For the sixth episode of Period Story Podcast, I had a wonderful conversation with Esther Zimmer, a writer and strategist.
We talked about how the impact of a culture of shame and secrecy around menstruation and sex and she’s learned to move beyond this. Esther talked about the exploration she’s been doing over the few years around her body and understanding its natural rhythms.
Esther shared how being child-free by choice has changed the way she thinks about her period and menstrual cycle. She says that understanding her menstrual cycle has helped her understand how to manage her energy in the best way. She plans her project work, writing and running around her menstrual cycle and says it’s an amazing way to work
We talked about the cross-continental cycling expedition Esther did with her husband and how they tried to plan their trip around her menstrual cycle. Esthers says that this trip really helped her tune into her energy each day and understand why she might be feeling a particular way.
Esther says it’s never too late to do your own exploration of your body’s rhythms and have this conversation with others. I completely agree!
Esther Zimmer is an Australian communications strategist, online course creator and writer living in London. She writes a regular essay series called ‘Truth & Clues’ where she shares the truth about her life as a woman in her 40s who’s still figuring out her place in the world. She’s currently writing her first book, a travel memoir, having recently completed a 12-month cross-continental cycling expedition with her husband.
Esther has an unhealthy obsession with words: Writing them, reading them and exchanging them via deep conversations. She created her own self-directed recovery from disordered eating, but still considers herself to be very much a work-in-progress. A part-time adventurer and full-time dreamer, Esther loves all animals, most humans and the infinite possibilities that a blank page holds.
Find Esther at estherzimmer.com and @esther_zimmer on Instagram.
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Le’Nise: On today’s episode, we have Esther Zimmer. Esther is an Australian communications strategist, online course creator and writer living in London.
She writes a regular essay series called Truth and Clues, where she shares the truth about her life as a woman in her 40s who’s still figuring out her place in the world. She’s currently writing her first book, a travel memoir, having recently completed a 12 month cross continental cycling expedition with her husband. Welcome to the show.
Esther: Hi, Le’Nise. Thank you for having me.
Le’Nise: So let’s start off by getting into the story of your first period. Can you tell us what happened?
Esther: Well, that’s an interesting question. So I was very young, I was around 9 and my period was something I had absolutely no idea about until it actually arrived. So when it did, I had no idea what was happening to my body or why. I knew I wasn’t hurt, so it was all very much a mystery to me. What I do really remember and it was interesting you ask this and I had quite an almost emotional reaction because I really remember seeing blood on my knickers. And I don’t know why, but I felt ashamed, a little bit scared.
I seem to recall what I did was I used toilet paper in my underwear but of course, blood got on my knickers anyway. And what I have another really, really clear vision of is this pair of white knickers with a little flowers on them. You know, the kind of underwear, I guess a child would wear and they were spotted with blood. I guess that’s how my mum figured out I’d started my period. And one day she came into my bedroom with his big packet of pads, well they seemed big to me, and explained to me how to use them. That was the story of my first period.
Le’Nise: You were 9 years old. And you were, what was that, year 5? Year 4?
Esther: I must have been year 4.
Le’Nise: So when this happened to you, who did you talk to apart from your mum, did you talk to any of your friends?
Esther: So I was home schooled, so I didn’t really have a lot of contact with other young girls. So there wasn’t really a great deal of people to ask. I had a couple of older friends from our church, but I just remember feeling embarrassed, I didn’t want to ask. And I think because they were a bit older, I just didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
Le’Nise: Why do you think you had this feeling of discomfort and embarrassment?
Esther: So I feel like that goes back to my upbringing. So it’s an interesting question. I was brought up by a white middle class family in Australia. My wonderful parents are Christians and they were possibly quite strict back then, which meant they were less open. And I don’t want this to be a criticism because they are wonderful parents, they were then, they are now, but I really felt like anything to do with your body or nakedness, menstruation, sex, and it’s all intertwined, which is something that we didn’t talk about. And I don’t feel it was so much that having my period was a shameful thing.
It was more that a period kind of, is related to bearing of children, which is related to sex. As I say, it was all very much intertwined and that I suppose culture of secrecy impacted me more than I probably realised and recently, it’s something that I’ve started to explore. So it’s interesting that we’re having this conversation today.
Le’Nise: Can you tell us a little bit more about the exploration that you’re doing at the moment?
Esther: So I only really in the last year started to understand about how we have different phases in our menstrual cycle and that was quite a revelation to me, but I’m 45 years old, I’m 46 in January and I guess I feel a little bit like this is actually something we should be taught in school. It should be part of the sex education curriculum or even separate to that for women, for young women to understand about how they work with their body, listen to their body and understand the natural rhythms and energy cycles. So I guess because that started me thinking about menstruation, the fact that I’m probably coming into menopause in the next few years, that started me thinking about, well, what are my thoughts and feelings and emotions around my own menstrual cycle and the fact that I don’t have children.
I’m actually child free by choice, my period is something, I guess that it’s always been, I’m very grateful to get it but at the same time, it’s something that, you know, I go through every month but for me, I don’t really know how to explain that. It’s also the other thing of like, well, I’m going through this inconvenience every month, but I’ve never, ever wanted to have children. So it’s been just one of those situations when you have all these underlying feelings and you don’t even realise they’re there. And then, as I said, something will happen that you’ll think, well, why don’t I know this? It seems like an extrinsic part of being a woman and you start to explore that. So as I said, for me, it’s starting to explore the menstrual cycles and then what that does is it makes you start to explore all these other areas as well.
And so what’s interesting is my mum and I have a really, really close relationship, but I’ve never talked to her about menstruation or menopause. It’s a conversation that I’m starting to open up to have with her and it’s interesting that all these years later, we’re only having conversations about this now.
Le’Nise: And how has your mum’s reaction been to opening up this conversation?
Esther: I feel like she’s been curious as to why I’m asking now. But also, you know, she was a young mum. And I think, too, if she was answering your question, she would probably say I would go back and do things differently. And I think she’s very open to it but it does still feel a little bit of an unusual place to go but probably more so because I think if she could do things differently, she would go back and do them differently and perhaps be a bit more open about these things. But I mean, I’m a big believer that we’re all doing the best we can. And in particular, parent, you know, and she did the best she could at the time.
Le’Nise: You mentioned that you’re learning more about your menstrual cycle, the different phases and you said that you’re child free by choice. Does knowing more about your menstrual cycle, does that change the way that you view the role of your period and the menstrual cycle?
Esther: Absolutely. Absolutely. And maybe that’s why I really felt this feeling of slight loss when I started to learn about this and felt like, well, if I’d understood this sooner as a woman who did make the choice not to have children, I felt like it would have meant more to me. I would have understood that even if I’m not having children, my menstrual cycle still has a very important role to play. And I feel like, again, maybe that’s the thing about this upbringing.
You know, so much of what I learned and perhaps picked up from other people from listening in on conversations was that menstruation was very much linked to childbirth. But now I understand that actually it’s got its own very important role separate to that. It would have helped me understand myself a lot more, too and how I am at different times of the month.
Le’Nise: So you’ve said that it has a very important role to play. Can you elaborate a little bit more about what that means for you, what different roles it has to play for you?
Esther: For me, it’s very much about understanding how to manage my energy in the best way. So, you know, I always feel sometimes on the day of my period, I can have quite a bit of energy. But after that, I do really feel that distinct drop. And I didn’t understand why in the past, when you learn afterwards, it makes perfect sense but also, you know, as you’re going into the after your cycle, is you going into those first few days where you have that influx of energy and you feel good, I would have, and well, this is what I’m doing now.
I tend to plan on my project work and writing around and running as well. You know what I do in my kind of fitness life, I tend to look at my period, map it out and think, right, I’m going to work on these particular things when I know I’m going to be feeling at my best and then when I know perhaps when I’m in a bit of a lull, I’ll continue to work on things but perhaps some of the things that don’t require as much energy or creativity and I found that’s just really an amazing way to work.
You’re actually, what I think of, is working with your body and I realised that it’s not always possible, you know, I come from a corporate background and some of the work I do now a few days a week is in corporate. But I do feel like even if you couldn’t necessarily perhaps put that big presentation off, at least if you went in, understand your own body’s rhythms and why you felt low, it would give you that extra insight on what you need to do, perhaps, you know, pep yourself up, that would help.
So just looking after yourself in those times and just be gentler on yourself.
Le’Nise: Why do you think it takes us such a long time to get this understanding? I mean, from my own personal experience, I only really started to understand the importance of the ebbs and flows of my energy and the connection with my cycle, maybe about six or seven years ago and I’m 39. So why do you think that it takes so long? Do you think it’s the lack of education in school? Is it the taboos around these topics?
Esther: I feel that it’s probably a little bit of both. I mean, even if you think about sex education in schools, I mean, I don’t know what it’s like now, but if you think of a whole curriculum that you go through, sex education is one tiny, tiny part of it. And then if you think that you would pull out menstrual education and personally, I think that boys should be present in these classes as well.
But if you think about pulling that out separately, that you had a menstrual education class that would still get a very, very small amount of time. So I feel like it’s just not considered a priority. So education is part of that in terms of time and costs but I still feel there is quite a taboo about it. And what I feel happens is, you know, as you reach 30, 35, 40, 45, what I’ve noticed with every five years, things that used to embarrass me, I mean, even something it might have embarrassed me 5 or 6 years ago just wouldn’t now. So I feel that’s also a part of it and maybe, too, there is more talk I feel about menopause than menstruation.
So as you start to get closer to that, you also question the stage that you’re in and you know what it’s like when you start to get curious? You almost stumble upon information.
Le’Nise: So how did you educate yourself? What sort of resources have you been using?
Esther: Well, it’s interesting. So when I first learned about periods and menstrual health, well my first learning experience was when it arrived. Then my mother gave me this Christian pamphlet and I could still see the cover and it was called Your Body Is a Temple and now that would have been 1983. Then I started going to school when I was 14, so up until then, I was home-schooled. So I guess there were a few questions with girlfriends and it was, you know, brought up in sex ed but there was no Internet.
So of course, now, I mean, I can’t think of one specific resource that I use, I know that there are books on the subject and something that I would be interested to dive into. But more for me, it’s been less about menstrual health, I guess, but my exploration has been more about understanding cycles and some of that I’ve learnt from open conversations with friends and just what I’ve seen other women share in groups.
So they might be talking about this themselves and they might have written a blog about it but I can’t think of one specific resource and it’s an interesting question because now you’re getting me thinking, hmm I really would like to read those books and actually I’d like to spend more time looking online at specific resources of people who have, like yourself, expertise in this area.
Le’Nise: I want to go back to the book that your mum gave you, Your Body Is A Temple, so the religious element, I find really interesting because, you know, you mentioned that you didn’t really talk about sex and menstruation is associated with sex and that wasn’t really a topic in your household and having come from a similar background myself where religion was really important, I really relate to what you’re saying. Do you think that that’s had an impact on the way you view your body and menstruation now? Is that something that you’ve really had to unpick?
Esther: Yes, but I also don’t believe I realise the impact it’s had until recently. So you mentioned at the beginning of this podcast that I write an essay series called Truth and Clues and one of the things I did a couple of months ago was write down some of the topics that I would like to cover and one of them was around menstruation and menopause, because I wanted to share my story, but I didn’t really even realise what my story was until I started thinking about it.
It’s only been in starting to write some of that down, have I realised that some of the feelings that I’ve had with regards to my body and menstruation and sex my whole life, I guess, since I was probably nine years old, are still very much imbedded in me, and I’m only starting to explore and unpick that now. And it has brought up quite a bit of emotion because you don’t realise again, I think I said this before, you don’t realise what you’re not thinking about until you’re actually prompted.
I don’t know what prompted me really to put that on my list of things that I would like to explore and write about but until you get to that point, sometimes these things can sit below the surface for a very long time and probably with some people forever.
Le’Nise: I think that’s really interesting and it goes back to what you were saying about shame and that contributing to perhaps being a bit scared and shame is something I’ve talked about with other guests on this podcast. And it’s so fascinating, it’s terrible, but it’s so fascinating that we can be so ashamed of something that is so normal and natural and this almost unlearning that we have to do about what is normal and why we actually feel the shame.
Esther: Absolutely. It’s interesting, too, because what I feel is really important is that even if we’re not conscious of some of the, you know, feelings that we have and I guess particularly perhaps what you would class as a negative feeling, although I don’t like classing feelings that way but let’s just say for the sake of this conversation, I think people understand what I mean when I say a negative feeling that you hold that in your body.
So even though you might not be thinking about or talking about it, it sits there and it does it sits in your body and I feel like sometimes when we do get to the point when we are ready to perhaps explore these things, have a conversation, write about them, it can be hugely emotional. I mean, I know that I’ve only just started the work that I want to do for myself in this area but sometimes I feel like I could almost cry. When we talked at the beginning of this conversation about my first period and I mentioned, you know, the child’s knickers with the little flowers on them, I mean, I could feel my eyes well up and I feel like that is probably part of it, that we don’t realise how much of this we actually hold in our bodies and then when you are at the point you’re willing to like explore it, it can be very difficult.
And perhaps too the older you get, the more you start to feel. And I think this is something I probably haven’t verbalised before, you do start to feel, why haven’t I not like thought about this before? Why am I doing this now at 30 or 35 or even 50? For some people, I mean, I don’t think it matters whether you’re menstruating or perimenopausal or you’ve gone into menopause, it’s still always a good subject to explore, even if it’s only to kind of face some of those feelings and work through them. It’s got to be healthy because then you’re getting it out of your body.
Le’Nise: You getting out of your body and rephrasing and rethinking you recently, just gonna connect to that, you did a 12 month cross-continental cycling expedition with your husband. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that potentially connected to the work that you’ve been doing now around unlearning and rephrasing?
Esther: Yes. So what I think is probably most relevant is that, so we set off in May last year, so May 2018. And I mean, we are both fairly fit and active people, but we certainly weren’t cyclists. We had road bikes, we took them out once every two years and finally we decided, right, we’ve wanted to do this great big trip, but let’s do it by bikes that was a bit of a last minute add on but we just decided we wanted to do it under our own steam and we had no real clue what we were doing.
I mean, we’d done research but what I mean by that is for me personally, I didn’t know how my body would respond and what I found really interesting is that when you’re on the move nearly every day and you know, I did look at my menstrual cycle and we did try and plan around it, but sometimes you just can’t, and we weren’t going exceptionally fast. I mean, we were probably covering 60, 70 kilometres a day, which by most people’s expedition standards is quite slow but we really wanted to just enjoy it. But being on the move, being outside, moving your body, having less distractions, you really do start to tune into your body and for me, I really did start to tune into why am I feeling tired today? Is it my cycle? Have I perhaps not slept properly? Am I not hydrating myself properly? Am I not eating the most nutritious food? And I really felt how everything comes together in that sense and I became far more aware of how all of these things really impact us, probably more than we realise.
And I think so much these days is talked about in terms of, you’ve got to do all of these things to be more productive, you know, sleep better, eat better, you know, if you drink more water, you’ll be more alert, but for me, it became more about how do I look after my body in the best possible way. So I feel my best so I can actually enjoy my life the most. And I felt like that was a real switch for me from, how do I get the most out of my body, energy wise? To, how do I actually work with my body so I enjoy my life more? And I think that’s probably the most relevant thing in terms of this conversation that came from that trip.
Le’Nise: That’s really interesting. The kind of everyday almost checking in with your body, well, checking in with your body, but connecting back with, okay, I feel like this so I need to do this. And that’s something that I actually wish more of us would do more often, because I see this in my clinic and I help my clients connect the dots. And then, you know, it’s education and that’s a really important part about it, because you don’t know, oh, I might be feeling tired because I’m about to get my period or I have a lot of energy today and that’s probably because I’m on day 14, day 15 of my menstrual cycle, so that’s one of the reasons why.
Coming back to the idea of, you know, more education, more discussion about this is really powerful. So every day for twelve months you would do this and try to adapt your day appropriately?
Esther: Yes. So, we would have long stretches where we’d cycle for perhaps two or three, four weeks and we would have a day off here and there and we did both listen to our bodies, but then we might have two or three weeks off the bikes, perhaps because we’d done a particularly tough segment of the route and just felt like we needed downtime or we did some volunteer work. So there were different times where we were off the bikes for longer periods. But yes, we both really started to realise, oh, I might really fancy that pizza, but actually it’s not the thing that’s going to make me feel great tomorrow when I’m on the bike and I think for me that wanting to nourish myself in a way that made me enjoy the cycling more was a big difference in the way I thought previously.
And, you know, I am somewhat, I would say, who was very disconnected from their body for a very long time. I had a long period of challenge with disordered eating and body dysmorphia. So it’s really only in the last five or six years that I’ve started to actually listen to my own body’s cues and realise how important they were and I do really feel that going on that trip was just another chapter in that to understand that, as I said before, yes, you can look after your body in a way that improves your performance, whether that’s at work or creatively or in the sports arena, any of those things but you can also do it in a way that actually just makes you feel more connected to your body, you feel more rested, you understand your energy rhythms, and it just makes life more enjoyable.
I mean, to me, that’s just in a very kind of anxious, depressed, stressed out world, that’s a very important message, I think, because so much of what we hear now is about life hacks and maximising our time and productivity and I feel like a lot of that is important, but it does very much take us away from our own bodies cues.
Le’Nise: So on the other side of your trip how have you taken what you’ve learned about your body into your day to day life back in London?
Esther: So, two ways. Great question, because I’m all about what can I learn from life on the road that I can replicate in day to day life. So, two things.
One is that I used to avoid exercise when I was coming up to my period and because I had a few times when we just couldn’t have breaks when I knew that was coming, so we would have shorter cycling days and what I found was my period was so much lighter if I was exercising up and through it. So I continue to do that now, I do it knowing that, you know, I might not go out for a 10K run, but I will still get up and walk, might go to a yoga class, like, I would do things to keep moving and that has had a really positive impact.
And the other thing for me is this thinking of looking after myself so I feel good, and, you know, more prepared to go out into the world and do my work. So as you mentioned in the introduction, I’m writing a book and I think about it the same way I think, okay, Fridays are my all day fully committed to writing days. So looking after myself in the week leading up to that is important so that I wake up on Friday morning and I feel fresh and good and then I can actually do that thing that I really love and the words flow.
It’s a bit like I was saying before, if I didn’t look after myself when we were cycling, I really missed the magic of so many moments because I was having to push harder and I feel like it’s the same with writing. If I look after myself better, it’s just a more enjoyable experience., yes, it’s still hard, but I just feel I come to the page with more energy, more enjoyment and I think those two things have definitely changed the way I live my life.
Le’Nise: If you think back to your 9 year old self, what would you say to her knowing what you know now?
Esther: I would say to her, what a wonderful thing. I feel like it would be something that I would like her to celebrate. I also feel like I would say to her, you know, this is as I said, this is a really positive thing and I would sit down and explain why. I would find other women for her to talk to so she could understand that this is something that happens to all women. I think it would be also just about saying to her, you know, as you go through this process, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask. So I guess the main thing would be treat it like a celebration.
Le’Nise: Wow, treat it like a celebration. I really love that. If listeners could take one thing away from listening to you on this podcast, what would you want to be?
Esther: That it doesn’t matter what stage of life you are, I do really feel exploring that moment when you first started this journey, when you first got your period until now, wherever you are is something worth exploring, because the more we do this at every single age, the more willing we are to look at ourselves and perhaps remove anything that might be holding us back or down or just pressing heavily on us. So that’s the first thing, is that doing this exploration, you will release some of those things.
And the second thing is I feel like the more we do this work, the more we can talk to other women and that’s really important. So even though I’m 46 and as I said, don’t have a family of my own, this has been a great beginning with exploration where I can start to talk to my sisters. One in particular has three young girls, 8, 6 and 4 and I can now have conversations with her and hopefully work with her on how do we have different conversations with her daughters or how did she have these different conversations.
And, you know, and it just means that we’re not just putting the onus on education in terms of schools, but also there are a whole load of mothers out there right now whose daughters are probably just coming up to this. It’s not too late to start having those conversations and changing the taboos, opening up the conversation so that this becomes part of the things that we talk about. So I feel like, you know, that would be just a great thing for people to think about how this could really release them personally, but also start to change culture in some ways.
Le’Nise: I think that’s amazing how it’s starting to change what learn the lessons from the past and having different conversation with the girls that are coming up now so they can do things differently and I definitely see that even over the last 10 years, the change in the conversation and actually how open younger women are about talking about these things and I feel really positive about that.
The next step is just to continue this openness, but also make sure that, as you mentioned earlier, boys learn about these things too, because, you know, they’re affected by it as well.
So where can listeners out more about you? Where can they sign up to your wonderful newsletter?
Esther: Oh, thank you. Well, it’s estherzimmer.com and there’s some blog posts on there but I think the main thing is, as I say, I write this regular essay series and for me, that’s just about going a little bit deeper and getting a bit more personal than I perhaps would in a blog post. And it’s about all those kind of things that we talked about, exploring these personal things that we go through as women and sharing my story in the hope that somebody else somewhere else either feels, okay, I can see myself in that story or perhaps it encourages them to explore their own, and it’s not just about menstruation, it’s about finding your place in the world as a woman, because I believe I’m starting a new chapter in life, having returned to London after this cycling trip, writing a book, so it’s about all of those things. I think we all think about perhaps don’t go deeper into it and don’t always talk about, that’s the best place to kind of, I guess, get to know me.
Le’Nise: Great. Well, thank you so much for coming onto the show today and sharing your story.
Esther: Well, thank you so much for inviting me. And I’d just like to say, I really think this is a wonderful project, really, really important and again, what you’re doing is going to open up the conversation even wider. So thank you.
Le’Nise: Thank you.