Ending the Stigma on Periods

Let’s talk about periods. You just cringed, didn’t you?

Even with films such as “Period, End of Sentence” winning Oscars, it’s difficult to envision a future where menstruation will cease to be an avoided, cringe-worthy subject of conversation when affluent members of society continue to push the topic aside and ban it from conversation. While I don’t expect people to be running around screaming about the blood coming from their uterus on the regular, the conversation needs to be opened up, and let me tell you why. Period poverty and menstrual wellbeing, that’s why.

“A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education!” - Rayka Zehtabchi

Rayka Zehtabchi, director of the 2019 Oscar awarding winning short text documentary Period, End of Sentence sums up the impact that period poverty has on young women around the world. The term period poverty refers to the way that cost as well as the economy put menstrual hygiene products such as pads and tampons out of reach for a lot of menstruating people worldwide. So out of reach in fact, that for some women their period begins to limit their education and later on, their careers. This crisis has recently started to stir up a lot of media attention with several mentions of the issue being brought to light in the media recently.

However, there are still a lot of taboos surround menstruation in society, with Stars such as Drag Queen Rupaul recently referring to a menstruation themed outfit of one of the contests on his show Drag Race: Allstars as being “in bad taste”. The crew of the show even went as far as requesting the queen wear her alternate dress instead of the menstrual themed one. Now I don’t agree with cancel culture, and I am a firm believer in second, and even third chances. However, what I also don’t agree with is stars using their platforms to propagate and further stigmatize real world problems. So, I’m calling Rupaul out for his most recent problematic act, because by banning the dress in question from his show, he has done just that.

The Queen in question, Manila Luzon, explained that the original choice to wear a menstruation themed dress came from the concept of normalizing what they refer to as a “perfectly natural human experience”. Luzon later went on to explain on Instagram “Many of my fans are young women who may feel pressured by society to be embarrassed by periods. It’s empowering to teach young women about their bodies, encourage them to celebrate them AND to question people who tell them not to! My goal with this look was to normalize menstruation by looking sick’ning even if I was on my period!”.

This comes around the same time an anonymous male member of the Oscar’s committee said that he would not being voting for documentary Period. End of Sentence to receive the Oscar it was nominated for as “It's well done, but it's about women getting their period, and I don't think any man is voting for this film because it's just icky for men,”. He was wrong, obviously, but that statement isn’t out of place in today’s society.

Societies disgust with periods is also nothing new. For instance, during the Boston Marathon in 1996 the winning athlete Uta Pippig ran with menstrual blood visible on her shorts and legs. Reporters and journalists were startled and didn’t know what to say, referring to “physical problems”, “stomach pain” and “diarrhoea” when describing what was going on with her. Later, when an article by The Boston Globe’s Eileen McNamara announced that the runner “bled all the way from Hopkinton to Boston” the report was met with outrage and disgust by the public and media alike. When faced with the visible signs that a woman was menstruating, this outweighed the media’s coverage of her success in the competition.

When stigma is predominant in such a blatant and large way it highlights the ways in which women are discriminated against because they menstruate. This oppression leads to a lack of conversations surrounding menstrual equality, and therefor kills the dialogue surrounding periods and period poverty. With a lack of discussion comes a lack of change and leaves women facing this struggle even more disadvantaged.

Going back to period poverty, the subject is never close from home. While the recent documentary focuses on women living in India, according to Plan International UK’s study on period poverty, over 137,000 children in the United Kingdom reported missing school because of their period. They also reported spending around 13 pounds a month on pads and tampons, which adds up to around 18,000 pounds in their menstruating life. 68% of school age female student’s reported feeling less able to pay attention in class while on their period, due to general discomfort, or a lack of feminine products. Research has also shown that by the time a girl leaves school, she has on average missed more than 143 days more than her male counter part, due to menstruation.

Studies have shown that a lack of educated women directly affect a society’s ability to succeed. For instance, well educated mothers are more likely to send their children to school, even in societies where formal education is not mandatory, therefor having a generational impact on the education of a society. Also, educated women are less likely to die during childbirth as they tend to have more knowledge of anatomy and healthcare services. They are also less likely to have large amounts of children, and thereby reduce the maternal/infant mortality rates. Decades of research have also shown a direct link between the socio-economic standing of a society and the education of girls, and well-educated women are shown to have a positive impact on the economy.

The crisis of period poverty also affects women’s health. With resources being slim and education on the topics lacking, girls are using the same pad or tampon for days on end, while the recommended use time is six to twelve hours. Increased time of use of a tampon leaves woman at risk for toxic shock syndrome, which is can be fatal. In countries such as Bangladesh and India, where period poverty rates are high, cervical cancer and different infections are also a result of poor menstrual hygiene.

It’s beneficial to girl’s health in general when we open up discussion around periods. Girls who are more vocal about their experiences with having menstrual issues are proven more likely to seek medical intervention. For instance, if you never talk to anyone about your period, you may go your entire life suffering with intense cramps and bleeding and think that that’s normal. You may only get your period every three months and think that’s normal. Meanwhile those are symptoms of both endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, two gynecological conditions that can have serious complications if not treated.

All hope is not lost however!

We have documentaries about periods winning Oscar’s, and there are also organizations such as The Red Box Project doing amazing work around breaking down the stigma and helping girls in need. The Red Box Project is a volunteer run organization in the UK that takes donations of pads and tampons and distributes them to girls in need. Another equally exciting charity called Bloody Good Brunch hosts brunch events where meals are bought with menstrual products instead of money, and those products are then also distributed to people who are struggling to purchase them. If you’re a lover of the menstrual cup, the organization of the Ruby Cup makes high quality menstrual cups (a reusable, usually silicone cup that you insert into your vagina that collects the blood from your period and can be rinsed and reused for up to ten years!) and works on a buy one, give one model. This means that for every cup purchased, one is donated to someone who can’t afford to buy one themselves. These are also excellent because they last so long, and while the initial investment ($40.00 Canadian) is a bit hefty, it’s also about the same amount that you would spend in around three months on pads and tampons and lasts for around 120 months.

See how important discussion is? I bet you didn’t know a lot of that before reading this article… You’re welcome!

So, it seems the more we talk about our periods, the closer we are to helping raise awareness for and ending period poverty. The more we talk about period poverty, the closer we are to raising awareness of conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome, which affect around 30% of the female population. The more we talk about periods, the closer we are to eradicating the ignorance that surrounds something that 50% of the world’s population will be doing for approximately 30 years of their life. Seems silly when you think about it that way doesn’t it? Because it is, period.