By Clara Ding, Sienna Zavaglia and Mona Qin
Menstruating is a completely natural subject, yet so many girls and women feel embarrassment and shame simply because they bleed. The topic of young girls first discovering their periods could either be full of excitement or full of dread. For some girls, it’s a step into their womanhood, but for others, it marks the disruption and end of their education and sports activities. In countries that have a period taboo, girls are unaware of periods until they first experience it. People associate periods with impurity, dirtiness, and shame, merely viewing them as bleeding and having cramps. This is the reality for billions of individuals who have been assigned female at birth. Having the ability to menstruate without receiving nasty comments or judgement is a human right.
42% of women have received period shaming, 58% of women have felt a sense of embarrassment for menstruating, and 1 in 5 women feel this way due to comments made by a male friend. Period shaming is a common but serious topic. Menstruating is a normal cycle in a young woman's life, and no woman should have to feel shamed or embarrassed about it.
Menstruation is a human rights issue. As women, we should have the right to menstruate without avoiding or stigmatising the topic, or considering it shameful. Many women cannot access secure period products, which are essential for their well-being. Women and their periods are not being treated as a natural aspect of life, despite being exactly that.
Under the topic of period shaming, several problems exist, ranging from lack of access to sanitary products to verbal comments made by others. This negatively affects a person's mental health. A spokeswoman for THINX (a female hygiene company specializing in sustainable period underwear) said, “Period shame is something a lot of women feel, starting with their very first cycle, which can occur as young as eight years old. Those feelings of embarrassment and self-hate are then reinforced by society, which tells women that their bodies should be clean and tidy, and if they aren’t, well that’s not something to be openly and honestly discussed. By anyone.”
These feelings are further reinforced by societal expectations, causing low self-esteem, psychological, emotional, and social distress, and potentially leading to serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. This influences their friendships, relationships, social activities, and overall well-being.
Furthermore, in many countries, there is a lack of sanitary and period products. Girls and women, especially those living in poverty, are forced to use paper towels, dirty rags, and even leaves as substitutes for pads and tampons. Studies show that nearly 1 in 5 girls have missed school due to either having no access to period products or the consequences of menstruation. This leads to physical health issues and can cause painful reproductive and urinary tract infections. The lack of knowledge about periods can also lead to extended periods by skipping meals or taking medication, resulting in more health problems and a negative perspective towards eating and food. Period poverty causes numerous health issues along with mental issues, and it forces girls to live and grow up in a confusing, fearful, and stressful environment.
Period poverty often affects a girl's ability to receive an education. Today, studies show that 23,000,000 girls drop out of school when they start menstruating. This could be due to a lack of period products available, pain from headaches, stomach aches, and cramps, or the fear of how they will be treated during this period (pun intended) of time. Some girls have no knowledge about periods until they experience them and are too often forced to skip school during menstruation. Eventually, they fall behind and drop out, jeopardizing their future lives and careers.
However, the issue of students dropping out (of school or any other activity) because of their periods doesn't just affect victims of period poverty. It can impact any girl or woman, making them struggle with their activities or forcing them to quit. For example, in sports, women and girls say sports kits are overly sexualized and not designed for periods. In sports like rugby, AFL, soccer, or any team sport, girls and women are required to wear white shorts, which increases the chances of visible period leaks and subsequent embarrassment. Studies have shown that 85% of girls don't get enough exercise due to clothing issues. These girls argue that if men faced similar discomfort and lack of secure sports kits, this issue would have been addressed by now.
While some progress has been made regarding period shaming and poverty, there is still a long way to go. We can help by donating period products and reducing the stigma around periods through open conversations. A simple act like this could improve a girl's life, providing them with a safe and supportive environment where they don't have to feel embarrassed or ashamed about their periods.