By Avery Benbow
My personal experience with periods is made up of two separate extremes. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the comradery of sharing experiences with friends, because who doesn’t like chatting about syncing and standing up to “waterfall” *shhh*. But on the other end, there’s the embarrassment of opening loud pads in toilets, or, god forbid, explaining what you’re putting in the bin to your brother. We all have a few good period horror stories (my personal favourite is courtesy of a friend - it involves a mini-tornado of pads), but behind them is often a general discomfort with periods, at least publically.
Despite being a natural, healthy process, there is hesitancy and hints of shame when talking about menstruation, in Australia and internationally. As this is this year’s Loreto Day focus, I implore you to contemplate, why?
Dictionary.com defines ‘taboo’, as “prescribed by society as improper and unacceptable.” Applying this to societal attitudes towards menstruation, we would say it was a taboo subject. We are, without a doubt, extremely lucky to live in a country where education about the processes of AFAB (assigned-female-at-birth) bodies is expected. Yet, despite this, there is still a stigma surrounding periods themselves.
This can be deduced through the euphemisms that are often used to describe menstruation, which often have nothing to do with its actual nature. A study by Clue found over 5,000 different terms for menstruating globally. They include “having your period,” “time of the month,” and “Auntie Flo,” and the general theme is one without reference to blood or vaginas altogether, which, remind me if I’m wrong, are pretty central to menstruation itself.
These euphemisms, though not problematic themselves, reflect a longstanding negative attitude towards menstruation. This involves it being seen as something impure, shameful, and even contaminated. This results in referencing blood or sanitary products, anywhere from in conversation to branding, being seen as confronting. Anna Druet, researcher and expert in reproductive health, comments, “if you were to describe your lungs, you’d use no other word. The verb “to breathe” is used equally by clinicians and laypeople,” yet we feel the need to mask menstruation behind linguistic barriers for the comfort of those around us. This can result in someone learning about what menstruation is when they get a period for the first time, and sometimes not even then.
Historians struggle to find a reason that this stigma arose in a similar way internationally, but many link it to the sexist cultures that emerged when hunter-gatherer societies became agricultural ones. Interestingly, hunter-gatherer cultures often don’t have period taboos, similar to cultures where men and women exist equally. This suggests that historically, menstruation taboos have been a method for women’s oppression and limitation.
This stigmatisation “prevents you from experiencing your cycle as empowering” (Chris Knight), because realistically, for 55% of males, periods are associated with the word “dirty”. This may not seem overly concerning, but “dirty” is the reoccurring reality for 26% of the global population. And this continued stigma rooted in misogyny allows for that 26% to continue to be subject to the restrictions placed on the “biologically inferior” sex throughout history.
This comes in the form of “challenges in menstrual management, adverse reproductive health outcomes, social ostracization, disease, and even death” (Anna Druet) as the expense of sanitary products means approximately 137,000 girls in the UK and 40% of girls in India miss school every year because of lack of access to them. Instead, 500 million AFAB people internationally are forced to use unsanitary substitutes such as socks, or in places like West Bengal (India) even dried leaves, often leading to disease or infection.
Besides this lack of sanitary products, restrictions placed on people who are menstruating can come with dangerous and even deadly consequences. For example, in Nepal and Vanuatu, when menstruating, women and girls are exiled from their homes in makeshift shelters which leaves them vulnerable to attacks and the elements. This practice called ‘chhaupadi,’ was banned in 2005, yet is still practised, especially in rural areas. This tragically led to a young woman and her two children being found dead in one of these shelters on January 9, 2019, yet practices similar to this are not uncommon, even internationally.
In addition, even in places where there is education and sanitary products available, the marketing of sanitary products and periods themselves towards women is exclusionary towards transgender men or non-binary people who also menstruate. This is also visible in the lack of sanitary bins in men’s or gender-neutral toilets, which overall speaks to greater issues about trans visibility, where they are not even considered in conversations around periods.
Therefore, it’s clear this “culture of silence” (Alexandra Parnebjork) and lack of resources means the ability of people AFAB (assigned-female-at-birth) to participate healthily in education, work and everyday life is compromised. This prohibits people of different backgrounds, nationalities and genders from having an equal experience of life, simply because of a natural biological process.
So what is the answer? Alexandra Parnebjork, expert in reproductive health, outlines that much of the stigma surrounding periods is based on poor education, which serves to “worsen gender inequality… [through] a perception of girls as less worthy.” And thankfully, changing attitudes through education is a possible solution to misperception, which can be encouraged through the normalisation of periods. This normalisation is supported by 92% of boys internationally, who believe it should occur through school, parents and the media.
Improvement can also come in the form of providing more sanitary products, such as pads, bins, etc, to people and communities who have limited access to them. Landing Pad is doing this in communities in West Bengal, India, by producing and providing sanitary pads, as well as education in schools and communities, to break down the stigmas surrounding menstruating.
Hopefully, with our support, they can move towards a safer and less stigmatised future, but we need to remember that this is a near-universal issue. One that takes a healthy, biological, life giving process (go menstruation!) and turns it into a nameless evil. Rooted in a history of sexism, menstruation taboos hold AFAB people back from openly embracing their bodies in a secure way that doesn’t impact their health, safety, and position in society. Whether you menstruate or not, we need to collectively recognise this stigma and face it with pride for our bodies and menstruation as a whole, because this human rights issue can not remain unspoken. Period.