I had the pleasure of interviewing Ateh Jewel for the first episode of the Period Story podcast. We talked about Ateh’s very dramatic first periods, how she developed a healthy attitude towards menstruation and why she thinks women are superheroes.
Ateh is a multi award winning beauty journalist, blogger, director and producer has been in the industry for 18 years writing and styling for titles such as Vogue, Tatler, Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Allure, Guardian Weekend Magazine, Glamour, Grazia, Red Magazine, Stylist and Get The Gloss. She was also a Marie Claire UK columnist for 2 years with her column Colour Counter, celebrating beauty for all skin tones and a columnist for darker skin tones on Feel Unique.
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Le’Nise: On today’s episode, we have Ateh Jewel, the multi award winning beauty journalist, blogger, director and producer. She’s been in the industry for 18 years writing for titles such as Vogue, Tatler, Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Allure, Guardian Weekend Magazine, Glamour, Grazia, Red Magazine Stylist and Get The Gloss. She was also a Marie Clare UK columnist for 2 years with a column, Colour Counter, celebrating beauty for all skin tones. Welcome to the show.
Ateh: Thank you so much for having me, it’s great to be here!
Le’Nise: So let’s start off by getting into the story of your first period, can you share with us what happened?
Ateh: Well it was quite dramatic, I’m not going lie. So I was about 13 or 14, I remember being one of the last people in my class to get my period. I went to an all-girls school so everyone was like all up in everyone’s business and I was one of the last. I was like Oh God when is it going to happen for me! I remember one of my friends started at 9 in primary school, so by 14 it felt like a long time and it was in the middle of the night, I woke up with stabbing pains and I thought I was going to die, I thought I had appendicitis and I remember screaming.
It was a screaming hysterical pain and my mum was so concerned, she rushed me to the emergency room and I was in there moaning with like a dull ache and remember my mum saying scream louder, come on, it’s the middle night come on be more dramatic you’ll get seen and I was like AHHH so it was a lot of drama and the doctors were like oh have you started your period and I said no and they quickly worked out it was probably the beginning.
The only way I can describe it was like a gas station coming on and all the machinery powering up and the imagery I had in my head was the machinery is turning on and it is not pleasant or comfortable. And it was literally like the cranking of gears which manifested in a stabbing, aching pain and I thought oh if I’ve got 40 or 30 more years of this, this is not going to be cute. It was a painful experience but at the same time, you know, I did feel a huge amount of responsibility, like oh my God, now you’re a woman and it’s a girl to woman moment so a lot of confusing, conflicting, interesting feelings going on but from me my first feeling was pain, a lot of pain.
Le’Nise: So you said you felt a great responsibility as you kind of transitioned from girl to woman, it’s really interesting that you use the word responsibility.
Ateh: Yes, I mean, I had a very chaotic childhood, very dysfunctional and I think as a child I often felt and I’m also a recovering perfectionist so I always felt a lot of responsibility and so for me, getting my period was another responsibility, like the responsibility of not only my body but I can have a child now, like I’m not going to at 13 but suddenly your body is a vessel, its transitioned into something else and I think that really effected my mindset, that now I could technically be a mother.
My grandmother had my dad at 13. She was Nigerian and I wasn’t close to her at all but I have this story of this little girl having a kid at 13 which was completely wrong in every sense of the word and very damaging but I suddenly felt my god, it’s not a million miles away for a 13 year old to have a baby so I also did think about things like that.
Le’Nise: Wow, so you got your period and you were also carrying this weight of what happened to ancestors, your grandmother’s story. That word responsibility really hit me because I’ve never heard a woman describe her first period like that, so that’s really fascinating.
Ateh: Well you know at 13 I was a 145 year old woman so I’m kind of Benjamin Button, I’m aging backwards. I’m 41 now and kind of evening up, like yeah I did think about things like that.
Le’Nise: So you went to the emergency room and told you were having your first period and you knew you had your period. How did you learn about menstrual health, what to use and how to take care of yourself?
Ateh: So, I mean, that was my mum. She gave me a book “Your Changing Body” and all these things and we had discussions. My mum is an amazing woman, she’s kind of a hippy free spirit but at the same time she can be really conservative about other things, you know like, I straddle two generations so I grew up with BodyForm, like run around skateboarding, your period will never get you down or hold you back but also my mum was born in 1946 you know and she’s like ladies never use tampons, don’t stick anything up yourself.
So it really terrified me you know, girls should only use sanitary towels because you shouldn’t be putting things inside of yourself and so I had these very conflicting images and ideals of menstrual health. Also you talk to your girl friends but my mum was the one, she was responsible and she said this is what’s going on, use sanitary towels, here’s a book, have a chat but you know there was never shame in my house which was very good and I really appreciate my mother, she’s never been into shame in that sense, shame in other things but not with your body which is good.
Le’Nise: That’s really interesting because other women that I’ve spoken to, they have described the sense of shame coming from their mothers or their grandmothers where they were taught shame around menstruation and it being something that they needed to hide or something that was taboo so I think it’s wonderful that you didn’t have that. So you got given sanitary towels and was that something you thought you know I just have to get on with it?
Ateh: Yeah I think there was a sense of ok this is how it is. Also I should mention I had huge boobs, I’ve always had a huge boobs so in a funny way, I had a woman’s body from 11 so that also changes you because men and the male gaze, I was probably ready and mentally prepared to get on with it in that sense so by the time I was 13/14 I was like this is how it is, my body is changing, I have to look after myself and this is how you look after yourself.
In primary school one of my closest friends had a period at 9 and I knew she had to run off to the bathroom, was all very mysterious, but I had a sense that’s what you did a few times a day. You go to the bathroom and you change but the shame part is really interesting, I always felt that because my mums a bit of a hippy, she would take us out of bed at midnight and we would howl at the moon on a full moon and she’s always hugging trees and for me, periods were always linked into the divine, it was like the power of creation so yes I always felt there was this old fashioned ‘you don’t discuss it’.
You know I was born in ’78, I’m a child of the 80’s and I wouldn’t go at a dinner table and discuss my periods growing up like the way I am discussing it with you now because we are in a different time, it’s something you don’t discuss but it’s nothing to be ashamed of and I’ve been somebody like I can make a person now, that makes me a god damn superhero. So that’s how I felt, I felt the power and the divinity and that’s probably from my hippy mum but I felt yeah that’s why there’s responsibility, you can make people now, that’s insane. A super power.
Le’Nise: Yeah super power, it’s amazing what we can do. You know, yesterday I went to a baby ceremony for one of my friends, she’s about to give birth and so instead of a shower she had a baby ceremony. She was talking about these ideas about the divine and how she made this person and how this person is inside of her and it’s so interesting that you brought that up today. So what about the conversations you are having with your daughters about periods and menstrual health?
Ateh: I mean they’re 8, I have twin daughters and it’s very difficult because you don’t want to burden them with too much information, how much information, it’s a different age, it’s a different time. I wasn’t going to mention anything but you know how children are, they burst in when I’m on the toilet and they were like “mum why is there strawberry jam in the toilet” I was like “can you please leave” and I was like do I say yes there’s strawberry jam in the toilet or do I say that’s blood and I just, you know what, let’s keep it real and I said once a month a woman and I explained it in a matter of fact way and one of my daughters was like ahh I don’t believe that, that’s crazy, she thought I was trying to pull her leg.
I was like that’s how you know it’s a gift and I try to use positive words like it’s a gift, the power of creation and this is how babies are made because once a month this is what happens and the payoff is you get babies, once a month there’s an opportunity to have a baby and I just said it in a matter of fact way and I thought, God are they too young, but I think kids just, they can roll with any information, it’s the way you present it and they were like ok whatever, when does this start to happen to you? I said 13/14 and like do you think it will happen for us at the same time? And I was like yeah probably and they were like okay bye we are going outside running around, and I think that is how it should be, the kind of matter of fact, there’s no big taboo or shame, it’s just part of who you are, your health, your body and so yes, 8, I don’t know if that’s too young or old I don’t know but that’s what happened.
Le’Nise: I think they should have conversations, it’s so nice when they have been organically and it’s not a massive surprise when all of sudden they see something in their underwear that’s like “oh my god what’s this blood?
Ateh: The trauma of that, can you imagine? My best girl friend also has twins and her 11 year old daughters have just started secondary school and my friend is so honoured. She’s like my heartbeat, we just copy her, like when the girls are 11, I’m going to do what my friend does because she’s such a good mum and she’s like, “I’ve got a kit ready for her, I sat her down and I said if you’re in school and it happens and she’s bought her like a silk pouch with clean underwear, sanitary towels and wet wipes and she has it in her school bag ready so whenever it comes and she’s told her when you get your period in the middle of school just throw you underwear away, get the pouch, da da da” and I thought god that is so healthy so you will not have that shock or I don’t have any clean underwear! So my friend, God bless her has got a kid primed and ready with this little first period pack in her school bag which I think is really healthy.
Le’Nise: Absolutely amazing. And how did her daughter react to that?
Ateh: Ok thanks mum that’s cool and it’s that no shame or embarrassment, this is how it is, you are responsible for yourself, you know, this is a form of responsibility and I think that will transition really well into sexual health in her teens.
I think when you approach it properly you take care of yourself with your period, you take care of yourself with sexual health, you take care of yourself with breast exams, as a woman there’s women’s health. Why would you be embarrassed about doing a breast exam? Embarrassed about having condoms or any kind of protection, it’s ridiculous. I feel it as a form of empowerment you know.
Le’Nise: Absolutely. I think just going back to this word shame, I think you connected it to having your period and this ability to having a baby and I think that’s where this shame comes in because a lot of people don’t like to talk about sex and they find it embarrassing and then so having that conversation about periods is connected to having that conversation about sex. People use euphemisms about their genitalia and so…
Ateh: Makes no sense to me. Yeah, really odd.
Le’Nise: I think for some people it just takes them a long time to get to where you are now where you are just so open to having this conversation. Everyone is on their own journey.
Ateh: I mean, I have to thank my mother she is very open and liberal, she is from Trinidad, I don’t know if that makes a difference but she is very warm, open and I remember watching G String Divas with her as a trashy channel 5 movie as a teenager, grossly inappropriate but my home was an open, happy, hippy home so it doesn’t really register that kind of shame about your periods or about your body so it’s interesting but I mean what does that serve you? It doesn’t serve anything or anyone I don’t think. It’s dangerous.
Le’Nise: It is dangerous because you don’t understand what’s going on with your period, can’t have open conversations or you think that things like pain and heavy bleeding is normal because you haven’t had the conversation about it.
Ateh: It’s true. Because what is normal? Because until you speak to people, what’s a light period? What’s a medium period and heavy period? Unless you have a conversation, when is there a real problem? When do I need to see someone? When they go to the doctor I think women’s health is so, it’s not respected in a funny way, when you speak to a GP often as a woman and as a black woman, I find sometimes I have to speak louder and louder like “there is a problem, hear me” and I’m very empowered when it comes to that but if you’re bought up in shame then there’s going to be problems and you could really suffer. There are so many people’s grandmas who literally died of shame because they had cervical cancer, they never went to their doctor and they died of shame because they didn’t have it looked at and that’s dying of shame.
Le’Nise: Wow, I mean it’s so needless.
Ateh: Yeah, it’s a different generation.
Le’Nise: Yeah absolutely, different generation. So how do you feel about your period now?
Ateh: Basically, I had my twins. One and done and my periods have been very, very fertile and like the day, hours and minutes my period is on. I’d been told by my acupuncturist that my womb’s on fire, be careful when you want to get pregnant and I never believed in acupuncture and then I got pregnant first go, I never timed it or anything when I got pregnant with my girls and I was like damn he was right.
So, it feels really odd that I’ve had all these years for one go, the shop is closed , I’m not having any more kids. My two ladies and so 13 to 41 I’ve had all these periods and it was for one shot which is very wasteful but interesting and now I’m 41 and I’m thinking to myself, I’m not having any more kids, it can be quite uncomfortable, it can be quite bloating and all the rest of it but also my body has done its job in terms of, I wanted children and if you don’t want children then that’s fine but I wanted babies, I’ve had my babies, I know that having a period keeps my skin and my body juicy and the hormones and so I respect it for that. I think when I hit the menopause I’ll be nostalgic and be like “oh, bye!” you know what I mean? I feel like a friend going or they say flow comes to town it’s a very old expression and when flow leaves town in a very nostalgic way like “oh bye, thank you” but it’s a very weird one, it’s no longer necessary in a funny way but it’s doing its job of hormones and all the rest of it. Also, it triggers your role as a woman, if you don’t have children you are still a woman, still capable, still amazing. If you choose not to have children it doesn’t make you any less powerful or potent or anything but then there is a side of you where that chapter is closed and the next baby I have in my arms will be my grandchildren and I think ahead like that so it makes you think of nature and cycles. It will be a closing of a chapter but not the whole book. Mixed emotions.
Le’Nise: It sounds like you have a very healthy relationship with your period in the sense that I don’t hear that you have fought with your period in the sense that you hated it or it is what it is.
Ateh: It is what it is and I think it’s like a beautiful metaphor for life, its messy, its life-giving and I think in a funny way woman are very tough, if you compare a 13 year old boy and a 13 year old girl and I’m being very general here but I think a lot of 13 year old girls are women because they have to deal with this messy, bloody thing that happens once a month. You literally have to get your hands dirty and feel the life and your body and oh my God this is happening because I could have a baby.
I think you mind is blown and my husband tells this funny story when he was 13, his best friend was a girl and literally one summer she turned into a woman and it’s probably the time she had a first period. He didn’t see her for a whole summer and they went strawberry picking because their mums set it up and he was like picking strawberries and skipping around and she was like my God this is boring and embarrassing. He said he lost her because she was this woman and he felt like a little kid wanting to go strawberry picking and talk about comics and stuff and she like whatever I’m going off with my boyfriend or something and he said he remembers then, thinking my God we are the same age but you are a woman and I think periods are the same way, its helps you to deal with life in a funny way. It helps you psychologically. I choose to see the empowering side to it.
Le’Nise: You have such a healthy attitude and I think it’s amazing how you’re speaking to your daughters about it and I wish more women could have those open, matter of fact conversations because it is life-giving and it happens every day, not every day but you know…
Ateh: I’d be concerned *laughs*. I think it also comes down to misogyny. I studied history at university and all the church fathers, there’s such a suspicion about the female body, the fact that for centuries people have been very suspicious, you can make people, you’re clever, you can do everything a guy can do and you can make people, it’s really scary. I’m not going to be self-hating, I’m not going to add to that conversation, I’m not going to have centuries of suspicion cast upon me, I’m going to see it for the divine thing that it is, that it’s life-giving.
Also I think with technology and nature, we have moved to the countryside and tapped in more to nature, it’s really interesting like its autumn now and the colours are changing and you see road kill. When we first came her my daughter was like, “is that a dead bunny on the road?!” and I was like “yes, that is life love” and you get tapped into the rhythm of life and your body has a rhythm and I think we are so cut off from nature, so cut off with technology you know you can swipe, you can click, you can do everything so quickly but your body is on a biological clock, it’s on a rhythm and it reminds me of that, that I’m not master and commander of the universe, I am part of the universe.
I feel in a spiritual way as well and it enforces you to remember you are part of something and you know what I have no control over my period. I can’t say can you start to tomorrow because I have a photoshoot or can you start next week because I have this, you have no control and I am a control freak and in a funny way you have to just surrender. Surrender is my new word. Surrender.
Le’Nise: I think that’s really nice when you think about the idea of rhythm, nature and even connecting with the idea of periods being linked to the moon and knowing that we are coming up that harvest moon and it’s the autumn equinox today and so a lot of woman will be on their periods or are coming onto their periods or ovulating and there’s kind of a nice synergy with that idea that our rhythm and nature and this kind of connection to the divine.
Ateh: Definitely I see it as that. That’s why people are shameful and scared because people are often scared of what they don’t understand. I am a very spiritual person, there are all these invisible things around us and this mysterious thing that you bleed and can have babies with. It’s really weird, I’m sorry. If an alien came to earth and you explained sex and periods they’d be like, “get out of here”, it’s weird, okay. If we break it down for an alien, it’s weird and it is mystical and it’s strange and I think a lot of fear and shame is built around things you don’t understand. Why is this happening? Why are babies made this way? Why do we have periods? No one knows really and that’s really scary. I just roll with it and I think that’s what freaks people out. We are just part of something. It comes and goes just like you and I one day and it’s just what you do in between that matters.
Le’Nise: We’ve got really deep now!
Ateh: Sorry but yeah that’s why it doesn’t freak me out. It came when it was ready to come, it’s going to go when it’s ready to go. I’m thankful to the women that don’t have periods and can’t have children and are desperate, are you kidding me? So there’s a sense of gratitude. Thank you that my body works really well and that I don’t have any problems, I have a lot of problems in other areas of my life that I can’t control, my weight, this and that but whatever my body did its job, I made two healthy huge full term twins. My girls were 6 and half pounds each, they were 38 weeks, and they were full term. Thank you, thank you, thank you. So I see just gratitude you know.
Le’Nise: It’s so powerful; I actually have a chill just hearing you talk about it. Knowing everything that you know now and thinking about what you know now versus back then when you first had your period. What would you change, what would you tell your 13 year old self?
Ateh: I’d say you’re not going to die, chill out. Maybe you don’t have to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night with your mum. I’d give her a hug, she needed a hug at 13, and I’d give a proper hug and tell her it’s going to be okay. I don’t know if I’d change anything, I think I had a healthy attitude thanks to my mum towards my period and I’d say you know what you’re going to have two beautiful babies, it’s worth it, it’s messy, it can be inconvenient and can be all of these things which periods are, but you know all those years are worth it for that one shot, you’re going to have your babies and for the 10 years on the other side of it and that’s just life, I’m really grateful, I have a lot of cousins and family which have had a lot of problems with their periods and I’m very grateful that I’ve never been in crippling pain.
The girl that created ‘Girls’ [Lena Dunham] had an elective hysterectomy because her periods were crippling, my God, to make that decision as a woman in your early 30s! I can’t complain I’ve been very very lucky that my body has done its job and it’s like clockwork and I’m just grateful, it’s part of being a woman. I love being a woman, that’s the problem, I’m not self-hating in any way, I love being a woman and I find it very powerful, I find it very lucky to be a woman and very lucky to be a mum. I tell my girls you can be anything you want but please breed, I want to be a grandma. Which probably isn’t the healthiest and they will probably do the opposite of what I say so I see it as a huge gift and again a huge responsibility. Responsibility can be positive and negative but this is a positive responsibility.
Le’Nise: Just to wrap up, are there any last words that you would leave the listeners with about periods and how they should shift their thinking around their period?
Ateh: See it as a divine. See it as you are a creature, we are just animals, we are part of nature and it’s part of a rhythm. Also, please go and support Beauty Banks for my lovely friend Sali Hughes, she’s helping menstrual poverty and I think that’s something as woman we need to give back and understand that they’re many women in this country and around the world that do not have access to sanitary towels, tampons and that we need to be a sisterhood and look after each other.
Just know that you are powerful and that wherever you are with your period, whether it’s painful, whether it’s this or that, you’re regular, you’re irregular, just respect your body in every sense and that’s part of your body and that’s part of who you are.
Le’Nise: Thank you so much. Where can listeners find out more about you and what you’re up to?
Ateh: I am on Instagram @AtehJewel, I’m launching a foundation for darker skin tones which I’m very excited about, I’m developing it. Please check out my website, Jewel Tones Beauty, and just say hi. Reach out and say hi, I’m on Twitter everything and thanks for chatting. It’s been really really stimulating and interesting. We are lucky.
Le’Nise: Thank you so much for coming on the show.