Period stigma has never been that serious. Menstrual blood is the only blood that is not a symptom of an illness or is generated by violence, yet it is the one that generates the most disgust and embarrassment. This is a thought-provoking notion, but in a world shaped to serve men, with a medical vocabulary created by men and the classification of what is legitimate to say and what is not, drawn up by men, it is not all that surprising.
It is neither a secret nor a novelty that menstruation and all that goes with it is a deep-rooted and almost insurmountable taboo. Or perhaps we should call it TOM, short for “time of month”? Would that be less of an embarrassment? In Austria they would refer to it as ‘strawberry week’, in South Africa it would be expressed by referring to a ‘grandmother stuck in traffic’, in Brazil saying you were with a certain ‘Chico’ would be enough to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt. We have been taught a proper code language to propagate and defend the idea that having a menstrual cycle is something to be ashamed of and kept to oneself.
Period stigma: why does it have two faces?
However, period stigma has two faces. A menstruating woman is looked on positively as long as she does not talk about it. A woman without menstruation has something wrong with her. A menstruating man suffers transophobic attacks on a daily basis while being forced to buy products marked as for “feminine hygiene”.
In a patriarchal, binary and heteronormative society that has not yet accepted that cis women bleed once a month and are not ashamed of it, the notion that having a period does not mean being a woman and vice versa, is for too many a bitter pill to swallow. Every culture has its own set of myths about periods, mostly related to various religious beliefs. From being dirty to bringing bad luck, to attracting sharks, women have historically been confined to their homes during the menstrual cycle and in many cultures still are due to limited access to sanitation and adequate hygiene products, as well as little if any information. Confined to their houses is not even the worst it could happen to a woman during her period: in Nepal, the tradition of Chaupadi requires women to sleep outside the family home during menstruation. Although the practise was abolished in 2017 cases are still many and lead to the death of one girl in 2018.
Period stigma: the impact on education
These issues put women at an incredible disadvantage, starting with education. Worldwide 1 in 3 schools has no toilets or running water. Action Aid has estimated that around 1 in 10 women stays home from school during their menstrual cycle and that women tend to be absent for an average of 10 to 20% of days during a school year. But let’s leave the colonialist mentality aside. These kinds of problems do not only concern cultures considered backward or primordial. Female exclusion from society is much closer to home than we can imagine.
Let’s just think of the narrative related to menstrual pain. The belief that women have been given the gift of fertility and – just because of it – they must suffer, the approach that sees menstruation cramps, migraines and muscle pain as something completely normal that every woman, or person with a period, must learn to accept, mean that delays and missed diagnoses of reproductive diseases are commonplace. There is a very high probability that a person who goes to the gynaecologist with menstrual pain will be sent home with a couple of paracetamols, a pat on the back, and maybe the contraceptive pill.
Period stigma: pain is real
While bleeding during menstruation should be normalised, what is not normal and should be investigated is pain. No, suffering for five or more days every month is not normal. No, stuffing oneself with painkillers and anti-inflammatories is not normal, and no, it is not normal for the working, social or academic life of a menstruating person to be compromised by it. Attempts to raise awareness of the issue have begun to arise where all social battles now take place: Instagram. Celebrities and influencers diagnosed with reproductive disorders and diseases have started to divulge their personal experiences to normalise and stimulate conversation.
Giorgia Soleri, model and activist, with almost 400k followers, publishes a lot of informative content about her illnesses, endometriosis, adenomyosis and vulvodynia, recounting the very difficult journey that led to her diagnosis. The above-mentioned diseases are far from rare and should not be underestimated. Endometriosis, for example, affects 10% of women in their fertile age. Symptoms include chronic, debilitating pelvic pain during the menstrual cycle and damages to fertility. Too often, however, patients are treated as “hypochondriacs and liars” as Soleri reports in the post she shared after her recent surgery.
In 2018, Lena Durham told of her hysterectomy surgery at the age of 31 to stop the unbearable pain caused by endometriosis. In her touching article for Vogue, Durham admits that she always wanted to get pregnant but with that kind of pain she wouldn’t have been able to be “anyone’s mother”.
Period stigma in western societies goes far beyond going to the bathroom with your purse or whispering in your friend’s ear when you need a tampon. Just think of the taxation of sanitary products and tampons. Although some progress is being made, with countries like Scotland making tampons free for everyone and others abolishing the tampon tax, there are still too many people who cannot afford them.
10% of people interviewed in a survey by Plan International UK about period poverty in the UK said they could not afford to buy tampons every month. 15% said they struggled to buy them and 14% said they asked their friends for them. For every woman like Soleri and Durham, there is one who suffers from endometriosis every month, who will never know and will never be treated appropriately. For every pad we roll up, there are thousands of women who use tissue, dust or sand to pad their menstrual cycle, which will lead them to suffer of, among other things, very serious infections. Every time we use expressions like ‘TOM’, there are trans women being asked why they don’t menstruate, there are trans men buying tampons amidst a sea of judgmental stares. And there are women and men who are not free to live their gender identity in a peaceful and healthy way.
For every post, article and comment, for every #freeperiod hashtag, there are hundreds of women who still don’t feel safe talking about their periods, their pain, their menstrual problems. For every glance thrown at us because we dare to talk about sanitary pads in public without blushing or whispering, there are thousands of women who don’t have access to them and experience their periods as a disabling disease rather than a natural bodily function. Pay attention.