Trying to keep it in, I bite my lip. I try taking some deep breaths to shake it off, but it does not work. My shoulders start shaking, and I burst out laughing. My small giggle quickly becomes hysterical. The word “tampon” would not get out of my head, and this was the cause of the commotion. As my loud, infectious giggles fill up the whole room, others join me.
I, along with the rest of the girls in fifth grade, was in a human development class learning about puberty, specifically menstruation. As an eleven-year-old, the words “tampon” and “period” were hilarious, but that is exactly the problem. Why do periods spark incessant laughter? Why is “menstruation” seen as a dirty word? Well, it is simple. We are all taught at a young age to feel this way about periods.
Children are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable when talking about menstruation; adults are too. In 2017, WaterAid surveyed over 2,000 women, 18 and older, about how they feel towards menstruation. The survey found that two-thirds of the women felt “uncomfortable openly carrying their sanitary products to the toilet in public, and around half wouldn’t feel confident to tell their dad or male boss about period pain or PMT.” (1) Most menstruators are ashamed about their periods and are afraid to talk about it openly. A study carried out by Clue in association with The International Women’s Health Coalition in 2016 reported that there are about 5,000 slang words for menstruation. (2) Do we really need 5000 different ways of trying to avoid referencing a totally normal biological process?
There is a familiar situation that almost every menstruator has experienced: using menstrual care products in a public bathroom. You are at work or at school and need to change your menstrual care product. You open the stall door, and you take a few moments to get situated. As you are searching your bag for a pad or tampon, you hear the stall door next to you open and close. There is someone right next to you and if you open up the wrapper of your period product, they will know you have your period. It’s an awkward moment. In this instance, the menstruator does not want anyone to think they have their period, but why is this the case?
With that same mindset, why are people comfortable saying “I have to use the restroom” or even “I need to go pee?” Utilizing the bathroom and having your period are similar in many ways. They are both necessary bodily functions that no one has any control over, but there is a stigma around only one of them.
The shame around menstruation is dangerous because it results in a lack of health education. This ignorance is exactly what fuels myths about periods. In 2017, Betty for Schools found that 44% of girls do not know what is happening when they get their first period. To make matters worse, their research also found that 60% of women feel scared and 58% feel embarrassed about their first periods. (3) Many menstruators around the globe are not given proper education about menstruation. Unicef in 2018 explains, “Many girls do not have a complete and accurate understanding of menstruation as a normal biological process. Educating girls before their first period — and, importantly, boys — on menstruation, builds their confidence, contributes to social solidarity and encourages healthy habits. Such information should be provided at home and at school.” (4)
However, the root of the stigma around periods is from society. Society has ingrained the idea that periods are absolutely disgusting, and like many other issues, we fall into the trap of believing it; all of it. The stigma around menstruation has created a situation where menstruators actually contemplate the idea of wanting care products where the wrapper does not make any sound when unwrapped.
If people are not comfortable talking about periods, then when there is a prominent issue around menstruation, it will not be discussed. There is a crisis that is being ignored: period poverty. Period poverty, simply put, is not having access to period products. Period poverty, in other words, is when menstruators do not have tampons, pads, or menstrual cups to manage their periods. Many menstruators who experience period poverty use alternatives, such as socks, garbage, cardboard, plastic bags, rags, and anything else available. These so-called alternatives can lead to horrible health consequences, including infections. Imagine that you are an impoverished woman who has her period. You look around and you have six dollars. What do you spend this limited money on? Do you buy a tampon or get yourself something to eat?
Unfortunately, this is a situation that many women face around the globe.
Period poverty leads to girls staying home from school and women staying home from work. According to BBC News in 2019, it is estimated that 1 in 10 girls in Africa will miss school when they have their periods. (5) When this happens, girls and women are potentially missing crucial opportunities that could greatly alter their future. This causes the gender gap to expand, making advancing gender equality more difficult.
I often hear the phrase “It’s a problem over there” said by people who do not live in developing countries, but this is inaccurate. Period poverty is a problem that affects everyone everywhere. Global Citizen in 2019 states, “In the US, nearly 20% of girls have missed school because they could not afford period products. Yet, due largely to social stigma around menstruation, period poverty isn’t often discussed and hasn’t received the attention it deserves.”
- Excuses for not discussing this issue need to stop Remember, there is a woman right now using a sock as a pad. How would you feel? Change will only occur if people stop denying the severity of the issue around period stigma.
The taboo around periods is the reason for many large issues today. Gender equality cannot be attained without first eradicating period poverty and the negative stigma regarding menstruation. It is an issue that needs to be solved, as it impacts so many lives.
There is one main solution that we can easily do: start thinking about periods normally. “Ew” or “gross” should no longer be words associated with menstruation. Instead, we should all have positive or neutral feelings towards menstruation.
Most of the world sees periods as dirty, but this can change. I, as a fifth-grader, thought periods were funny, but now, as an eighth-grader, see it as something natural. Change is difficult, but it is certainly possible. No menstruator should ever feel embarrassed to say “period” out loud, and we need to start normalizing the normal. We do not need menstrual care products where the wrapper does not make any sound, but we instead need to eradicate the stigma around periods.
This is not just an issue for menstruators. Activist and founder of Free Periods, a non-profit organization that is working towards ending period stigma and period poverty, explains about involving boys and men in education regarding menstruation, “Indirectly, periods will affect them too, and, for too long they’ve been left out of the conversation.” (7) Everyone is part of this conversation, regardless of their gender and background.
Open up that wrapper in the restroom. Do it. Loudly.
Sophene Avedissian expresses her thoughts and opinions through her writing. To draw attention to important issues in the world, Sophene wrote a book, Stand Tall, at the age of twelve. Stand Tall consists of many short stories that all relate to problems that must be combated in order to advance gender equality. Sophene has written for her school’s newspaper for the past two years, and will be the Middle School Managing Editor next year in ninth grade, where she will oversee the work of middle schoolers. Sophene is also a LA Times High School Insider, where she writes a wide range of articles.
- https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/girls-teenagers- start-period-menstruation-education-women-s-health-betty-schools-a7636246.html
- https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/fast-facts-nine-things-you-didnt-know-about-menst ruation#_edn5
- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/28/stigma-periods-boys-young-w omen-bullying-menstruation