Ah, periods. Lots of people have them. None of us would be here without them. They’re a necessary and natural part of life. Yet often we associate “that time of the month” with stigma and shame. Here are three myths society tells us about periods, the resulting impacts on people who menstruate – and some actions we can take to make things better.
Periods are unclean
It only takes a cursory glance at the words associated with periods to see what society says about this one. Sanitary products. Menstrual hygiene.These words are a not-so-subtle reminder that we need to make periods sanitary and hygienic.
Humans have a long history of thinking periods are gross. You can find references to unclean and impure menstrual blood in the texts of four major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism). My favourite part is beliefs that periods are responsible for everything from failing crops to contaminated meat. If only we menstruaters had that much power!
But seriously, this idea has real implications for people who menstruate across the world. Take the Nepalese practice of Chhaupadi, for example. Derived from Hindu ideas and traditions, Chhaupadi dictates that menstruating people are unclean and must stay away from daily activities.
This includes sleeping in a small hut away from other family members and not touching any people, animals or crops during menses. The huts are basic, putting people at risk from animal bites, temperature exposure and sexual assault. Not to mention the mental health impacts of spending a week or so each month in isolation.
The Supreme Court of Nepal outlawed Chhaupadi in 2005. However Nepalese activists say many local authorities aren’t implementing the ban and women face societal pressure to continue Chhaupadi without reporting it.
Sadly, people are still losing their lives to the practice. In December 2019, Parbati Buda Rawat died after suffocating from a fire she lit to stay warm in a menstrual hut.
Periods are shameful
Avoiding white clothes because you’re worried about embarrassing blood stains. Shoving a tampon up your sleeve hoping no one will notice. Feeling sick from cramps but not telling anyone why you don’t feel like doing anything. All period-related experiences I’ve had, which I’m sure other menstruators can relate to.
I did these things because I felt ashamed. I didn’t want other people to know about my period. Although I talk about periods all the time now, cloaking periods in shame and secrecy throughout most of my teen years definitely caused me anxiety. And it affects lots of other people too.
Research for the Australian book About Bloody Time asked over 3000 people who menstruate their feelings about periods. Participants reported period shame and anxiety passed on from their mothers, reinforced by fears of stigma and bullying at school and finally a culture of silence around menstruation in the workplace.
According to the book’s authors, all of these experiences result in a ‘pervasive menstrual taboo’, which people who menstruate learn at a young age and carry with them throughout their lives. The authors conclude that shame, secrecy and anxiety associated with menstruation can hold people who menstruate back in all spheres of life.
… And this shame makes period poverty worse
Period poverty describes when a person can’t afford menstrual products. It’s made worse by shame, which can stop people asking for help. People often use makeshift items in place of menstrual products – think socks, paper towel, toilet paper. And research shows young people experiencing period poverty skip school, fearing their makeshift products will fail.
UK-based research showed that in 2017, 137,700 young people regularly missed school because they couldn’t afford menstrual products.
There’s no similar country-wide figures for Australia, but researchers have found evidence of teachers buying menstrual products for their students and young Indigenous people missing school each month, potentially due to menstrual product access.
All people who have periods are women/ people who aren’t women don’t have periods
JK Rowling recently created a commotion about an article titled Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate. Quite sarcastically, Rowling tweeted her disapproval of the term ‘people who menstruate’, igniting an internet debate. Which I’m pretty sure is what she intended.
But it’s not up for debate. Not everyone who has periods is a woman. And some women don’t have periods. And acknowledging this fact is not undermining the experience of cisgender women who do have periods – as Ms. Rowling seems to think.
If we refer to all people who menstruate as women, the unique needs and experiences of trans, intersex and non-binary people who also menstruate are erased.
Kenny Ethan Jones, a model and activist and a man who has periods, spoke about heightened feelings of gender dysphoria when buying menstrual products marketed at women from the ‘women’s health’ section. Jones explains that these feelings could stop trans and gender diverse people accessing menstrual products at all.
Furthermore, in the wider sexual and reproductive health field, ideas that certain procedures are for “women only” (rather than everyone with a uterus) affects trans and gender diverse peoples’ access to cervical screens and pregnancy-related care.
For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Kenny’s response to Rowling’s comments.
Ideas that periods are dirty, shameful and gendered are ingrained in our society. It’s in the words we use, the way we feel, the way products are marketed. It’s in the ideas we pass onto younger generations.
And the impacts on people who menstruate are real. Anxiety, stress, trouble accessing the products needed to manage periods. Even death. All caused by intense shame and stigma around a perfectly normal part of life.
We’re talking about periods now more than ever before. There’s initiatives to help those in period poverty, including the Victorian government introducing free menstrual products in state schools in October 2019. And there’s greater awareness – and use of – inclusive terms like ‘people who menstruate’.
But busting centuries of social stigma is no easy task. Structural change (like free menstrual products in schools) is necessary and important, but it has to be driven and supported by individual action.
So, what can we do about it?
Here are some things we can do right now to help re-frame the period conversation and take action on the issues affecting menstruators:
- Talk about periods!!! In a positive way!! The most important action on this list. The cycle of silence and stigma passed on through generations underpins all the problems outlined above. Whether you’re a parent, a sibling, a teacher or just an adult with friends, you can do your part to break the cycle. To make talking about periods (and how natural and great they are) the norm – for those who menstruate and those who don’t.
- When talking about menstruation, try to use inclusive language and discuss how periods are not strictly gendered. Kenny Ethan Jones’ activism is a good place to learn more about this.
- Support charities like Share the Dignity who work across Australia to get menstrual products to everyone who needs them.
- Ask for – or implement – a menstrual policy at your workplace. The Victorian Women’s Trust have had one since 2016, allowing employees to look after their wellbeing during menstruation without having to take sick leave. They even have a policy template other organisations can use!
- Join a campaign to ask for free menstrual products in all Australian schools.
Original post https://www.theawarenessproject.blog/three-period-myths/