Caroline Zwickson is a women’s health and life coach based in San Francisco. Originally from Germany, Caroline contributed to our Everywhere, Period series, where we’re aiming to demystify periods everywhere.
How old were you when you first got your period and what was that experience like?
I was 11 and the youngest girl at my boarding school. I remember feeling embarrassed and just like, oh shit, who am I gonna talk to? What am I going to do now? I hadn’t really talked to my parents about periods and I remember just the embarrassment that comes with having to buy feminine hygiene products in stores. For my first few cycles, I remember using toilet paper or stealing tampons from the older girls because I was too embarrassed to ask anybody. If I had a daughter, I’d just buy a stash for her when she’s 10 and she can just use it…well, hopefully she’d be comfortable to come and ask me.
In your community, is there much weight given to a girl getting her period? Any rituals or traditions?
No, nothing. It’s so sad, I really wish there was. Back then, I felt like it was something that indicated, you’re not clean. It was more like a gross thing; blood is gross. Not something to be celebrated.
Do you remember the first product(s) you used to manage your period?
Aside from toilet paper and stolen tampons, Germany is different than the U.S. in that nobody was using applicator tampons. To this day, everyone just uses OB tampons. I remember coming to the U.S. when I was a high school student and going to Walgreens to buy tampons and being like, oh my god, there are so many options: applicators! Perfume! Plastic! Non-plastic! It’s so crazy. I remember thinking, who would use these applicators? That’s insane, it’s such a waste. But people in the U.S. think of OB tampons as kind of gross: Oh my god, I can’t let anyone know I’m using my finger for insertion. I totally switched over because I wanted to be like the other girls. If someone ever asked me for a tampon, I didn’t want it to be a weird one.
Since you’ve called the U.S. home for a long time, are there any other differences you’ve noticed between Germany and the U.S. when it comes to periods?
We had sex ed together with the boys in one room. They didn’t talk about periods because it wasn’t relevant to half the people in the classroom. Nobody ever talked about periods. I wasn’t one of those girls that was like, oh my god I think I’m dying; I’d talked to my friends about it. We’d read little magazines about that stage but that’s the only way I knew. I might’ve learned more if it was all girls and we weren’t distracted by looking at the boys to see if they were also embarrassed. That being said, I do think men should know about the menstrual cycle—it should be common knowledge for everybody. in German we say, “she has her days”—a lot of the girls, while on their period, would use it as an excuse not to exercise. We had to play sports once a week in school and all the girls would sit on the bench. I didn’t, but the girls who didn’t like sports to begin with basically just said, “I have my days,” and sat on the bench.
How has your experience with your period changed over time?
It’s night and day for me. I spent a long time more or less denying it and thinking it was just the worst thing. Even though I never had painful periods, it gave you more to think about, like swimming. Imagine the embarrassment if you jumped into a pool and there was blood everywhere. I was on hormonal birth control for almost 15 years and for the majority of that time, I didn’t get my period. I thought it was so convenient. At 29 I was like, I just don’t want to put hormones in my body. So I stopped and my period didn’t come back. I went from thinking periods are annoying to, oh my god, I really want to have a period! It totally shifted.
I was looking forward to having a period and the absence was more worrying than anything. I’m a women’s health coach and I work with women on their periods all the time. Now, I see that our periods are really a window into our greater health. If you pay attention, your period allows you to tune into your body and know what phase of the cycle you’re in and how it might impact you emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I learned all this at 29 and it was shocking—I know so many really brilliant, super successful women who don’t know their own biology.
Have you tried or do you use different products to manage your period now?
Definitely organic, non-toxic products. 100 percent cotton. I’ve also heard great things about the menstrual cup. It takes getting used to but once you’re used to it, it’s amazing. I haven’t used anything in a really long time between being pregnant, nursing, being pregnant again, nursing again. I had one period in between and I used Cora and loved it.
Do you have any special rituals, like a hot bath, using essential oils, or eating certain foods during the week you’re menstruating, that help you manage your period?
I talk to all of my clients about this. Treat your cycle like the seasons. Menstruation is winter. Your body has the lowest energy, so eat foods that are warming and comforting and don’t do taxing things to your body; exercise-wise, it’s the season of rest and hibernation. Eat grounding foods you would eat in the winter months. This is not the season where you have naturally the most energy so pushing your body beyond its boundaries with Soul Cycle or something is not conducive to what your body is wanting at that time. I hear women say all the time, I’m SO tired. OK, let’s listen to our bodies. Let’s build in time for really deep rest, not just 30 minutes watching TV, but real, rejuvenating rest.
Do you have any advice for a girl who has just gotten her period?
If I could give myself advice back then, I think I’d want her to know that her period is what’s going to allow her to become a mom one day. It’s really exciting and wonderful and means her body is growing in wonderful ways. I wish there was a celebration or ritual that was about honoring that and making that not shameful.
Thank you, Caroline!