Why are we still so afraid to talk to our daughters about periods?

As new Disney movie Turning Red sparks social media uproar… Why are we still so afraid to talk to our daughters about periods?

  • Turning Red’s focus on periods has had parents literally turning red in anger 
  • Disney Pixar film focuses on Mei, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl
  • She is grappling with an ancient curse that transforms her into a giant red panda
  • The ‘red panda’, which only affects the females in Mei’s family, is a thinly disguised metaphor for puberty and the overwhelming changes this brings
  • Are we really still teaching girls to be ashamed of their period? Well, yes, if the widespread reaction to the new Disney Pixar movie Turning Red is anything to go by.

    The latest animation from the studio that brought us classics such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo tells the story of Mei, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl grappling with an ancient curse that transforms her into a giant red panda whenever she feels strong emotions.

    The ‘red panda’, which only affects the females in Mei’s family, is a thinly disguised metaphor for puberty, the start of periods, and the overwhelming changes this brings.

    Despite the fact that children’s animated movies often contain challenging themes — the death of a parent (The Lion King), miscarriage and bereavement (Up), and abusive adults (Tangled and Cinderella) – Turning Red’s focus on periods has had parents literally turning red in anger and embarrassment.

    Although the film is rated PG, many took to social media to complain that the subject matter was ‘completely inappropriate’ for young children, with one parent posting on Twitter: ‘Why are we writing a movie around women’s menstrual cycles and advertising it as a panda movie?’

    It’s amazing that in these allegedly progressive times, menstruation still causes such a stir. Sadly, this reaction only serves to teach our children, as we ourselves were taught, that periods are dirty, shameful and should be kept hidden.

    Turning Red¿s (pictured) focus on periods has had parents literally turning red in anger and embarrassment

    Turning Red’s (pictured) focus on periods has had parents literally turning red in anger and embarrassment

    In fact, I don’t think Disney’s film goes nearly far enough. Since I wrote my book on periods for pre-teen girls, My Period, I’ve spoken to many mothers who admit to hiding pads and tampons away. And they certainly wouldn’t dream of letting their kids catch even a glimpse of their menstrual blood.

    Of course, it was even worse for our mothers and grandmothers — many of whom were given no information about periods before they started, which often made the experience very frightening as they didn’t understand why they were suddenly bleeding.

    These attitudes have been ingrained over centuries. Two thousand years ago, Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that contact with period blood turns wine sour, causes hives of bees to die, and that a dog who tastes it will be driven mad.

    This might sound extreme, but as recently as 100 years ago, some people believed that periods contained something called ‘menotoxin’ which could stop bread from rising or milk from turning to butter.

    Although these myths largely died out, period products were banned from our TV screens until 1972, and nobody even said the word ‘period’ on TV until 1985. Social media posts showing period blood have been censored, and who could forget the TV adverts with blue liquid protecting us from the sight of anything red, which ran until 2017.

    All of this helps to enforce the belief that periods are something to hide. Even today, leading brand Tampax tells us its wrappers ‘open silently for full discretion’ — in other words, you can keep the fact you’re on your period a secret.

    But why should we keep it a secret? And why should we teach our daughters to do so, too? Periods happen to half the population and they’re also a really positive sign that a woman’s body is in the peak of its health and fertility.

    And then there are the persistent euphemisms for parts of the female body. In Turning Red, Mei’s mum talks about the ‘red peony’, and tells her daughter she is a ‘beautiful strong flower’ who must ‘protect her petals’.

    So many of us grew up with these replacement words. Words that cannot be uttered are a sure sign of shame and taboo.

    I have two daughters, aged 14 and 11, and an eight-year-old son. I’m open about my period. To begin with, saying ‘vulva’ in front of them felt odd, but I realised that this was my problem to overcome — and if I didn’t, I’d just be passing this burden on to them.

    I do feel it’s had a positive effect as all three of them talk openly without embarrassment. One of my greatest hopes for my children is that they’ll grow up happy and confident in their bodies.

    Problems or irregularities with a woman’s period can be a sign of serious health problems. Being too embarrassed to talk about it could prevent her getting proper medical help — or even realising there’s something wrong.

    Ironically, just as we — as a society — were beginning to make headway in smashing the taboo, women and girls are being erased from the language by companies hoping to appease trans activists.

    Recently the period care company Yoppie received more than 2,000 complaints on an Instagram post that aimed to promote better awareness of the full hormonal cycle — something to be applauded. And yet, without a shred of irony, it did so while referring to women as ‘bleeders’.

    The latest animation from the studio that brought us classics such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo tells the story of Mei (pictured), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl grappling with an ancient curse that transforms her into a giant red panda whenever she feels strong emotions

    The latest animation from the studio that brought us classics such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo tells the story of Mei (pictured), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian schoolgirl grappling with an ancient curse that transforms her into a giant red panda whenever she feels strong emotions

    Pad company Always recently told us that ‘61 per cent of young people have felt ashamed for having a period’, leaving readers wondering if they really meant that boys were feeling ashamed for having periods, too.

    But mothers can and must break this cycle. If we feel embarrassed about periods, we need to explore where those feelings originated.

    Chances are, just like Mei’s red panda, these anxieties were passed down to us by our own mothers, who got it from our grandmothers, and back through the generations.

    In Turning Red, each woman in Mei’s maternal line has had to go through an elaborate ritual to lock up the red panda and hide it away. But Mei chooses not to undergo the ritual and keeps her ‘panda’.

    Part of female shame is believing that women and girls should not be too ‘real’. Meanwhile men get to spend their lives largely free of such hang-ups.

    Refusing to hide certain aspects of womanhood is a step towards changing this.

    As Mei says at the end of the film, ‘We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away, and a lot of us never let it out.’ Maybe it’s about bloody time we did.