PERIODS are something of a watershed moment in a girl’s life. Something many look forward to, while others dread. Whatever flavour the anticipation, it’s a definitive moment that marks the end of childhood, at least biologically, in a way that boys will never experience.

Like with many hotly anticipated things, the novelty soon wears off. The reality of bleeding once a month for most (fewer times or more for others) inculcates girls into the world of whispers, stigma and shame about their bodies. Whoever you are, however long you’ve had a period, or however long since, everyone has a negative story linked to that most natural and remarkable of bodily processes. And despite it being the very bedrock of life itself, those stories are invariably painful and stored in perfect clarity.

This week I saw two headlines that hammered home how far we have to go to take the shame out of menstruation. In Arizona, an all-male panel of lawmakers is deciding whether female inmates can have more than 12 pads a month. As anyone who’s had a period will know, that’s a ration that will leave women wearing pads for too long, or running out too quickly. Either way, women’s dignity and health suffer. These women face punishment for bleeding on their uniforms. Punishment that can prevent them from using the prison store to buy more of the pads they need. A frankly absurd state of affairs in 2018.

Closer to home, a Women for Independence poll reports that one in five Scottish women can’t afford basic sanitary items, foregoing them for food and household essentials. Instead, they resort to using rags, old clothes, socks and newspaper to manage their bleeding. Many can’t afford to change their sanitary items often enough, affecting their health: causing thrush, urinary tract infections and risking deadly toxic shock syndrome.

That’s without considering the impact of these measures on well-being and mental health, and how women and girls can be prevented from participating fully in school, work, or education, passing up social events, increasing their sense of isolation and affecting their self-esteem.

This is Dickensian. How can this be the case in a prosperous country? How can women and girls still be losing out to our basic biology? We can put Juno into space to photograph Jupiter – but there are still girls missing out on school because of their periods. Something has gone very wrong here.

So unpleasant is the sight of blood, apparently, that for decades women have been forced to watch women skydiving or floating around in white dresses (as if!) whilst a pad absorbs a beaker of mysterious blue liquid. From this, we’re expected to assess how well it might catch bits of womb lining so that we might go about our, by contrast, very ordinary days without incident. All this squeamishness around menstruation coinciding with the golden age of slasher flicks. Read: blood spurting from a hacked-up body – fine; blood trickling out of a vagina – obscene.

However progressive we like to imagine ourselves, periods are still taboo. They’re still shrouded in myths. The secrecy and stigma around our reproductive systems contribute to the lack of progress we see here. I know there will be plenty reading this who find such frank discussions uncomfortable – but these are conversations we need to have, not just girl to girl, woman to woman, but publicly, without euphemism.

Talking about these news stories with other women was a stark reminder of how difficult periods can be without the added complexities of life. I received hundreds of deeply personal anecdotes that show how often they limit us, controlling what we can do, however privileged we might be in other regards.

I heard about Brazilian inmates using stale bread-crumbs as improvised tampons. I heard from a surgeon who was told by a male she would never make it because she had to leave to change her tampon during an eight-hour procedure. I heard from girls who started before anyone had given them the “talk”, so they thought they were dying. I heard about a girl bleeding through a white gi during her first karate exam. Bleeding on ponies, in pools or through uniforms. Skipping school because of pain or inability to afford pads. Girls being forced to explain they were on their period in front of their classmates. There was a woman reported to HR for “smelling”. Girls pelted with tampons and pads.

A woman told me how as a teen she’d bled into her underwear, hidden it in her room until she could figure out what to do, and was held against the wall by her throat when her dad found them. There were women and girls who bled through clothes, into their shoes, onto shop floors, carpets, bus seats, school seats and boardroom chairs. Trans men whose periods trigger and intensify their gender dysphoria. Stories of bleeding onto someone else’s bed sheets, being rejected by sexual partners, and being so poor you make do with wads of toilet paper. There were Catholic mothers so concerned about virginity they forbade tampons. And this is all without touching on the pain that can be so bad it causes vomiting, migraines and fainting.

When confronted with the reality of menstruation, how it limits even those who have no problems paying for sanitary items, the lengths women go to so they can manage and conceal their periods, it’s baffling to think we’re still so far behind in attitudes and provisions. You can walk into any health clinic or pharmacist and walk away with free condoms. How can it be that half of us go through this, and provisions are considered a luxury rather than basic healthcare?

Thankfully, we have people like Victoria Heaney, who created #FreePeriodScotland after her mother contracted deadly toxic shock syndrome due to using tampons for too long as a skint single parent. She’s working to break down stigma and ensure menstrual justice for everyone. And we have our First Minister, who has promised free sanitary items will be available in all schools by the autumn. This is a vital step in tackling the very real but rarely discussed issue of period poverty. But this needs to extend beyond school.

No-one should have to choose between their dignity and health or paying their bills. No-one should have to feel ashamed about what their bodies do or about not being able to hide it. We’ve a long way to go, but you can help make a difference now. The next time you’re shopping, pop some towels or tampons into the collection box. That packet can mean as much to someone as a much-needed meal.