By: Emma B.

When I got my first period, I looked like I was ready to die. Puberty had hit me like a truck, but even I wasn’t expecting my period at an early nine and a half years old! I was sweating, and hugging my knees as I lied down in the back of my Mom’s car. She rushed me into the house, trying to help me. I heard talk about my gallbladder being removed. So when I went to the bathroom and saw tiny splotches of blood in my underwear, I was almost relieved. Even then, I knew my period was not something I was supposed to talk about.  Since then, I’ve learned the rules of having your period. I’ve learned every euphemism, and have been scrutinized by both men and women for forgetting to wrap up my pads before I throw them away. However, it’s only recently when something dawned on me -  

“This doesn’t feel right.” 

I began to realize how odd it was that, even in 2020, people who menstruate are still expected not to bring up their periods. Despite the intense pain we can feel during our menstrual cycles, we feel embarrassed to talk about it. When we mention how painful our cramps are, we receive sympathy. However, we rarely receive understanding. I was discussing this sentiment with the staff of the LGG and we all came to the same frightening conclusion:

“People who menstruate still aren’t allowed to talk about it when they’re bleeding.” 

I needed to know why. How on Earth can we live in a world where US women can vote, and yet we and others who menstruate can’t talk comfortably about our biological experiences? I began to research, not only the history, but the various dynamics of how people talk about menstruation. What I found was enlightening, but also terrifying. 

There’s something important one has to remember when discussing the history of menstruation. History, until recently, has often been written by men about other men. For example, Pliny the Elder (a Roman philosopher) said that menstrual blood causes everything from “turn[ing] dogs mad,” to “fidelity for life.” Still, women were allowed some openness when discussing their periods at the time. This would continue until the 5th century, when women began to be religiously shamed for their cycles. Many considered periods “dirty,” and that it could cause “leprosy.” This cultural shame surrounding periods seems to be universal. A recent BuzzFeed article interviewed women across the globe about their experiences with their periods. Whether it be a Muslim or Christian leaning nation, industrialized or not, the consensus was almost universal. Periods, at best, are something people who menstruate are encouraged to hide. At worst, it’s something they are actively shamed for. Menstruation is a stigma that takes various forms of intensity across the Globe. 

In the UK, it's estimated that 137,000 girls miss school each year due to the effects of the menstrual cycle. From personal experience, I’ve missed numerous days of school due to my cramps. I’m getting better at taking precautions, but sometimes I’ll miss my medication or forget my pads. Not only is it mortifying, but I’d likely be suspended if I take ibuprofen to school to treat my intense pain. At school, ibuprofen is considered a type of drug. In other countries, the ramifications can be even more drastic. According to the Public Health Advocate, many women in Venezuela can be forced to sleep in huts during their periods. In Kenya, girls will miss an average of four days of school per month. The effects also go deeper. In a report recently commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office, it’s been reported that girls in Kenya will sometimes be forced to engage in sexual activities for menstrual care products. This can lead to increased cases of HIV as well as increase the risk of non-consenting sexual acts. There are also examples of women being excluded from cooking, cleaning, or sleeping in their own homes during their menstrual cycles. Across the cultural divide, women are united by people disrespecting them for their periods. Worse still, people are encouraged to not talk about these acts of injustice. Not only out of cultural context, but also due to further stigma. 

According to a study conducted by the International Women’s Health Coalition, there are about 5,000 slang words referring to menstruation in just ten languages alone. This directly feeds the embarrassment many people have talking about menstruation. Another stigma has also developed in recent years. Transgender, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming individuals have made significant advances in the last decade. However, the discussion surrounding menstruation is sadly lagging. Firstly, it’s important to realize that many transgender and gender non-conforming individuals can, and in fact do, menstruate. Yet a recent Forbes article stated that many individuals on the greater gender spectrum feel “isolated” from the conversation. Transgender activist, Kenny Ethan Jones, recalled a feeling of “losing control,” when he got his first period. Additionally, a recent controversy was sparked over the summer when J.K. Rowling (author of Harry Potter), actively tweeted that she refused to acknowledge that transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people menstruate. Still, progress has been made. A period brand called Callaly has tried to make further accommodations for all people who menstruate. 

Still, the biggest modern barrier to menstrual equality is poverty. Menstrual products are incredibly expensive. A box of sixty three tampons can cost as much as twelve dollars. A package of maxi-pads can cost over twenty dollars. A HuffPost article calculated that women spend thousands of dollars on tampons over the course of their lifetimes. Heating pads, underwear, and additional treatment products can also explode the cost of treating one’s period. All of these costs, especially for underwear and heating pads, far surpass the minimum wage. Something that is essential for millions of people typically costs more than a gallon of milk. Menstrual hygiene products in the United States are also still subjected to tax in 32 different states. People who menstruate who make above the minimum wage may see this as an annoying inconvenience, but for low-income people, this is a crisis. Sixty four percent of low-income women cannot afford menstrual care products. Adding to this, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals are twice as likely to live in poverty, than cisgender people. Finally, most men’s homeless shelters don’t have supplies for trans-men that menstruate. Poor people who menstruate are often punished for being unable to afford proper care. Something that should be a fundamental right is often denied. 
People who menstruate can be discriminated against and treated terribly for a natural, biological process. It’s a disgusting double standard that exists across almost every culture on the planet. Furthermore, those of us who menstruate aren’t allowed to talk about it. We use euphemisms and pretend that it doesn’t affect us. Then, when we do talk about it, we’re told we’re being radical or emotional. It’s one of the original double standards that’s baked into society. However, it’s not a hopeless battle. It may be slow, but people who menstruate are slowly making strides. The greater tragedy though is that this is an uphill battle in the first place. Women are often forced to hide how much pain they are in. Others who menstruate often cannot open up about their experiences at all. To that, I only have three words: Let us bleed.


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