Jessica Biel wearing a tan blazer, white t-shirt, layered necklaces and jeans. She sits against a be...
Olga Miljko

Jessica Biel Is Done Being A “Cool Girl” About Periods

After years of laughing off misogyny and body shaming, the actress wrote a children’s book to explain periods to kids, including her sons.

Jessica Biel figures she’s been getting her period for about 30 years now. And yet still, after three decades, she still feels the pull of that classic middle-school move. “My knee-jerk reaction is still to hide the tampon in my sleeve and scurry like somebody who’s done something wrong to the bathroom,” she tells me by phone. “I still have that instinct. But I just try to check myself every time I’m about to make that move. I’m doing better at having some awareness around the fact that I’m doing that, and that’s the start.”

Like millions of Millennial women, Biel is still working through the unique brand of misogyny of our formative years, admitting “the re-education continues and probably will continue forever.” In a recent interview with TIME, she discussed growing up feeling pressured to laugh along with gross, misogynist jokes she’d hear about periods and the people who get them because “that’s what we were taught cool girls should do — shrug off jokes, even if they were made at our expense.”

“Do you feel that at a certain point you entered a cool girl recovery?” I ask.

“I love that term,” she replies immediately. “Could you open up a clinic for recovering cool girls? I’d love to join that program.”

But also like many of us, she’s reached a place where she’s older, wiser, and decidedly over it. “I’m at that place in my life of, ‘Forget this, I am not laughing at these jokes anymore,’” she says. “I think it just takes time to get to find a place of real true resolve and confidence within yourself about what makes you feel uncomfortable and what makes you feel comfortable. And just knowing that it’s okay to be uncomfortable and say it out loud.” It’s in this spirit that she partnered with Period.org, a global nonprofit which strives to eradicate period poverty and stigma, to write A Kids Book About Periods.

Penguin Random House

But when we start diving into the book, our connection starts to get a bit (pardon the pun) spotty.

“Even the phones are trying to silence us from talking about periods, Jessica,” I joke.

“I feel you on this! This is some Big Brother patriarchal...” she trails off with a bright laugh.

Biel explains that even though she knows she was prepared for her first period, 30-something years ago, she was still unprepared. She must have had books, she says, but can’t remember them. Her mom told her everything, she’s sure, but can’t remember. That first period, which came on the day she was to play a grandfather in her school play, was scary. She thought something was wrong.

“Clearly, when it came to resources and information, there wasn’t a big impact made,” she concludes.

The book was written not to be a one-stop-shop on all information (though a reader of any age will get what they need) but to start important conversations about the human body and empower the next generation with positive information about how they work. Geared towards children, it aims to normalize talking about menstrual cycles and even highlight that, actually, having a period can be pretty cool. The idea, Biel explains, is that if kids can see their grown-ups talking about the subject, casually and with confidence, they will have the “agency and voice” to talk about their own bodies.

Biel is determined that her two sons — Silas, 9 and Phineas, 3, whom she shares with husband Justin Timberlake — will grow up with that kind of empowerment, and has made a point of surmounting her own lingering discomfort and making sure they, too, are aware of periods. It doesn’t matter that they themselves won’t personally experience periods; it’s important that they know about a vital bodily function half the population will experience.

“A person who’s born with the female reproductive system and gets their period will be experiencing this at some point,” she says. “They’re going to have to talk to somebody about it. But somebody who never, ever gets one and doesn’t have a female reproductive system, they could go their whole life just kind of not having a clue what's happening and being told a bunch of lies and being kept in the dark because it’s weird. And God forbid anyone says the word labia or vagina or anything, it freaks everybody out. I think it’s almost maybe even more important that friends and partners and siblings, just on board, knows it’s happening, knows it’s normal and doesn’t make [it] a big deal.”

She hasn’t gotten into it too much with Phineas — aside from some basic info there isn’t much a toddler will glean from these kind of discussions — but she says she and Silas have made some great progress so far. “It’s going really well, I think, and it’s not over. The conversations have only just begun.” Mother and son have even started reading her book together.

“It was super cool because we ended up getting about halfway through and he had a lot of curious questions,” she explains. “We got to talk about, if somebody at your school had an accident and had blood on their pants or something like that, and how would you handle it? ... And we talked about making a positive choice and supportive choice rather than making a joke that is hurtful.”

Biel acknowledges that, even in our new “Not A Cool Girl” eras, where we’re eager to break cycles and raise more thoughtful, compassionate children, disentangling our ingrained discomfort around periods can still be a challenge. She says that can be a strength in moving forward.

“It’s okay to say to my kids or to other people like, ‘Hey, this makes me nervous too’ or ‘I don’t know all the answers either.’ Sort of leveling with your kids in that way,” she says. “I think the more we talk about it, the more we can have a bunch of smaller conversations that build up to the sum of its parts.”

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it starts with us getting more comfortable with topics we’ve come to take for granted as uncomfortable. So next time you head to the bathroom, take a deep breath and hold that tampon high… or at least not hidden up your sleeve.