When I was 17, my manager at Wendy’s — a stocky, brusque woman who wore shit kickers, no makeup, and a thick braid that ran all the way down to her ass — laid down the law on periods at our Cookeville, TN location. As she listed off her new rules now that she would be running the second shift — no bleach stains on pants, no second Frostys — she paused, then crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at the two women on night shift. “And let’s get one thing clear: I grew up busting my butt every day on farms, and I never missed a day of work in my life because of a period, and I have the most painful cramps on the planet,” she boasted. “And neither will you.”
I had to hand it to her. Here was a classic, hardworking redneck lady who wasn’t going to let something as ridiculous as bleeding for five days straight interrupt her dream of running a small-town Wendy’s like a Special Forces operation. But it was clear to me that my days there were now numbered. Not just because I clearly had a problem with authoritarian types, but because I happened to have really bad fucking cramps. Not just bad cramps alone, but the full suite of a shitty period. This includes but is not limited to hormonal acne, period shits, tits that feel constructed out of hot, heavy bruises, general fatigue, and the sensation of a fork scraping through my lower abdomen while my intestines feel simultaneously gripped and wrung out by giant, invisible hands.
And, oh yeah: the blood. I have a super heavy flow. I can soak through a super plus tampon in like, two hours. There has never been a month in my entire menstruating life where I have not, on one of the first three days of my period, needed to sprint to a bathroom upon standing up, even wearing the most absorbent tampon on the market, to hopefully stop the bloodletting before it’s too late. (It is always too late.)
I can mostly manage, but sometimes it’s too bad to work in an office and sit up straight and wait on a bathroom. I will still do my work, mind you — I’m not incompetent, I just feel like shit okay? — but I will keep my medical-grade farts and bleed-out at home, thank you. But even that is a privilege, and not an option for people who can’t do their work remotely. Plus, lack of access to period supplies is a worldwide problem for girls and women. I learned quickly at Wendy’s and every job there after that admitting the reason for missing a day was “bad cramps” was a rookie move. I may as well have said I was taking the day off last-minute to start a heroin habit.
But there’s good news: We’ve finally eased up a bit on the perception that women are making this shit up, thanks to a greater freedom to talk about periods and more high-profile women speaking out about theirs, as well as social media campaigns and more feminist branding of menstrual products.
It didn’t hurt either when an honest to God man doctor said that women’s period pain can, in fact, be excruciating. Elle UK just wrote about how John Guillebaud, a professor of reproductive health at University College London, told Quartz that some women say their cramps are “almost as bad as a heart attack.” Then Marie Claire picked it up, among other outlets.
Worth noting: Guillebaud told Quartz this back in 2016, so it’s unclear why Elle et. al. chose to pluck it out and spread it anew this week, but the current reaction on Twitter proves it’s still fresh validation to many awful period cramp sufferers like me.
Not being believed when you’re in pain isn’t limited to period cramps. It’s been found to be true for women across the board in the medical industry. Called the “gender pain gap,” studies have found that women’s pain is less likely to be believed, and the consequences are real. Women wait longer for treatment, receive less care, and suffer longer as a general rule.
In a roundup of the research, The Telegraph notes that one study found that when women and men report the same level of abdominal pain in the ER, a man will wait 49 minutes before he will receive a pain reliever, while a woman will wait about 65 minutes on average. And men are prescribed more pain medicine than women in response. Women with chronic pain are more likely to receive prescriptions for psychotropic drugs instead of painkillers. They are also more likely to be given sedatives instead of painkillers. In general, medical professionals are more likely to attribute any female pain to emotional causes, not physical ones, and generally assume women are exaggerating or neurotic.
“It is thought that this wrong conflation with mental health may be due to sexist stereotypes that women are ‘irrational’ or ‘emotional’, which means doctors find it easier to believe women’s expressions of pain have no physical basis,” Siobhan Fenton writes at The Telegraph. “Conversely, men are seen as more rational and when they say they are feeling acute pain, doctors take their symptoms seriously as having physical cause rather than assuming an emotional basis.”
Such stories abound on the internet of women recounting terrible tales of that time when the doctors simply didn’t believe their pain, only to be eventually diagnosed with excruciatingly painful conditions: kidney stones, ovarian cysts, shingles, a torn ACL, a burst appendix, and a woman who had a cracked eye socket.
It even happens when women have heart attacks: Because they were so long believed to be a man’s problem, and because the symptoms often present differently in women, research found that women don’t get proper medical treatment for one (or even diagnosis) in a timely manner unless they actually present symptoms that look like a man’s. It’s called Yentl Syndrome.
The important thing to remember is that pain is subjective. It’s measured clinically by self-reported assessment on a pain scale. Women are said to feel pain more intensely, but that’s also self-reported. What we also know is that some 20 percent of women are said to have extreme period pain, called dysmenorrhea — pain bad enough to interfere with daily life.
What’s also true is that hardcore period sufferers rarely talk about it, or admit that it’s why they are missing work. A 2017 survey found that 42 percent of women say period pain has impacted their ability to do their jobs, while 53 percent said they do have period pain but they can still work just fine. A third of women said they’d missed work due to having bad periods. Just a quarter of them admitted the reason to their supervisor, meaning that in most cases, women are not comfortable speaking to a boss about period pain or stating it as a reason to miss work.
As someone with shitty cramps, this all makes perfect sense. A lifetime of being dismissed or not believed will quickly teach you to suffer in silence. Because women have long been portrayed as weak, irrational and competent, we’re also reluctant to feed the stereotype that periods can render us, in any way, less capable, especially at work (insert joke about a menstruating woman having her finger near the nuclear missile button, then remember the crazy person who does right now is Trump). It’s much more attractive to suck it up in the name of proving we’re equal to men.
But all this is more reason, if you love someone who has a shitty period, to believe your woman when she says her shit is all jacked up. Why does she need to make it up when it’s considered so unattractive in the first place? It’s not like it’s cool to have lethal farts and chin acne, to have your mobility limited by the need to be near a bathroom all day at least a few days a month, to bleed out onto every pair of underwear you own.
It’s not hard: just think of her as a rational person who can self-report her own pain. And then what? Well, you could try to be familiar with how periods work in general. You could figure out what we like to eat during this time (Ethiopian, what up) and order it. Make sure her OTC painkiller of choice is nearby. Avoid obvious jokes that feel straight out of a Cathy comic strip.
And then do whatever it is we ask you to: draw a bath, watch some stupid TV with us, be down with period sex, or just go away. It won’t get rid of our shitty cramps, but it will go along way toward making them more manageable.