Period pain can leave us feeling utterly miserable, so why shouldn't we take time off work? Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan on why she believes that workplaces should offer menstrual leave
A friend of mine used to have such bad period pains that for years we made her birthday cakes in the shape of painkillers. Paracetamol (bit boring, plain white, and making the groove is unexpectedly tricky), Nurofen (we did a box so the bullseye thing on the front would cheer it up a bit), mefenamic acid (green and white capsule, fun!), Co-codamol (boring white again, but they did occasionally blunt the edges of her pain so we forgave them) and diclofenac (a pile of little red velvet cupcakes) and many, many more. They were, after all, all she ate for at least a week every month. The condition and the pain defined her. It was 25% of her life. Everything was planned around it.
Except work, of course. You have to go into work, don’t you? Even if you are pale from blood loss and barely able to walk from the pain, as she was; even if strangers stop you as you stagger along the street to ask if you need help or an ambulance, as they did, it’s only a period, isn’t it? It’s not like you’re actually-factually ill or anything. You have to go into work.
In some countries you can actually take ‘menstrual leave’ (China, for example, which has just extended its policy into another of its provinces). And the possibility is beginning to be discussed in the UK. What a mark of civilisation it would be! Imagine: “I’m so sorry, I can’t come in today. My goddamn uterus has me in agony.” “I’m sorry to hear that. Get well soon!” End of.
But of course, that’s not how it would go. Your boss would not hear the simple truth that one of your organs was temporarily malfunctioning and this biological breakdown needed to be accommodated as would a flu virus or migraine. He (or she, because cretinous boss-dom does not divide strictly down gender lines) would hear: “I’m making a fuss about an entirely normal process! I am swinging the womb-lead!” at best. At worst, he/she would hear: “I am a woman and therefore naturally unreliable, unhealthy and fundamentally incapable of coping with professional life, forever requiring special treatment and consideration, likely to collapse and bleed to death all over the office floor and altogether more trouble than I’m worth. Men never do this. Men are robots who work at 100% efficiency, 24/7. No hangovers. No colds, flu, broken limbs, anything, ever. I’ll just stand at the back of the queue for promotion and the head of the one marked ‘Next for the chop’ then?
Instituting any workplace policy that only affects women is hard. Instituting one that is actually centred on what the most yucky, womanly bit of them does is even harder. But, as with so many things, I find it gets a lot simpler if you just start thinking of women as – get this! – people. Some people suffer from occasional or regular incapacitating pain. Here, they are all women, yes, and the pain is caused by periods – so what? If it was only men who had to use wheelchairs, would we object to putting ramps in places? If a man had a tendency to get a recurring twisted testicle (it is a thing and I’m told it is very painful) would we deny him a day off each time it needed untwisting just because he has a troublesome ball? Period pain is a debilitating condition that affects some people and not others. Go from there. Simple.
Until this tectonic mental shift takes place, of course, I’m afraid you’ll just have to keep taking the tablets.
Photography: Ellis Parrinder