Pinki, our young protagonist, invites her friends Jiya and Mira home to her birthday party. Mid-way through lunch, though, one of the girls experiences a strange feeling in her underwear – something that most of us will remember as confusing and alarming the first time we felt it. Understandably, she bursts into tears and demands that she be taken home. That’s when Pinki’s older sister Priya Didi, a doctor, steps in to explain that she is just having her period, then sits down to explain and clarify the concerns the younger girls have with their periods in an honest and informative manner.
Menstrual taboos exist all across the world, and most certainly, across India. Among these taboos seems to be the very fact of menstruation, because a large number of girls encounter their periods for the first time without any warning of their arrival, and a lot of these girls grow into young women who still have little or no understanding of why their periods happen. With this context in mind, books like Menstrupedia’s comic make wonderful inroads in attempting to change this.
The Menstrupedia comic was developed by wife-and-husband partners Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul, former batchmates at the National Institute of Design. 400 school girls received the initial Hindi prototype, which, through the couple’s personal savings and crowd-funded resources, has now been published in English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, and Spanish. Although it says that it aims to be a guide for girls between 9-14, it is arguably an excellent resource for younger girls, boys, and adults. Divided into four distinct sections – ‘Growing Up’, ‘What Are Periods’, ‘When is My Next Period?’, and ‘Taking Care During Periods’, the book attempts to present the scientific explanation for menstruation in a lucid and friendly manner.
The medium of the narrative, the comic book, works wonderfully for the sort of information that is being discussed. In a societal and cultural space where periods are a hush-hush business, the charming and colourful conversations between Pinki, her friends, and Priya Didi, create a safe space for young girls and women to discover their own bodies. These conversations address several doubts that young women – and men – often cannot ask their own family members because of the taboo of speaking about menstruation, or innate shyness. Furthermore, the explanations provided are far removed from the cold and clinical ways in which menstruation is covered in school textbooks. The everyday-ness of the characters is a very important aspect of the book – they are not created to be ‘exemplary’ or ‘extraordinary’ in any way, but rather, would appear to be middle-class urban girls and women who face the same situations that many of us do every day.
The book attempts to look at a holistic understanding of health, highlighting the importance of diet and exercise. It also does a good job of telling girls how and why they should track their periods, as well as explaining to them the hormonal changes that result in pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) and the habits that can help to ease it.
What Doesn’t Work
While it is an otherwise excellent book, there are a few topics that were covered in the book that might have been handled differently.
There are several anecdotes in the book that attempt to deal with the concern of blood stains. For instance, a story is narrated in which the girls go for a picnic, but one of them runs back home because she discovers that she has stained her pants. Similarly, another anecdote explains how one can cover stains by tying a sweater or a jacket around one’s waist. Although Priya Didi does explain that stains are normal, it is used as a teaching moment to explain why it is always important to carry sanitary napkins. This becomes problematic in that it normalises feeling a sense of shame with blood stains. While it is understandable that these can be useful tips to young girls who can be very ashamed of period stains, it is not emphasised enough that the stain should not be a site of shame – what is emphasised instead, is how to avoid putting oneself in that position by covering stains or always being careful enough to carry pads.
Another issue of concern is the fact that the only menstrual product referred to is the sanitary napkin. While it is understandable that the majority of the Indian market uses the sanitary napkin (if it all it has an access to any menstrual product), it would have been worthwhile to mention that there exist other products, such as menstrual cups and tampons. This is particularly useful because it emphasises to young girls that there is absolutely no activity that they cannot participate in because they are on their period, including activities such as swimming. It is also important to mention the tampon in order to destigmatise it as a product that can cause a ‘loss of virginity’ due to the possible rupturing of the hymen, the hymen being absolutely unrelated to one’s sexual status. Many young girls and women – athletes, swimmers, and those with very heavy flows – do use tampons, or are advised to, but refrain from doing so because of these cultural stigmas.
Another possible drawback is that, while the book does refer to fertilisation and pregnancy, it does not explain any aspect of sex. While it is true that it does not attempt to be a comprehensive guide, it falls back on the old explanation of ‘when the egg and the sperm meet.’ Growing up, I never knew how it was that they would meet – and since the young girls and women this book attempts to reach out to are so unaware of information about menstruation, it is unlikely that they will also have well-informed understandings of the type of sexual intercourse involved in reproduction. However, it must also be noted that this book does attempt to reach a large audience, and that it is very possible that if it did go into the details of sex, or male biology, uncomfortable parents/educators would not share it with their children. It is a difficult decision to make, and while it is disappointing, it is also somewhat understandable that the creators of this comic took the route they did.
The book is an excellent resource to what can be a traumatic experience in several young women’s lives. While it is not entirely perfect, it deserves a great amount of credit for what it attempts to do – engage young women in conversations that their families are avoiding, explain their bodies to them, and to reassure them that what they are going through is not shameful.
What is particularly useful about the book is that it is in an easily translatable form, with simple language and ideas. While slightly prohibitively priced for a larger audience, there are discounts if one orders them in bulk for a school library or an NGO. After purchasing the book for a young person, it would be excellent if the young person could come back to you after reading the book to clarify concerns and have conversation about the issues explained in the comic. If, for whatever reason, you are uncomfortable with these conversations, rather than asking why, I recommend a short-term fix of accessing Menstrupedia’s website, which is a treasure trove of information about the reproductive and sexual body, rooted in the Indian context.
The Menstrupedia comic breaks a lot of normative understandings in the Indian framework – the idea of periods as taboo, as being too complicated to explain, and the idea of the comic book as mindless entertainment. I strongly recommend the book to anyone who has children, knows children, works with children, is a woman, is a man, is a comic book enthusiast, who loves their body, who wants to learn their body, or who just wants to see a wonderful coming together of feminism, education, and art.
Note: It must be noted that it is not only women who menstruate: there are transmen whose bodies undergo the process of menstruation, and who do not feel as though the act of menstruation makes them inherently women. While the Menstrupedia comic does not make note of this, I do not count this as a significant drawback because I understand that it attempts to present its information as simply as possible. However, for the readers of this review, or any adult who can engage in conversation with children about menstruation, it is a necessary fact to know and an important conversation to have.
Disclaimer: The author of this review has no connection with Menstrupedia.
All images courtesy Menstrupedia