I wish I’d had this illustrated guide to periods as a teenager

My first period showed up out of the blue like an unwelcome guest that I was highly unprepared for. I didn’t know what I was looking at, what was normal, what was safe to do, or who to talk to. 

Most of all, though, I was mortified by the very idea of having blood coming out of my private parts. Could people tell? What if I bled onto my clothes? This embarrassment prevented me from telling literally anyone — even my own mother — for the first few years of my menstruating life. This meant that I didn’t have proper access to period products and had to make do with pads that I pilfered from my mum’s bathroom in the hope she wouldn’t notice. My teenage years were full of makeshift, creative ways of trying (and often failing) to stem the flow of menstrual blood that I was woefully ill-equipped to manage. 

Looking back, the information available to me was limited. We had one lesson in school about periods, and one book in the school library that was deeply unhelpful. I had one book about puberty in general, which told me diddly squat about what the hell I was supposed to do with this unbidden guest that popped round each month. Over time, my relationship with my period evolved, I learned through trial and error what to do and how to take care of myself. When I finally told my mum I’d started my period (three years after the fact), she talked to me and I worked hard to push away the crippling embarrassment I felt each time she mentioned what I regarded at the time as an enormous biological inconvenience. 

I would have given my eye teeth at the time for a way to learn about the changes my body was going through in a way that didn’t require me to have a conversation with another human being. What I needed was a book that was reliable, informative, and accessible. That book has finally arrived like the most welcome of guests — its name is quite simply Period

Natalie Byrne is the brilliant human behind this much-needed book. She describes Period as an “illustrated and handwritten book about periods,” containing “everything you need to know about periods.” 

Things like: what a period is, how to use a tampon, how to deal with PMS, and how to track your cycle. But the book also delves into other things that come hand in hand with menstruating — like bloating, cramps, sore breasts, and foods to avoid.

Natalie Byrne, author of Period.

Natalie Byrne, author of Period.

There are illustrated guides for using menstrual cups, tampons, period pants, and different types of pads. There are also illustrations depicting the four phases of our menstrual cycles as well as anatomical drawings of “what you can’t see.” 

One thing that this book does — that so many others do not — is use trans and non-binary-inclusive language throughout. “Anyone born with female private parts has a menstrual period. Having a period or not doesn’t determine whether you’re a boy or girl, man or woman,” writes Byrne in the book. 

“I wrote this book for my 11 year old self who had no idea what was going on with her body.”

Growing up, Byrne’s experience of learning about periods was similar to my own — and countless others, I’m sure. “My mum has this science body book, I still remember the illustrations today,” Byrne tells me. “There was a little bit on periods in the section about reproduction, but I didn’t get it. I have dyslexia and I just really hated books because I couldn’t understand them.” 

Byrne’s mum would bring out the book and try to explain about periods, but she didn’t understand. “I smiled and nodded like I always did when books came out, and said I understood, when I didn’t at all,” she says. 

“The school had a periods assembly for the girls only when I was 15. And I started at 11, soooo I’m sad to say I didn’t really know much about periods. My mum was great with telling me everything she knew, but she grew up in Chile so there was some cultural issues,” says Byrne. “She wouldn’t let me use tampons because she was told ‘virgins can’t use them’. Well, sorry mum but that was very incorrect.”

Like many of us who recall those early years of getting to grips with having periods, Byrne has been reflecting on her younger self while writing the book. “I wrote this book for my 11 year old self who had no idea what was going on with her body,” says Byrne. “She was scared, confused and traumatised. I know this book would have completely changed the way I look at my body, treat myself and frankly it would have changed my life. I know it would have.”

Byrne says she struggled with disordered eating, self harm, and depression for most of her teenage years, so she’s aimed to make her book mindful of some of the other issues that menstruating teens might be facing. “In the book there is a lot of information about mental health and body positivity,” she says. 

The idea for the book came when Byrne became part of a group of creatives called ‘Bloody Good Period’ and attended the #FreePeriods protest in November 2017, where activists united to protest period poverty. “One of the speakers on stage said ‘there isn’t even that much information about periods’ and I thought, there must be, it’s 2017!”

Byrne went along to her local library and found nothing — except for a few books about “growing up.” “I found growing up books that just mentioned slightly that a period is a thing,” she says. “One book in particular book had a quarter page for periods and the next page was a double page spread on wet dreams.” She went to a bigger library and found nothing there. 

For a few weeks, Byrne says she “went around complaining” that there really needs to be a book for children about periods. “It took me a couple of days to realise, hey, am I going to just sit around and wait for someone else to make this thing I wish I had?”

“I guess I could give it my best shot, even if I just made a zine that I’d DIY print at home and sell it on Etsy. If it helps just one person, I knew it would be so worth it,” she adds. Byrne began waking up at 5 a.m. and researching and writing it before her work day. 

While it’s clear that periods are being talked about more, there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to shattering the persistent stigma that’s still having an impact on young people who menstruate. 

Research by Plan UK found that 26 percent of girls didn’t know what to do when they got their period for the first time. And, one in seven girls didn’t know what was happening when they had their first period.

Byrne’s next goal is to get the book into schools and libraries and to ensure people from low income backgrounds get access to it. “We have just announced a pay it forward scheme, as we got so many lovely messages from people who wanted to buy a book for someone who can’t afford it,” says Byrne. “I have had some interest already from schools, one school from my hometown is currently waiting to get it okayed by the PTA and they want to implement it in the school which is fantastic.” She also wants to make sure the book gets into the right hands. “I want to see it in the hands of people who need it the most — schools and libraries with less resources,” she says. 

“What I kept saying to myself when I was waking up at 5 a.m. last year was if it helps one person then it will all be worth it,” says Byrne. 

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