I’ll go first.
At 25 years old, I worked as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, a job that entailed a few straightforward tasks: editing chapter drafts, composing jacket copy, reviewing book proposals, setting meetings and managing schedules.
But some days brought with them standout assignments, like for example conducting my boss and his friend’s bookish 12-year-old son around our 21-floor building for the better part of an afternoon. My boss, a grown man perfectly capable of ferrying a child from floor to floor on his own, typically wouldn’t require my assistance for an office tour. On the day in question, however, he had just returned to work from an optometrist appointment when his visitor arrived. Because his eyes were dilated, he required some guidance to move through the itinerary on time, to press the right elevator buttons and hand off the kid to the appropriate adults.
Now, I have an IUD; the copper kind that, at least in my experience, makes periods both heavy and highly erratic. Although the device had been living inside my uterus for two years at this point, menstruation failed to settle into anything like a predictable cycle. Occasionally and without any advance notice at all, I would be hit with a raging blood hurricane.
On the day of the office tour, my hatches were not battened. Not in the slightest. And so, standing in the middle of a group of my professional superiors and one tween, I found myself nodding along to some instructions I’d be expected to follow at a fast-approaching date, ears closed to everything except the voice in my head that said, “That’s definitely blood creeping down your thigh.”
Excusing myself on a premise I’ve since forgotten, I power walked to the nearest bathroom to wrap my underwear in a thick wad of toilet paper, mopped up the overflow (mostly masked by my black pants), and returned to the tour in time to lead it to the next stop. The T.P. dam held just long enough for me to scrounge a tampon. Crisis contained.
Stressful, yes, but not an uncommon experience for most menstruating women in the workplace. All us period-havers harbor stories that range from not-too-terrible to acutely embarrassing, because if it sucks to walk into a job interview or a big meeting with, say, a coffee-stained ensemble, it sucks a whole lot more to walk in wearing a noticeably blood-splotched outfit. (Depending on your line of work, of course.) Most any menstruating person can speak to the particular nuisance that is camouflaging their streaming uterus in a professional setting, though. Uncomfortable, and also exceedingly common.
Take this woman, for example: her male semi-supervisor needled her with questions about the hot water bottle she had pressed to her uterus one day. When she eventually replied that it was “just for the pain relief,” said semi-supervisor reported her to human resources, the director of which later advised her to keep personal details to herself, lest she make her coworkers uncomfortable.
There’s the infamous tale of writer Jazmine Hughes’ first day at the New York Times, whose “red scare” interrupted her benefits meeting and required her to tote wet paper towels around with her for the rest of the day, so she could surreptitiously scrub surfaces she might stain as she sat through meetings. (”Menstrual MacGyver” indeed.)
There’s the XO Jane writer who, in an “It Happened to Me” essay, fondly recalled the time she “stunk up the entire fucking editors’ office” after a “sea of blood” flooded her undercarriage — and workplace — with its noxious stench.
In the spirit of commiseration and normalizing a very average human experience, we’ve gathered the good, the bad and the bloody from readers and colleagues alike. (Interviews have been edited for length and clarity where necessary.)
Sarah, 25, international development professional in the non-profit space
A few months ago, I started thinking about using menstrual cups instead of tampons. I was really drawn to the idea of using a sustainable product that I could use for longer periods of time.
I decided on a cup and was excited for it to arrive. Within a few days, I started menstruating, so the timing was perfect. I practiced in my bathroom and reveled in the easy use of the cup. One day at work, around mid-morning, I realized I had slept with the cup in and needed to empty and re-insert it. I was really nervous to change it at work: we have a small, single bathroom and we’re only five people, so spending too much time in there is obvious. Plus, I wasn’t totally confident I could actually remove and insert the cup.
I shook out my legs, I squatted, tried to relax, moved around, and still couldn’t get the cup out. I started panicking and sweating. Finally, I got the cup out ... and didn’t have a grip on it, so I spilled blood on the floor and on my khaki pants. I then panicked a second time and, instead of focusing on the blood on my clothes, immediately started cleaning up the bathroom in fear of the next person being grossed out. It had already been about 5-7 minutes, so I rinsed the cup and re-inserted it. I took a look at the spot on my pants and couldn’t get it out to my satisfaction — it felt so, so obvious and the water mark wasn’t helping me calm down.
The entire episode took roughly 10-12 minutes. I ran out of the bathroom and made up some excuse about going home — in my head, I’d crafted a narrative about realizing I was going somewhere after work and needed to change. I grabbed my bag, took the bus home (15 minutes), changed my pants (5 minutes) and then took the bus back (20 minutes). I didn’t end up taking lunch and I wondered if anyone would say anything.
I realized much later that it was silly — the water got the blood out and I didn’t need to panic or stress.
Brittany, 26, sales manager in the fuel industry
I had an idiot say that women get 12 weeks of vacation every year, so why would we need to take a day off for menstrual issues. The ignorant fuck was lucky I didn’t dive over my desk and nail him in his mouth.
Sorry for the language, but he said that in front of about 12 colleagues (Brittany is one of two women in her office, for reference) when I was asking to take the remainder of the day off due to “women issues.” All the men laughed.
Hannah, 27, ICU nurse
So I roll into work wearing lavender scrub pants and immediately get my period, leaving a stain on the butt. I stealthily changed into hospital scrubs, thinking it’s early enough in the shift that no one noticed what color pants I was wearing. As soon as I got back to the unit, a coworker demands, “WHY’D YOU CHANGE YOUR PANTS?!”
Maria*, 27, journalist
I used to not have super regular periods. I would obviously have one once a month, but it wasn’t always exactly easy to predict when. So one day, I’m going to work and I’m feeling really shitty, but it doesn’t occur to me that it’s my period because it doesn’t feel like the right kind of shitty. It was super crazy busy at work and I was really distracted, and I got called to go into a meeting — a really important meeting; someone coming in from Jerusalem ... and we’d had it scheduled for like a month.
And as I’m heading into this meeting, I realize, “Oh, shit, I understand what the stomach pain is now.” I say I need to go to the bathroom, and everyone is like, “No, we only have one hour, get in there, whatever it is you can hold it.” I was the only woman in the meeting, so I didn’t want to say, “No, really, I need to go now,” and I thought to myself, “How bad could it be? One hour, I’ll go in an hour.”
My stomach pain gets progressively worse, to the point where I’m clutching my stomach and grimacing. I asked multiple times, I say I want to go to the bathroom, and all the guys in the meeting are like, “C’mon, Maria, what’s up? Do you need a hospital or can you stick it out? We’ve been planning this for forever.”
I start to feel warmth down in my crotch and I think to myself, “Fuck.” I stand up to leave and say that I will be back in five minutes. And literally — they’re all my friends, they’re not trying to be angry with me — they’re like, “Maria, just 20 more minutes.” I looked down as I stood up and realized there is a pool of blood in my chair, I don’t think I’ve ever bled so much in my life. And I thought to myself, “Shit, like it’s literally going to splash. How do I keep this roomful of men from seeing this?”
So I sit back down completely cringing and stewing in my own shit and I finish out the meeting. The minute they say I can go, I stand up, push the chair in as fast as I can, and sprint down the hall. I go to the bathroom, I take off my panties, put them in a plastic bag, clean myself off, and run back to my backpack to put everything away so I can rush home and take care of myself, because my clothes are all soiled. But first I run back to the meeting room to try and clean up the blood before anyone else sees it. There’s the chair, the pool is just as big as I remembered, and I have no idea how everybody missed this. So I clean it up as fast as I can, but the meeting room is entirely made of glass so everyone sees me on the floor on my hands and knees in a minidress.
All the guys on my team when I come out and say I need to go home, they’re just like, “OK, fine then, gosh it’s so hard to sit through a meeting,” and I’m like, “Uh huh, yeah, that’s definitely it,” and I just went home.
Nati, 18, student at the New School in New York City
I worked at a gym earlier this year and before I got on birth control, I had extremely bad cramps. All my coworkers and my boss were boxing trainers — and 25-year-old to 30-year-old men. I had a really bad cramp and a customer yelled at me so I broke down in tears at the front desk. My coworkers made fun of me for a solid month saying that my period was an excuse to be a “pussy” and never took any of it [a period’s potential hormonal impact and its physical pain] seriously.
Emily, 32, nurse
I was having a heavy period and my pad was full but I was teaching and couldn’t get out to change it. I sat on a chair to do a demonstration and realized my butt was wet. I looked down and realized that sitting on my pad had squeezed some blood out, onto my trousers and the chair cover. I don’t think anyone noticed and I did think to myself, “Why should they think badly of me?” But it did make me panic for a moment.
Megan, 39, writer and Mic editor
I was temping at a packaging plant in my hometown, the summer between my frosh/soph year in college (and two of my HS classmates were working there full time). There was maybe one other woman, but not on my shift. When, of course, my period started, and I’m stuck in acid-washed jeans, I go to the bathroom: no machine, not even for pads.
I shove paper towels in my underpants and go back to work. On my clock-out-clock-in lunch break, I run across the street to my old junior high school, and frantically run into all the girls’ rooms, but because it’s a junior high … no machines. One of my old teachers sees me, I explain, she goes into the teacher’s lounge and they’re all out. She gets my old principal, they both break into the nurses office and find one of those inch-thick pads, which I put in. But now, I’m late for work and I go to apologize to my supervisor, who is in the lunch room, and he’s like “explain yourself or we’re docking your pay.”
So I explained to a lunchroom full of men that I had unexpectedly gotten my period, they didn’t have any machines in the ladies room and I’d been running around the junior high to find something more absorbent than paper towels. He blushed. I didn’t get docked.
Many women will have their working lives rudely interrupted by a period, and many women will be made to feel some kind of shame about it. Many women, steeped in decades of period stigma, either skirt the subject at work — resulting in a whole lot of tampons hidden up sleeves and covert maneuvering to hide a blossoming blood spot — or find themselves ridiculed when they don’t. Worse yet, women’s ability to do their jobs will occasionally come into question when coworkers figure out what time of the month it is.
Which is pretty fucked up, considering that, for many women, getting a period is both a biological fact and a sign that their bodies are working the way they should. We shouldn’t have to flap around like headless chickens just to keep people from noticing we’re menstruating, because that knowledge might make certain (often male) coworkers uncomfortable. But if we’ve learned anything from the above tampon tales, men are mostly oblivious.
*Name has been changed at subject’s request.