The menstrual cycle was never discussed at length by the people at school. We were the kinds of people who asked if anyone had a pad in an urgent whisper. We pretended our tampons were large tubes of Chapstick so no one would suspect. There was a certain level of embarrassment surrounding the subject. The closest the people I knew came to moving past it was when some of my friends asked me how a tampon worked. I pulled one from my backpack to show them what an applicator looked like.
“Anna! You can’t just hold that in the band room office!” my friend shrieked. “Go throw it away.”
I moved to toss the unused product into the office wastebasket, but I was stopped.
“No! Someone’s gonna see it! Throw it in the bathroom.”
There was a kind of shame that hung over the subject of girls getting their periods. I did not realize the extent until this summer when I interned for a broadcasting office filled with men. My period came unexpectedly with a severe set of cramps. We were downstairs in the studio and the upstairs office, where my sanitary products and painkillers sat, was behind a locked door. I was too embarrassed to interrupt the broadcast so I had to hunt down a tampon elsewhere. In the bathroom, I asked another intern if she had a tampon. She apologized and said she did not. Then she suggested I ask my supervisor for one. I awkwardly explained my situation and that my supervisors were all men.
“Tell them you’ll bleed all over their floor if they don’t go unlock that door for you!”
I was unaccustomed to someone speaking so brashly about such matters. We stared at each other for a long moment. The intern finally spoke.
“My supervisor has some in her office. Why don’t we just go there?”
I ended up copping a tampon from the office of a Massachusetts state representative.
Then, I returned to the studio where my cramps got worse. So bad, in fact, that I fainted. As I lay there, semi-conscious on the floor in the sub-basement of Massachusetts State House, I got a taste of what rock bottom feels like. Then, I actually hit rock bottom when they asked if I needed medical assistance.
“Um…no. I…well, I get really severe cramps and this happens occasionally. I’ll just wait it out here. It’s all good.”
It was not all good. They ended up continuing the broadcast around my limp body as I waited for the pain to pass in shame. I propped my ankles up on a chair to return blood flow to my head. A man leaned over to hand me a cup of water on his way to adjust the settings on the audio soundboard. The graphics operator stepped over me. Rock bottom.
While this has been the general tone of my experience, I wonder what could have been different if I had chosen to be a bit more forthcoming. Not as forthcoming as the girl who helped me in the senator’s office, but not so ashamed that I would not ask for the office door to be unlocked.
Luckily, there are a number of people working to reverse the mindset that I have held onto for so long, some of whom are within Boston University. I did more research on organizations like PERIOD, a non-profit that works to distribute menstrual products to those who need them. This organization was founded by Harvard College and Cornell University students, Nadya Okamoto and Vincent Forand back in 2014. There are numerous chapters run through universities across the country. Okamoto experienced the effects of being without proper menstrual products firsthand when she and her family were homeless for several months.
The stigma around Aunt Flow can be more serious than simply being embarrassed around coworkers. Women who are unable to obtain feminine hygiene products or feel ashamed asking for them often resort to using items that simply do the job, such as toilet paper, brown paper bags, and socks. This actually can lead to Toxic Shock Syndrome, more commonly known as TSS by the threatening warning on the side of your tampon box. This problem has the potential to affect the 26.4 million people who are unable to afford menstrual products because they are considered a luxury item.
Making these products readily available is a fight that has extended to Boston University, and not just through BU’s PERIOD chapter. Student government senator Hayley Gambone is working to offer free menstrual products in all of the bathrooms across campus. She claimed that while people within BU Facilities Management and Planning were in support of her initiative, the stigma around periods sometimes made explaining the ins and outs of different menstrual products awkward and difficult. The Dean of Students, Kenneth Elmore, has offered his support and is in the process of collecting the resources necessary to move the initiative forward.