The Shame of Menstruation: Shush, I Got My Period

Ahh, the joys of menstruation. Between you and me, I am not one of the luckier ones who has 3 days of what I’d refer to as ‘mild discomfort’. When it’s that time of the month, y’all will know about it.  

 

But that’s just it.  

 

Growing up I found it disturbingly uncomfortable and awkward to even utter the word ‘period’. I remember envying the boys in primary school being asked to leave the sex ed talk so that the girls could watch some middle-aged woman dropping a tampon into a glass of water – a mortifying experience which has now become a TikTok trend. Oh, how times change. The ‘talk’ about periods and feminine hygiene was usually brief, rushed, and bloody uncomfortable (no pun intended). Not necessarily because of what was being discussed, but because it all seemed very secretive and taboo. I’m also angry looking back now that the boys were hurried out of the room, especially because understanding the menstrual cycle relates to understanding the importance and practicalities of safe sex and contraception. I mean, it’s not like any of them would go on to have daughters, or live with and care for women throughout their lifetime, right? 

 

Long story short, society has done a very good job of creating a stigma which is perpetrated by discrimination, lack of education, and cultural taboos. In fact, menstrual health is a major factor in gender equality. It’s ridiculous and tiring that we’re still having this conversation, when one half of the human race will experience this for the majority of their life. So, why do we feel as though we can’t talk about a subject that we’ve already created thousands of euphemisms for? And we all love a euphemism, a lot more than we love the word ‘vagina; anyway. But ‘shark week’, really???  

 

Activists have been campaigning for tax-free products and better menstrual health education for far too long, yet the movement has become increasingly louder in more recent years. The shame concerning periods has caused many to suffer in silence. This specifically applies to those who are unable to afford sanitary products, those who experience excessive pain and bleeding due to hormonal changes, and those who identify as trans and non-binary who may experience additional distress. Smashing this stigma is essential in enabling people who menstruate to access the education, products, and support systems they need.  

 

The Menstrual Hygiene Day towards the end of May emphasises that menstruation matters, and encourages people to spark a conversation about management and what can be done to tackle period poverty and taboos. And yet, there is still a long way to go.  

 

The following statistics show the results from a recent study conducted by Plan International UK involving 1,000 participants aged between 14-21. It was found that:  

 

  • Nearly half of girls (that’s 48%) were embarrassed by their periods. 

  • 3 in 4 were embarrassed to purchase sanitary products. 

  • 1 in 7 admitted that they did not know what was happening when they started their period, and more than a quarter reported that they didn’t know what to do. 

  • 49% admitted to missing a minimum of one day of school due to their period, of which 59% created an alternate lie to cover their absence. 

  • 64% had missed a sports lesson due to a combination of fear and discomfort. 

  • Only 1 in 5 feel comfortable discussing their period with a teacher. 

  • 1 in 10 had been asked not to discuss their period with their own parents. 

  • 1 in 10 people who menstruate can’t afford to buy sanitary products. 

  • 1 in 7 struggle to afford sanitary products, and 1 in 7 have had to ask to borrow sanitary wear from a friend due to affordability issues 

 

While these statistics are upsetting, they’re not in the least bit surprising and I’m sure they’ll feel all too familiar to the majority of people who experience the so-called ‘week from hell’ each month.  

 

At the ripe old age of 21, I finally feel comfortable enough to approach this subject, and yet I still find myself being caught off guard when somebody else does. I’ve realised that my confidence and ability to discuss anything relating to health and hygiene, including subjects such as body confidence, is something that has definitely come with age and experience. It’s a conversation that requires practice before it becomes natural. Now, if I’m experiencing a particularly difficult cycle, or my hormones are more out of balance than they usually would be, I have no problem letting the people around me know that, specifically if it has an impact on my concentration levels or completing tasks required of me. 16-year-old me could NEVER. In fact, even 18-year-old me created alternate excuses for having to leave work because I could barely stand upright. Slightly messed up, don’t you think? But while we’re on that note, I’m also all for supporting campaigns that are encouraging places of work to approve intense and complicated menstruation as a valid enough and recognised reason to take a sick day.  

 

Of course, I couldn’t write this article without mentioning Scotland now officially being the first country to pass legislation on free sanitary products. A huge step in the right direction and a lead by which other countries should hopefully follow. Not only is this the triumphant result of a four-year long campaign, but it has re-shaped the way we approach the conversation in a public setting.  

 

So, what are the steps going forward? 

 

  • Start the conversation small. Breaking this stigma isn’t about posting all of your symptoms on social media or screaming from the rooftops. Hey, if you want to, then go for it. But if there is something specific that you’re concerned about, perhaps start by discussing it with someone you trust.  

 

  • Be inclusive. People who menstruate aren’t just cis-gender women who look like the model on the tampon box. Lots of different people get periods, and it’s important that they are made to feel just as part of the conversation. 

 

  • Stay informed. Do your research. One thing I’ve done which has given me more confidence to be more open about that time of the month is following positive period leaders and organisations on social media, especially since it goes hand in hand with body positivity movements.  

 

  • Remember that not everyone's the same. Some people might never want to talk about periods, whether that’s in general or about their own. And that’s okay. But remember that everyone’s bodies are set up differently so what works for you might not necessarily work for others. Be open minded and reserve all judgements. We know periods are hellish to say the least.  

 

  • Be brave. Menstruation is completely normal and natural. Conversations that are focused on typically feminine related issues (body hair, cellulite etc.) are too often silenced by the media, making you feel alone and like an anomaly. There is always power in speaking up.