods were gonna be. But your pain matters.
If you experience any of the following around or during your period, don’t hesitate to seek out a healthcare provider:
- pain in the pelvic region
- painful periods
- lower back pain
- pain in the lower abdomen
- long periods
- heavy periods
These symptoms likely point to a menstrual disorder.
Many of the common menstrual disorders get diagnosed later in life, like in your 20s or 30s. But that doesn’t mean they actually started occurring at that time — it’s just when a doctor confirmed it.
Don’t hesitate to get help, however old you are. You deserve treatment.
On average, people in the United States get their first period at around
The age you are when you first get your period depends on a
In the first few years, it’s common for your period to be irregular and unpredictable. You might go months without any hint of it and then boom, red Niagara Falls.
“Menarche, the beginning of the menses, is very much reflective of menopause because initially, and at the end, we’re not ovulating,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of OB-GYN and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine.
Our menstrual cycle is governed by our hormones. The physical experience of a period — the bleeding, cramps, emotional swings, tender breasts — all comes down to the amount of hormones our body is releasing at any given time. And two hormones in particular dictate our cycle.
“Estrogen stimulates the growth of the uterine lining, while progesterone regulates that growth,” Minkin says. “When we’re not ovulating, we don’t have the regulatory control of the progesterone. So you can get these willy-nilly periods. They come, they don’t come. Then there can be heavy, intermittent bleeding.”
Katia Najd first got her period a couple of years ago when she was 15. In the beginning she experienced a relatively irregular — though totally normal — cycle.
“My period was very light at the beginning and lasted for about a week and a half,” Najd says. “I also had about two periods a month, which is why I decided to go on the pill to regulate it.”
It’s common to feel shy, confused, and even frustrated about your period at first. Which makes total sense. It’s a brand new, often messy experience that involves a very intimate part of your body.
“I used to be so afraid of leaking in middle school (I hadn’t even started my period, but I was afraid I would start and then leak) that I would go to the bathroom like every half hour just to check,” says Erin Trowbridge. “I was petrified of stuff like that for years.”
Growing up Muslim, Hannah Said wasn’t allow to pray or fast during Ramadan when she was menstruating. She says this made her feel uncomfortable, especially when she was around other religious people. But thanks to support from her father, she didn’t internalize too much of the stigma.
“My dad was the first person to know I had my period and bought me pads,” she says. “So it’s always been something I’m comfortable talking about, especially with men.”
Similarly, Najd cites the support of her family as one of the reasons she doesn’t feel negatively about her period.
“I have two older sisters, so I was used to hearing about it before I ever started,” she says. “It’s something every woman has, so it’s nothing to be embarrassed by.”
So, periods are all over the place in the beginning. But what about with a little more time?
Your 20s are your fertility heyday. This is the time your body is most prepared to have a baby. For most people this means their cycles will be the most regular.
“As one gets a little more mature going through the menarche stage, they start ovulating. When you start ovulating, barring anything abnormal going on, you start having more regular monthly cycles,” says Minkin.
But if you’re in your 20s, you could be reading this thinking: “No way am I having kids anytime soon!” Fact:
Which is why many folks in their 20s continue to use birth control or get on it. BC can further regulate your cycle if it was all over the place before. However, it can take a while to find the right type of BC.
But depending on the kind of contraceptive and the person, starting BC may also create all sorts of changes — some negative enough for a person to switch.
Aleta Pierce, 28, has been using a copper IUD for birth control for over five years. “[My period] got much heavier after I got the copper IUD. Before, when I was on hormonal forms of birth control (NuvaRing, the pill), it was much lighter and less symptomatic.”
Period sex: To have or not to have
Between the years of 20 and 29, it can be an important time to figure out adulting — including what kind of sex feels good. For many, this includes deciding how they feel about period sex.
“I’m more comfortable now with period sex than I used to be,” says Eliza Milio, 28. “I’m usually very turned on right at the beginning of the cycle. However, it’s very rare that I have sex when I’m on my heaviest two days of my cycle because I get so bloated and crampy that all I want to do is eat ice cream in sweatpants. Not exactly sexy.”
For Nicole Sheldon, 27, period sex is something she’s OK with leaving in the past.
“Period sex isn’t something I engage in often. I used to have more of it when I was younger, but now it just seems too messy unless I’m taking a shower,” she says.
You don’t have to avoid period sex if you don’t want to, though. It’s safe to have — just a bit messy sometimes. Do what feels good for you and your partner.
When symptoms may mean something more
The 20s are often the decade when many people become more aware that their symptoms may be a sign of a menstrual condition, like:
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- premenstrual syndrome or PMDD
- abnormal bleeding cycles
- painful periods (dysmenorrhea)
If you’re still having pain, a super heavy flow, long periods, or anything else seems funky or off in general, seek out a healthcare provider.
Your 30s are likely a mixed bag when it comes to your period. Early in the decade, you’re probably still regularly ovulating and can expect your period to be much like it was in your 20s.
For some, this may mean pain. And a lot of it.
“[I experience] stabbing, debilitating cramps in my lower back and ovaries, tender breasts and insomnia in the days leading up, and intense waves of emotion, causing me to cry at the drop of a hat,” says Marisa Formosa, 31.
But despite the physical discomfort brought on by her period, Formosa feels emotionally connected to her monthly cycle.
“Over the years, I’ve developed a fierce pride and defensiveness of my period,” she says. “It’s almost sacred to me. I believe it ties me to the earth, to the seasons, to the circular patterns and cycles of life and death. So the cultural disgust and shaming of periods, which I have internalized as much as the next person, pisses me off.”
Time for the pregnancy talk
Our bodies might be ready for kids in our 20s, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are. In fact, the fertility rate for cis women in the United States over 30
Pregnancy can do a number on the body. The changes are innumerable and vastly different for each person. But one thing’s for sure: No one gets their period while they’re pregnant. (Though some spotting can occur).
In the months directly after giving birth, you may get your period immediately, or it could take months to return.
Minkin explains that the return of a person’s period largely depends on whether they’re only breastfeeding, supplementing with formula, or exclusively using formula.
“When you’re breastfeeding, you’re making a lot of a hormone called prolactin,” says Minkin. “Prolactin suppresses your estrogen formation and keeps you from getting pregnant.”
For Allison Martin, 31, giving birth was a welcomed reprieve from her naturally heavy flow. But when her period did return, it came back with a vengeance.
“There were a glorious six months without a period because of breastfeeding,” she says. “But now my nighttime bleeding is so heavy I have sometimes slept on a towel to prevent bloody sheets. This is usually for just two nights a cycle, and I recently discovered the hugest-ass pads known to the world. It has solved this problem!”
For some, the mid-to-late 30s is the kickoff to a brand-new journey: perimenopause.
Defined as the 8 to 10 years leading up to menopause, perimenopause is a result of your body producing less estrogen and progesterone.
“Eventually one will get to perimenopause where they’re making estrogen without making progesterone, or growing the lining of the uterus without control,” says Minkin. “So again you can have these crazy bleeding patterns.”
While it’s totally normal to start perimenopause in your 30s, most people will really get into the thick of it in their 40s.
And as always, if you’re experiencing pain or something doesn’t feel right, book an appointment with a doc.
You probably won’t escape your 40s without losing a few pairs of undies because, similar to the years after your first period, perimenopause is all about random and unpredictable bleeding.
For most of her adult life, Amanda Baker knew what to expect from her period. She bled for four days, the first being the heaviest and the following three gradually tapering off. Then at 45 she missed a period.
“I’ve been a wreck ever since, spotting nearly every day, or a random unpredictable gush of blood, just near-constant bleeding of some kind. This week [has been] heavy bleeding and large, palm-sized clots,” says Baker.
Although the 40s are a common time for perimenopause, Minkin cautions that irregular periods alone aren’t enough to say for sure that someone is experiencing it.
If you suspect you’re perimenopausal, be on the lookout for other corresponding signs and symptoms, such as:
- a drier-than-usual vagina
- hot flashes
- chills and night sweats
- trouble sleeping
- moodiness and emotional ups and downs
- weight gain
- thinning hair and dry skin
- loss of breast fullness
You don’t necessarily have to call up your doctor when you start perimenopause, but they can prescribe medication if needed. The usual go-tos — exercising more often than not, eating right, sleeping well— can do a lot to improve symptoms.
Most experts agree a person officially has menopause when they haven’t had a period for 12 consecutive months. In the United States, this happens, on average, at age 51.
Most people can expect their perimenopause symptoms to ease throughout their 50s as they approach the end of ovulation. Some complete menopause much earlier or much later.
Aileen Raulin, 64, went through menopause when she was 50. Although she no longer gets a monthly period, she still experiences hormonal fluctuations.
“Before menopause, mid-cycle I felt irritable and I would have stress incontinence,” says Raulin. “Now I still notice that moody time every month, and I have to wear a pad.”
Minkin says that as long as a person has ovaries, it’s possible to see some hormonal activity. Although for the vast majority of people over 60, there won’t be much activity at all.
Going through menopause can be an emotional roller coaster, and not just because of the hormonal swings. Cultural representations of people with menopause are hard to come by. It often feels like a subject that we’re not supposed to talk about.
Let’s change that.
We don’t have to do anything more than be honest and our authentic selves, as Viola Davis recently did when explaining menopause. (That Jimmy Kimmel had to ask her for the definition of menopause is another story.)
Talking about your flow, whether you have it or not, helps you know yourself.
Ginger Wojcik is an assistant editor at Greatist. Follow more of her work on Medium or follow her on Twitter.