The Red Tide of Shame

My earliest memories about menstruation are scattered and shrouded in both mystery and shame. I recall the “family life” lessons at elementary school where they showed us videos about puberty, heralded by a theme song promising that “changes keep falling like sunshine and rain/I know I’ll never, ever be the same”. Kids could be heard on the playground mockingly singing the song and parroting the child actors’ awkward tellings of their first wet dream, or the time they got their period at school and it was “so embahrrassing”. 

I recall an older boy stopping me on the stairwell and gleefully asking me if I knew what had happened to my older sister that day (I did not), and hinting that something shameful but clearly titillating had happened to her, likely in the girls bathroom hidden from view from the those barred from entry, but not so removed that the rumours didn’t fly.  I think I was too embarrassed to ask her about it, and I didn’t want to further humiliate her, so I never brought it up. (The extent of our period talk at home was my sister and I rolling our eyes at each other when our mom passed on the same book her mom had given to hear as a kid in the 60s, complete with a beehive hair-do on the cover model and references to garter belts).

But I thought about that fateful day for my sister often in the coming years as one-by-one my friends started to drop hints about pads (or the fearsome tampon!) and Midol, as they sheepishly asked to be excused in the middle of class, clutching their small purses filled with Bonne Belle Lip Smackers and menstrual products. I remember when we quietly but collectively realized an exciting shift in power dynamics —  that with just the right about of meaningly eye contact, a young female student could get a hall pass from a male teacher, no questions asked. Woe to him how denied this request, but under no circumstanced should the reason for the leniency be discussed. 

I observed my friends’ class absences that were attributed to “not feeling well”, listened to laments about missed pool parties, and played along with jokes about the courage required to wear white pants. It was clear to me that menstruation was something to be hidden, that we were all to feel shame about having a period, but the shame I felt so deeply was because I hadn’t yet had mine. The cruel reality was that I was ashamed that I didn’t have the thing about which we were supposed to feel shame.  And I was ashamed to bring up my concerns to my mom or doctor, or admit to my friends that I had been faking cramp commiseration. 

After years of public deception, a couple of trips with a worried mom to the doctor and the passing of the first half (and then some) of my teen years, my period finally arrived, well into my Grade 11 year. Alongside the relief that I wasn’t a total freak or completely broken was my old friend shame, so loud that it took me a few months before I worked up the courage to tell my mom.  

Satisfied that it had come, but not happy about the irregularity of it, my paediatrician handed me free birth control pills to help “regulate” my cycle (and help clear up my skin, which in all honesty, was my main concern).  I would be on The Pill for the next 10 years, showing up at walk-in clinics and pharmacies asking for prescription renewals with very little medical oversight or personal reflection. 

When I did make the decision to stop taking the pill, it took at least 8 months to bleed and a couple of years after that to establish a regular cycle (as it had been masking some significant hormonal imbalances – watch this space for more blog post about my own hormonal journey and my thoughts on the efficacy and ethics of how and why the drug is prescribed). As I tried to navigate the post-pill symptoms on my own, I once again felt a double-whammy of shame; shame that I was broken and unable to find a way to fix myself, and shame that I had blindly consented to being on the Pill for so long without question, concern or agency. 

Shame thrives in shadows and isolation, so I’m setting up a big ol’ spotlight, stepping into it and inviting you all to be proud of your bodies, whichever their shape, whether your cycle is synced to the moon or your period comes twice a year, whether you’ve stopped cycling or have never bled, whether your womb has borne children or not, your body is amazing and wise, and nothing that it does or doesn’t do makes you any less worthy or loveable or acceptable. 

I recognize that self-love and body appreciation are a tall order for many of us who have been raised under the onslaught of subliminal messaging about how our bodies are not ________ enough and what is the acceptable way to manage them. So, I invite us to walk before we run. 

We need to accept before we love, and understanding is often necessary for acceptance. But body literacy levels are abhorrently low and most of us are walking around with very little knowledge about what’s going on in our own pelvises, bellies and brains (yet another source of shame for many!), making it very easy to develop either an avoidant or antagonist relationship with our bodies. 

To me, body literacy is a key skill to acquire on the journey to big, juicy, celebratory self-love, as knowing how to read your body reveals so many miraculous things that you can’t help but fall in love! And shame has no place at that party. 

That right there is why I do what I do, and why I love what I do. I’m buzzing with excitement about all the ways I want to get the Red Word out into the world this coming year. 

I’m so looking forward to collaborating with the Victoria Downtown Residents Association on a free event on January 26, 2023.

Join me as I demystify and break down the different phases of the menstrual cycle and shares about the ways that fluctuating hormones can impact day-to-day life. Learn about the cyclical changes to brain chemistry, energy levels, nutritional needs and how to optimize wellbeing through cycle tracking and cycle syncing. Hear about (and taste!) some of my favourite herbal allies, nutritional tips and lifestyle advice for smooth cycling. This is the health class you wish you’d had, but never got.

All bodies and genders are welcome.

Space for this workshop is limited, so register now to reserve a spot:

Hope to see you there!

Kate Giesbrecht
Kate Giesbrecht

Kate is a Medical Herbalist and Founder of Birch Avenue Botanicals


Hi, I’m Kate! You can book a free 15 minute intro call to find out how I can help, or book a private consultation. Appointments can be virtual or in-person in Victoria, BC.