Speaking out about periods

Actor Tisca Chopra’s book What’s Up With Me? is a conversation starter between parents and tweens on puberty and periods

“Why should periods be gross to talk about?” asks Tisca Chopra, mom to eight-year-old Tara. Her parents, says Tisca, never volunteered information and she picked up different versions of pubertal truths from cousins and friends. But with Tara,Tisca has chosen to be open because she realises growing up is a rollercoaster ride. “My husband and I do not hesitate to call the body parts by their biological names during conversations at home,” she says. “A breast is breast and a vagina is a vagina, why should basic physiology and biology be such a taboo to discuss?”

It was the actor-film director-author’s childhood friend Vidhi Bhargava who planted the seed in her to write on body changes so that young girls know what’s coming their way. The lockdown gave Tisca time to research and pen a guide that gives practical suggestions to cope with physical and emotional upheavals during hormonal changes at puberty. “It is also about inclusivity,” she says. “Boys and girls should be scientifically taught to understand their bodies and also each other’s,” she says, taking time off for the interview while on a shoot in Jaipur for a web series.

Tisca began writing a letter to her daughter about the biological events she would inevitably face, but the more she spoke with Tara and her friends, she felt the need to address several basic questions in detail in a language easy to comprehend.

FromTaare Zameen Par’s onscreen sensitive and silent mother, Tisca emerges as the bold and understanding mother offscreen who wishes to empower every girl with knowledge and the guts to laugh off anybody who hushes up discussions around body parts or menstruation. From hair growth over the body, to pimples and acne, pads and hygiene, emotions and self-worth, Tisca talks straight about them all, while drawing lessons from her personal experiences.

“Every girl should feel how amazing she is because the onset of period prepares her to procreate life. There is nothing dirty or shameful about it; we only need to do away with the age old programming of our minds and irrelevant superstitions,” she says.

Excerpts from the interview:

Has your daughter Tara read the book?

Yes she has, and her response is most memorable. She was my inspiration for writing this book. Her reactions to certain conversations, her thoughts and ideas shaped my approach to choosing various topics.

How did she react to the book considering it is her generation the book is aimed at?

Tara took an hour of intent reading to finish the book, cover to cover, absorbing every word, I guess. I was surprised because suddenly I didn’t hear a peep from her, which is unusual for my active, chatty girl. Once done she said to me – “Mumma, you know we talk about boys!” That was enough for me to know that I have hit the right note. Frank discussions are at the core of understanding normal biological process.

Howchallenging was it to demystify the bodily changes and the angst they bring onina growing girl?

Initially I wondered how much detail to go into, but then I decided to stay true. In our home we have honest conversations on every taboo topic. As the narrative took shape, I found myself talking about self-worth and building confidence in the young girls. Menstruation and puberty are natural progression into adulthood. It confounds me that this phase is so shrouded in mystery, and is such a tumultuous time. I want to tell them that they can do anything they want, and they are incredible. Having periods is in no way bad, rather not getting them is worrisome.

What was your approach to the stigma of period shaming?

When I looked back at my childhood, it struck me that my own learning and discovery of puberty, and the concepts and changes associated with it were fragmented, confusing and ambiguous. So I decided to put basic scientific facts in a fun, candid and empathetic manner for a complete rethink on traditional concepts of sexuality. By talking about sexual preferences, crushes, emotions that peak during puberty, I have tried to let go of the nudge-nudge wink-wink approach. I have simplified situations and feel the illustrations will appeal to young girls as much as my personal anecdotes.

Changing a hardened mindset is the biggest challenge…

Yes, my biggest hope is the book will bring about a mindset shift. A girl should be able to ask her father to buy her sanitary napkins and the chemist should stop wrapping them in newspapers. A girl should not feel embarrassed on her first bra-shopping [outing]. We should not use terms like “mahamari” and ostracize or demonize menstruation. Schools need to relook at how sex education is imparted – boys should know girls, and vice versa. A collective shift in thinking and a breaking down of societal pressures and narratives is still a way off. But technology and multiple organisations and movements are taking information on menstrual hygiene across the country and eventually we will stop period shaming.

Value addition

Tisca has made the book relatable and fun by simplifying situations with illustrations and peppered the pages with quotes of celebrities Gen Z adores. With her own text in first person, she has blended facts and information from two doctors as well.

DrMala Arora, Gynaecologist, Delhi

On collaborating: I was always keen on getting such a book published. When Tisca approached me for my medical inputs in the book, I knew her skills as a writer would help to simplify and explain the topic of period properly. She is passionate about collective social responsibilities and issues.

Impacting young readers: It is essential to impart education to our young girls about their bodies at puberty in the right manner. The book will go a long way in improving menstrual hygiene, preventing reproductive tract infections (RTI) and sexually transmitted infections (STI) and reducing teenage pregnancies.

Malvika Varma, Psychologist, Canada

On collaborating: I have known Tisca for many years and so when she wanted me to contribute , I excitedly took it up knowing how professional she is.

Impacting young readers: Young girls will find comfort in reading it because Tisca exudes confidence and reassures them to feel super good about themselves.

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