An Honest TokTok About Periods

Today I finally had a discussion with some girls in my village about periods and puberty. As a feminist and someone who strives to be someone's big sister at some point in my life, I have been wanting to talk about periods for some time now.

But the thing about Peace Corps is you have to await the need. The method here is very much about meeting needs, not making them. Just because the culture is different than the one I'm accustomed to does not mean it needs to be changed. 

After 11 months at site, the opportunity finally struck. The chance was there, the conversation was there, and all I had to do was the crimson wave (I had to make that pun). 

The culture here is quite shy. And what culture wouldn't be, to a complete stranger who is inhabiting their home? People are very welcoming and warm, but they always apologize before asking questions, in fear that it may be too personal, too probing. I have heard apologies preceeding questions about poverty in America and whether or not I've ever had lice, despite people here talking about money quite freely, or openly picking lice out of their children's hair while sitting around with guests in their home. 

The children, for the most part, are especially shy. There's always exceptions, like the fireball toddler VV who dances and sings on command, or 3rd-grade Melanie who immediately shouted "YES!" at my request for anyone to eat the bananas I was giving away. 

After months at site, you begin to crave the relationships that you don't have. We as volunteers hear about the chummy relationships that so-and-so has with her fellow teachers (who drink kava and wine with her) or so-and-so has with the men in his community (who will connect him with the higher ups in the country for future projects). As a woman who is open about her body, I craved an opportunity to get to that level with the teen girls in my school or community. I wanted them to know that they can learn to love themselves, their body, and that no one can lay claim to it but themselves. 

Last week, I was at the headmaster's house. Their house currently is the home of nine people: the headmaster and his wife, and seven children. Three of them (VV included) are their own children, the other four are nieces and nephews. This is not uncommon, especially for our school, which goes up to grade 8 (the only school that goes this high for miles) and it is, in general, just a good school. 

I've gotten to know the kids quite well with my current housing situation, and the kids are quire comfortable around me. We often head to the beach and storian, or visit, until all but the eldest children fall asleep under the stars. Last week, the headmaster and his immediate family left for Vila, leaving the eldest three (two 8th grade boys and one 8th grade girl) and the 4th-grade niece behind until the late evening.

We cooked dinner together, with me beefing up their island cabbage and rice with some lentils and chicken broth and some garlic and onions. Then we sat in their house on the floor and enjoyed our meal over the usual conversation. The 8th grade girl, V, asks me if I have medicine for the bumps on her forehead. She's talking about some acne that's starting to break out. I explain to her that I don't, and I explained that having bad acne can be caused by three things. One, oily skin, so be sure to wash it well with soap and not touch it. Two, it may just be genetics. I, for one, have not had major issues with acne since my parents never really had any. And finally, three, she's a teen girl going through puberty, and is bound to have some hormonal changes. 

All four kids present are listening, no one turning their head, or giggling, or giving any other signal that I should probably change the subject from the uncomfortable toktok about PUBERTY. Our conversation is in Bislama, but I use English words like "puberty" and "acne." I ask if they have heard of the former. The boys nod yes, that last year, the former headmaster (and 7th grade science teacher) touched upon it. V also seems to know what it is, but none of them discuss other details. Since no one is signaling anything showing discomfort, I press on. 

I explain how, in the teen years, every child goes through changes. Something called hormones, the chemicals in your body that make you a boy or a girl, change. You become a man or a woman. Your smell changes. Your voice changes. You grow hair. I look around again, and no discomfort. I want to go on, talk about periods and boobs and hips, but it isn't the right time, as the boys are present. We let the conversation end there, despite me screaming for joy on the inside that I've finally broken a barrier in discussion!

Then, today, V and the fourth grader, L, are at my house. We bake banana bread together and sit outside, enjoying some hot chocolate. I break the quietness of the soft chewing and sips with the question, asked in Bislama, "Remember last week when we talked about puberty? Has anyone ever talked to you about periods?"

Here, if you remember my Bislama vocab post, menstruation is traditionally called sikmun, aka, sick moon. Some teachers have clarified that nowadays, almost everyone knows the word "period" and uses it in their Bislama.  Here, I've heard stories of some girls who don't know what a period is until it happens, and they are basically like, "What the hell is happening to my body?" Here, I've also heard, women can't prepare food while on their period, in fear that they will poison the men they feed (though I have also heard that some mamas use it as a fine excuse for a break from cooking duties for a week). Here, as a PCV experienced first-hand in the northern islands, women sometimes must eat from a special plate painted with a red dot to indicate to everyone that they are on their period. Here, women won't buy pads from the village store when men are behind the counter, and will wait until the shift changes to the female clerk to buy their feminine hygiene products. Those are just some accounts, and they aren't true for all parts of Vanuatu. 

And here was V and L, separated from men/boys, unashamed (or so I hoped) to ask questions. And they did. V asked me if women in the USA couldn't touch food. You know, because it makes the men sick. I tell her no, unable to hold back a small smile. I tell her that what we have going on in our body is in OUR body, and it doesn't affect anyone around us. We can't poison men. She tells me that women aren't allowed to touch food while on their periods. I insist that women cannot make men or anyone, for that matter, sick due to their menstrual cycle. Periods are not something to be feared or ashamed of. I have periods. Our moms have periods. All people with vaginas have periods. It is a part of our body changing, and it is the signal that we have become women (pregnancy is a whole different discussion). 

I tell them how periods happen at different ages, because every body is different. L, you could have yours as early as now, in 4th grade. Or, you could be 19 years old before you get it. Neither is bad or worse (that is something in the culture here, deeming debatable things as "worse" even if it is just different...I've had many neutral discussions with Ni-Vans about my culture that end in them trying to say that their culture is "worse," which it is is just different). I tell them that around the time of puberty, you'll start to grow boobs. "V i gat finis!" L points to V's chest. "YU STAP QUIET," hushes V. 

I tell them that a period is not just blood. It can be cramps or headaches or cravings or mood swings, all of which are completely normal. You may get them all! Or you may be lucky and get none. I tell her I've started using a period tracker app and have learned a lot about my body, and how my period affects my sleep or emotions. V asks how long my period is. I tell her a few days of blood, but cramps can be a few days before or after. She says that she, too, gets cramps. 

People, in general, are more keen to open up if they know that you can be trusted. How can you be trusted? Through shared experience. I have opened up about microaggressions with teens here when I said yes, I too get catcalled in the streets of Chicago, as the girls here do in their village. Now, I tell V about my first period in 7th grade, and how I had this awful, inexplicable stomach pain all day, and then I looked in my underwear and there was blood. I told her I used some wadded up toilet paper and went home and told my mom. 

"What did your mom say?" she inquired. I told her my mom was calm, she hugged me, and told me I was a woman. Nothing overtly cheesy or sentimental happened, but it wasn't cold, either. My mom offered me some pads she had in the house, and told me we could go to the store to get ones that better suited me if these didn't work out. 

V says she already got her first period, this year. "Did anyone talk to you about it?" I ask. She says her uncle, the headmaster, did. I ask what he told her. "He told us that girls with periods still have to come to school, even if they feel unwell." Ah.

Last year when Madame Dorolyn and I went through the supply closet and uncovered a box of tampons donated to the school, she asked what they were. "Tampons" was not, what do they do? She'd never seen them before. I explained you put them in your vagina while you're on your period. She blankly nodded, noted the number of boxes, and moved on to taking inventory of colored pencils. 

V and L and I talk about pads, and I tell them about tampons, and get this, a thing called a MENSTRUAL CUP. I bring them inside my house to where my medical kit is, and explain. I pull out a tampon, in its packaging, and hold it up. "Have you seen this before?" The packaging is floral and colorful, and to someone who has never seen a tampon before, it is probably confusing. Holding it in one hand, I try to set the medical kit on the chair gently, and a condom pops out of the box onto the floor, where the two girls look. "Peace Corps gives us condoms," I tell them with a laugh, and pick it up and put it in the box. Their lack of smirks or discomfort tells me that they may have never heard of the word, let alone what it's used for. 

I unwrap the tampon and show them the plastic applicator and explain how it's used. I wait for a wince or any sort of odd reaction to the idea that you stick this chunk of cotton into your vagina, and...nothing. I am clear in my Bislama, so I am sure it's not lost in translation, but I think the curious confusion has taken over any part of their brains that may register embarrassment. 

I tell them that the string hangs out, and active women prefer these over pads because they can swim with them or run or jump or whatever, and they don't feel a soggy pad under their skirt. "And you just...pull it out?" V asks. Yep! And toss it in the garbage or even right down the toilet. 

Then, I pull out the box of my brand-new, unopened Diva Cup. I have one already, but PC supplies us with one upon swearing-in. I hold it up, and explain that this squishy little cup can be used for years, and you just rinse and use it during your period, and boil it when you're done, before keeping it in the little fabric bag provided until your next period hits. I have already had frank discussions about my Diva Cup with my host mom on Pele, who gathered women around as I boiled it over the fire. I've discussed it with the previous headmaster's wife and another teacher's teen girls. They laugh but are curious. 

I tell V that lots of PCVs like menstrual cups because you don't have to show anyone that you're on your period. You don't have to carry your pads to the trash pile beside the road where all 200 students walk to school. You don't have to leave plastic applicators on the small shelf in the bathroom until you find a chance to sneak them off somewhere. It's no one's business, and no one has to know. 

L sits on the chair and plays with the tampon applicator as V examines the Diva Cup box. After they have properly explored the items, I put everything away. 

As usual, this hangout session includes V breaking a lull in conversation with, "Miss Melissa, tell us a story."  I tell her about when I once got my period in school, and my pad leaked. I was in 8th grade. I got up and saw blood on the chair and panicked. I waited for everyone to leave, and then left, sneaking to my locker and grabbing a sweater to tie around my waist. V asked if I told a friend. I don't remember, but it was possible. I told her that if she needs to tell a friend for help in something like that, she should. V asks, "And then, when you got home, did you bathe?" I laughed and said yes, I definitely took off my khakis and washed them and properly cleaned up. 

"Tell us another story!" V asks, and laughs at my laughter. Okay, I say, and I tell her about the time my blood pressure once dropped really low during my period, when I was in high school, and I had to go to the school nurse who fed me juice and ibuprofen and granola bars while giving me a heating pad as I cringed and groaned in her office. 

"Another story!" I told her of a time in college when that happened again. I was sitting in class and started sweating profusely with awful cramps and black and white spots appeared in my vision. I texted my friend Carolyn, who was in the lecture hall next door, so she could walk me back to the dorms in case I fainted. I didn't, and I was thankful for her help. 

I told her that now I have noticed a trend, that my blood pressure lowers during my period, so I just better prepare. I tell her how I eat salty foods or drink caffeinated drinks, all so I don't get those black and white spots you get just before you faint. I also take medicine for cramps, or hug a hot water bottle. 

V asks another story as L sits on the floor, absentmindedly holding a pot in her hands. I tell them both about the most recent time that I had awful cramps/low blood pressure on a flight to Bucharest and had to endure it in my cramped window seat as I sipped on water and snacked on the plane food. 

They're amused. That's all I wanted, for them to feel comfortable. As I tidy some things in my kitchen, I tell them that they can come to me, any time. If they have questions about their bodies or want to take a tampon or whatever, let me know. I'm here for them. 

Then, 4-year-old VV parades in the kitchen, barefoot and naked with nothing but her underwear and a giant grin spread across her face. She furrows her brow and points to an orange on my shelf. "What's that?" "It's an orange, and yes you can have it," I tell her as she grins again and does a little dance of happiness. V stands up from the chair and says she'll grab a knife. She gently asks if we can put on some music. "Sure!" 

As we each slowly walk towards the grass to keep the mess of the dripping orange slices from getting on the concrete, I watch VV slowly dance to the Alabama Shakes' "Sound and Color." I smile. I am so very happy in this moment. I hope this little drop in the bucket, this small toktok, helps them. I can only hope it does. 

The GAD (Gender and Development) committee here in Vanuatu is organizing the 2018 Kamp GLOW/BILD Training of Trainers, where they will train my fellow volunteers and members of their communities to run youth leadership camps in their villages. These camps will help teens and adolescents in Vanuatu gain self-esteem, develop life and relationship skills, set goals, prepare for puberty, and take ownership of their reproductive health care. Together, they will help empower girls and boys across the 83 islands of Vanuatu! 

In order to make this training a reality, they need your support! To learn more and contribute to this project, check out the project page at


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