By: Christina Lee
We hide the nature of our bodies behind the shadow of euphemisms.
On a muggy August day at my grandmother’s house in Seoul, I remember my mother scolding me for being sluggish that morning. I feared the worst from her, who was more jetlagged than I was, but had still been awake since 6 a.m.
With the ibuprofen that she found for me in the kitchen cabinet, I was cured of my morning period blues. My mother, now aware of the cause of my dreary-eyed exhaustion, did not nag as she would have during any other time of the month. That warmth of understanding, a feeling of dissipating tension between woman and woman had melted any hard feelings that morning, ridding the hour of annoyance or frustration with one another. Instead, my mother asked if I felt well enough to eat breakfast.
My grandmother, who walked in to see my mother returning the bottle of Advil to the cabinet, asked with concern, “What’s wrong?”
I cannot forget the oddity of the words that then came out of my mother’s mouth, the circumlocution of it all, the unexpected vagueness yet telling nature of the carefully chosen words, aimed at her audience of an 80-year-old woman who grew up constructing her own sanitary pads with cloth and tissue, later washing them by hand as to not inconvenience her own parents: “It’s that time when something comes out.”
Throughout middle school, I remember girls would whisper in each other’s ears—eyes darting around to make sure no one was watching—that they had started “cramping,” or more humorously that “Aunt Flo has come to town.” Girls would confide in each other the moment that their cycles seemed irregular or would silently signal to let friends know that “it” had started, asking if there was a spare pad or tampon to use.
But never had I heard it in this way: “something coming out.”
There is a certain peculiarity to that phrase, characterizing menstrual blood as a creature entering the sunlight or as a protruding bump on an arm. While I have heard the women in my life soften the blow—perhaps out of feelings of shame or embarrassment—that the word “menstruation” or “period” carries (if any) with a lighter, more ambiguous term that would obscure its meaning for anyone who doesn’t think regularly about their uterus, I hadn’t heard something so empty yet explanatory. Maybe I was more surprised that my grandmother immediately understood my mother’s phrasing and nodded, carrying on the conversation to ask me if I usually had bad menstrual pains.
I have never heard my mother use any other formal term in Korean for “menstruation” when speaking with my grandmother since then; perhaps that purposeful avoidance of using such terms (saengri or weolkyung) was simply an accommodation to the South Korean culture that my grandmother had experienced growing up—to discuss anything related to the female reproductive system would have been taboo.
Only in the past year has South Korea been tackling issues surrounding menstruation—free menstrual products have been provided by the city of Seoul to address the issue of rising pad prices, and menstrual cups are now allowed to be sold in the country.
Although awareness has been heightening only recently in a country like South Korea, there are lasting, universal parallels between the cultures that I have grown to know, almost like an unspoken code among women who have their periods—how my mother sympathized with my period pains that August morning, how my grandmother immediately nodded, how one look exchanged between my friend and me can represent the stages of our menstrual cycle.
“Something that comes out,” something that happens to the best of us, something that is a natural part of our reproductive system—yet that “something” continues to be masked by carefully chosen words.
Of the memories during my childhood, I vividly remember my panic upon realizing that I had started my period for the first time at school. There was something wholesome in that moment when I told my mother about it at home, and without hesitation, she showed me where to find the menstrual pads, explaining to me the sizes, the procedure, the secrets, the ins-and-outs of being a woman. The openness of that moment. The newfound connection between us. The stories she could finally tell me. Nothing that could be hidden by a euphemism.