A girl’s monthly visit from Mother Nature is no longer the massively taboo subject it once was, but it’s fair to say that some of us are still pretty uncomfortable acknowledging it. If they’re being honest, most guys don’t completely know what goes down during that special time in a girl’s calendar (and frankly, they wouldn’t want to!). All they know is that their GF or sister is acting super moody and wants to spend all day curled up with chocolate and chick flicks.
But despite the air of mystery that still surrounds menstruation, we’ve at least evolved not to treat it as some unspeakable evil that must be censored at all costs, at least, most of us have. (To this day, some Native people believe that menstruating women make cows infertile!). Frighteningly, history has had some pretty extreme views about a woman’s natural cycle and it’s forced some ladies to deal with their "monthly shame" in very bizarre ways indeed.
Throughout history, women on their period had to pretty much pretend it wasn’t happening – some while being made to wear things that resembled a kind of medieval torture device! On top of the monthly bloating, nausea, and severe cramping, women also had to contend with the judgement that they were somehow responsible for ruining food, destroying crops, and changing the weather. Periods may still be an irritating and painful time, but spare a thought for the ladies of history. Here are 15 unbelievably gross and unthinkable ways women used to deal with their visit from Aunt Flow.
15 Some Ancient Egyptians Cast Spells With Menstrual Blood (And Drank It)
Say what you want about the people of Ancient Egypt, but they were mighty resourceful. They didn’t even like to see menstrual blood go to waste. Instead, many people kept some of the stuff aside to use for the purposes of sorcery and medical treatments. Far from being viewed as mere bodily waste that must be disposed of, menstrual blood was believed to carry a kind of magic and spiritual significance – the Ancient Egyptians used it to cast spells and even drank the stuff (yep, drank it) as they believed it had medicinal properties.
You’d think that drinking the dead lining of a woman’s uterus is as weird as it gets with the Ancient Egyptians, but brace yourself. Egyptian society believed strongly in the idea that period blood had reviving powers. Since it came from the womb – the place where new life is formed – they held the belief that anything the blood touched could bring new life to it too. Aging women would smear their thighs and sagging breasts in the stuff in the hopes of recapturing their youth. I think I’ve just recaptured my breakfast...
14 Menstrual Cramps Were Treated With Psychiatric Evaluation
As a female of the species, I can confirm that really bad cramps on your period can (briefly) make you feel like you wanna die. It’s a tangible, physical pain that involves parts of our insides tearing away, so the fact that historical physicians thought this was a sign that women needed psychiatric help is both hilarious and scary. According to feminist historians, women who complained of menstrual pain were at one time immediately sent to a psychiatrist on the grounds that their cramps were proof of a “rejection of femininity.”
If there’s any proof that women are feminine, menstruation is a pretty solid indication. The idea that some historical doctors actually believed the opposite was true is beyond bizarre. Menstruation is a natural biological cycle that has been present in women since the dawn of time. Oh, and cramps are a natural symptom of that cycle. History had no time for painkillers it seems. Or compassion from your doctor. Poor ladies.
13 Cure For Cramps? Removing The Ovaries Altogether
Okay, we hate having our time of the month, but we don’t hate it that much. Throughout the Victorian era, some doctors appeared to take the view that it would be better for a woman’s well-being if they didn’t have their ovaries at all! Luckily, this morbid answer to menstrual cramps wasn’t exactly common practice in surgeries of the past but the idea that this is where doctors went straight away is more than a little disturbing.
This supposed "miracle cure" for treating menstrual cramps is the equivalent of curing a few bad headaches with brain surgery. (And we wouldn’t put it past 19th-century doctors to try that either!). When cramps are bad during a woman’s time of the month, they can be debilitating – fainting, vomiting and severe abdominal pain. It’s no walk in the park and painkillers often have little or no effect in the most severe cases. But losing our reproductive organs? We’re good thanks.
12 The 19th Century Menstruation Belt
Yes, this is every bit as uncomfortable and barbaric as it sounds. Any kind of belt that needs to be worn with your private parts for long stretches of time is never gonna be a good thing, and this horrific contraption is no exception. Long before we arrived at the "luxury" of removable pads and sanitary towels, the Victorians thought it would be a good idea to have women wear a restrictive "cup" that women stuffed cloth or linen in the groove of the belt and strapped themselves in. Eww.
A version of the sanitary belt was still being used by some American and European women as recently as the 1970s! As such, it’s given some people an insight into what it was really like to wear them. Some women who were teens in the 1960s have described the belt as “a form of torture” and that going about their day with one felt like they had a “giant wedgie.” And this was an update of the original 19th-century invention. Yikes!
11 Keep The Ashes Of A Toad Near Your...Lower Regions
If leeches were good enough for pretty much every medical complaint back in the day, then toads seem like a reasonable form of treatment for menstrual discomfort, right? At least, this is what some believed in early European society. Women suffering from cramps and other painful period symptoms were instructed to find a toad, boil it down (as you would), and keep its ashes in a pouch next to your lady parts.
Why? Because medieval Europeans were somehow convinced that deceased toad powers could ease menstrual discomfort and even lighten a heavy flow. They believed that the mere presence of a toad would help to cleanse your body of impurities. We’re not too sure why a slimy gross toad was considered the best choice to wash away so-called "impurities" in the body, but there you have it. Another concern for ladies during the time of the month is staying odour-free, so the smell of dead toad powder probably helped to mask that.
10 Indian Women Used To Wear Bloodied Handkerchiefs Around Their Neck
Just in case women didn’t feel self-conscious enough during their monthly misery, old traditions liked to make it very obvious to others that they were menstruating – and when we say obvious we mean grotesquely clear for all to see. In some parts of India, women were made to "announce" their menstruation was underway by wearing a handkerchief stained in their own menstrual blood around their necks. No, seriously.
This gross and disturbing fact was highlighted by feminist author Judy Grahn in her 1993 book Blood, Bread And Roses: How Menstruation Created The World. It’s not known how far back in Indian history that this tradition goes, but it’s likely that there could be a similar culture of shame surrounding menstruation today. The subject of a woman’s period in modern day India is still a fairly taboo one after all, but whether a ritual as unhygienic and medieval as this is still around, we seriously hope not.
9 Ancient Egyptians Made Tampons From Papyrus
Turns out that the scrolls of parchment that we associate with intricate hieroglyphs and illustrations were also the material of choice for menstrual products during Ancient Egypt. When the Egyptian people weren’t storing up menstrual blood for the purposes of sorcery and other bizarre rituals, they occasionally let women experience their flow as nature intended by making tampons from papyrus and other materials they had laying around.
Papyrus is quite a tough material, so they, of course, didn’t just insert scrolls of the stuff in its original form ('cause that would be crazy). The tampon pioneers of the ancient world first softened the papyrus in water and wrapped it in lint before offering it up to women during their time of the month. A papyrus tampon may not be the most advanced product on this list, but it’s certainly not the worst. The Ancient Greeks weren’t much more advanced – using pieces of splintered wood instead. Ouch.
8 When "On The Rag" Literally Meant On The Rag
If you’ve ever heard the crass term “On the rag” as a slang term for being on one’s period, it refers to the fact that pre-20th-century women actually did have to use a rag or piece of cloth to sort out their monthly flow. Before the invention of self-adhesive pads and tampons in the early 1920s as we now know them, women had to be creative when it came to finding something absorbent enough to take care of things, so they’d use what was available – an old bit of rag.
Using an old bit of cloth – whether it had been washed or not – may sound almost medieval by our modern standards, but the gross and unsanitary nature of this method may not have phased women too much back then. For one thing, poorer living conditions and a lower life expectancy meant that women didn’t have to contend with periods for as long as today. Also, women tended to be pregnant more often and ate considerably less so their flow was either on the lighter side or barely existent.
7 Egyptians (And Queen Victoria) Used Weed To Relieve Cramps
You’ll probably be aware that weed is used by some people to treat different forms of pain, but did you know that women of the past liked to get high to banish their period blues? The use of marijuana to ease the pain and discomfort of periods began as far back as Ancient Egypt. A record of ancient medicine in early Egypt (Ebers Papyrus) was translated and revealed special instructions as to how weed may have helped women. Cannabis was apparently “ground into honey” and this mix was “introduced” into the vagina.
While it doesn’t sound like the most relaxing way to enjoy pot, it was thought to have the quick effect of cooling the uterus and eliminate some of the heat in order to relieve menstrual cramps. While we can’t ever know how effective this ancient treatment was, it can’t have been all that bad, because there are some vaginal products to this day containing cannabis oil for cramp relief. Her Majesty Queen Victoria also dabbled in weed to treat her monthly discomfort (though she was presumably using it in the traditional sense).
6 Menstruating Hindu Women Were "Sent To Huts" In Isolation
It’s well known that us gals like to have our alone time during our time of the month – curl up in a ball, watch a film and just shut out the outside world. But having this alone time is usually a voluntary decision. For many Indian women, getting their monthly cycle meant days of forced isolation in a small mud hut. This was part of a Hindu tradition known as Chaupadi and it involved banishing women and girls to huts during their menstruation because they were viewed as "unclean."
Spending days in a mud hut doesn’t exactly sound hygienic either, especially in that condition. Disturbingly, this barbaric tradition is still used by the Dogon tribe in Mali and in some parts of Nepal. People in Nepal have kept this superstitious ritual alive today, even though the practice was officially banned back in 2005. To this day, many women of the Hindu faith are banned from attending family events while on their period and are forbidden from sharing their partner’s bed until they can be declared "clean" again.
5 Prairie Girls Just Let It Flow
Farm women on the prairie believed it was better and simpler to deal with their time of the month if they just #Let it flow, let it flow#. Yep, you read right. According to research, pioneering women and young girls simply let nature take its course and bleed through their clothes – without wearing any underwear to stop the flow. The more self-conscious ladies at this time reportedly wore black undergarments, but this would hardly have been enough to disguise what was going on.
According to the diary entries of 17 young pioneer women - and the letters from experienced women advising what girls needed to pack on their travels - there was apparently no mention of any kind of menstrual equipment, which has led to the assumption that farm women and girls just free-bled when their time arrived. As liberating as it sounds, medical opinions at the time advised against it, warning it could risk infection to “bleed through the same chemise for four to eight days.” Nasty.
4 Homemade "Reusable" Diapers Were Used In The Early Twentieth Century
One of the best advances in menstruation product technology – if not the best advance – is the fact that you are able to dispose of your tampon or pad when you’re done. Real talk: a girl’s time of the month can get gross and messy and the freedom to change every few hours and be hygienic about the whole thing is one of the few liberties we get during this stupid week of woe. It makes us feel in control and fresh. So imagine wearing a menstruation diaper...that you have to reuse!
This was the grim reality for American and British women throughout the early 20th century who were made to do just that – use a homemade "diaper" pad that was to be washed and reused for the duration of their period. Gruesome. Babies don’t even hold on to the same diaper for one day, let alone almost a week! Yack.
3 Early Tampons Were Silk Bags Filled With Herbs
The image of silk bags filled with fragrant herbs might make you think of the delicate and dainty little bags that old ladies put in drawers to make them smell nice. Turns out, this was the kind of thing that passed for a tampon in 17th century Tudor England. Women would fill small linen or silk bags with herbs and tie them with string before inserting them...up there. The string was there for easy removal afterwards. Genius.
Although the pretty fragrance of the herbs sounds fairly effective for masking odours, we’re not so convinced that a silk bag would be absorbent enough. Depending on how heavy a woman’s flow was back in the 17th century, they would have needed to prepare about 10 bags of the stuff just to get through the day. Also, we’re guessing silk bags aren’t something every woman could come by back then so if this ever caught on, some poorer ladies were probably forced to use paper bags. Nice.
2 Medieval Nun’s May Have Fasted To Suppress Their Menstrual Cycle
If you thought it was hard to be an average female citizen dealing with menstruation throughout the ages, spare a thought for the menstruating nuns throughout history. The monthly, natural act of bleeding was already viewed as some sort of despicable sin in normal women of centuries past, so the level of sinfulness in a nun having hers was double. Painkillers were not permitted by the Church. On top of this, nuns were told that their cramps were a “reminder from God of Eve’s original sin.” Splendid.
In an eagerness to become less "sinful" in the eyes of God, this led some nuns to drastically alter their diet in a bid to become so malnourished as to prevent their menstrual cycle altogether. Many others fasted from food, causing them to suffer from severe iron deficiency. On the plus side, their supposed sins could be kept at bay and their sacrifice helped to “reverse” Eve’s original error. Ludicrous.
1 The Steam Clean Approach To Period Pain
In the same way that a hot bath or a trip to the sauna can relieve aches and muscle tension, the Aztecs and Mayans of South America believed that the same treatment could also apply to period pain. Women who suffered from severe menstrual cramps centuries ago were offered the chance to “steam” their lady parts in the hopes this would relieve some of the pain and bloating sensations associated with cramping. For real?
Apparently so. Women were told to hover over bowls filled with hot water and various fragrant herbs like oregano and basil (sounds more like a recipe for stuffing than a pain-relieving treatment). By sitting over these bowls of steam, it’s thought that the heat – combined with the essential oils from the herbs – would help to “dislodge menstrual fluid” from the uterus and open up the cervix, therefore alleviating period pain. Gross. We’ll stick with painkillers and chocolate if it’s all the same, thanks.
Sources: broadly.vice.com, littlethings.com, huffingtonpost.co.uk, bustle.com