Henrietta Bollinger explores the experience of her period as a disabled person
I am the second person to find out about my first period. Mum is helping me in the narrow bathroom of our rental. A long, sturdy rail is attached to the wall, but the room is not wide enough to have the wheelchair in with me. Instead, there is a dance to getting in and out of there. My period is only light, and she is unsure what it is at first. When she realises, she tells me, and we share the news with my Dad almost immediately. Both my parents grin oversized grins at me. Their joy at this is bigger than mine. Just weeks ago, I had moaned to Mum about not having reached this particular milestone. My twin sister was ahead of me.
Now though, I am turned inward, feeling the new, dull ache of cramps. The openness with which this event is approached doesn’t bother me; in fact, it hardly registers. I still think it was healthy not to hide it, gender it heavily as ‘women’s business,’ or make it shameful. My parents’ attitudes matched the way they had always parented my siblings and me.
Being physically disabled had trained me for this kind of transparency. For as long as I can remember, I have been asked to account for my body. The expectation to tell-all is inherent in my interactions with everyone from doctors, special needs coordinators, to journalists. There are members of the public who think it is acceptable to ask questions about everything from my mobility to my sex-life because my body is different from theirs – their inquiries a verbal kind of staring.
It is helpful not to feel embarrassed when I have to ask support workers to deal with bloodied sheets or pad changes. I laugh that one support worker knows my cycle better than me. My own openness is partly pragmatic, partly automatic. I am still learning that I do not owe everyone the whole story of my body. That it belongs to me and not my medical file. I am learning this from pushing back against able-world ogling as much as I am learning it from my staunch disabled friends, learning in gentle and difficult ways.
The beginnings of this realization came in my early teens, although again, it isn’t immediately significant. I am staying at my friend Harriet’s flat when my period arrives unexpectedly. Having spent the weekend feeling grown-up living among the obvious sophistication of people in their mid-twenties, I feel helpless and disappointed in myself for being unprepared. She laughs Stupid period shit! Pads are quickly sourced. She helps me position one and folds the wings down, making no comment. I love her for this. Later, when she high-fives her visiting boyfriend goodbye, I am amused thinking: You could’ve kissed him in front of me, you know.
The support we get as disabled people to manage menstruation is often more complicated than this. I have been lucky to have consistent doctors and support workers in the last few years who have respected my bodily autonomy. There have been times when people supporting me have made unwelcome comments on my body. There have been times in medical appointments when the idea of the pill or injections have seemed to loom out of nowhere. I know these methods can be useful, and there is no shame in them. I still find myself considering them as my tense muscles mean things like tampons and mooncups are a no-go. I have a stubborn affection for my period, though. I am lucky it causes me only inconvenience and not dysphoria. I like the potential future of biological babies it symbolizes – even though the idea of being a parent in an ableist society on our strained living planet scares me.
The problem is not how we relate to our bodies. There is often undue policing of disabled bodies: their functions and sexuality, of which our periods and our autonomy over them are a small part.
We experience this in myriad ways – the ableism we experience takes many forms and hits people with learning disabilities hardest. For example, the infantilizing able-gaze of mainstream media on our love lives; inaccessible sexuality education, this same exclusion meaning our sexual or gender expression is deemed inappropriate; the normalization of sterilization, and, if we do have children, an Adoption Act with the potential to rob us of the chance to parent, or simply the openly expressed opinion that we are selfish for pursuing parenthood.
This hurts, achingly and often. Having body-positive experiences as disabled people should not be – as so many things in our lives are – inaccessible. The messy reality of disabled bodies is as close as our own skin, and so too must be ours to control.
Featured Image by Hannah Moore, drawing by Pinky Fang.