Stigma Surrounding Periods is Harmful and in Need of Change

While shopping with my parents recently I had to buy some sanitary towels and their reactions were definitely not what I was expecting. My mum would only whisper any mention of them, and was surprised I wasn’t getting a bag to conceal the single item as I carried it to the car. When we parked up outside a restaurant in the evening, my dad made a point of covering the packet of pads with a jumper, to prevent any embarrassment if someone was to walk past and glimpse them lying casually on the back seat.

This got me thinking. At 13, when I’d just started getting my period, I was pretty embarrassed (I would take pains to hide the noise of opening a pad in the school toilets) but I hadn’t realised that I had learnt this behaviour from two grown adults, rather than it just being a product of my childish naivety.

At 18, studying history, I was astounded by the prejudice women faced throughout history for this natural bodily function. It was a common belief in the medieval period that menstruating women were unclean and defiling. It was seen almost as an embarrassing curse women were stuck with. Women were also stopped from going about their daily lives, banned from entering church while bleeding and in some cultures placed under further restrictions, convinced there would be negative consequences if they disobeyed. It is strange to me that in some ways these taboos still linger in modern society.

My mum told me that when she begun work, she suffered from extreme cramps while on her period. These were so bad that she would have to sneak off to lie in a certain position on the floor in an empty room, with the lights off, waiting for them to pass. Upon hearing this, I asked why, when they were at their worst, she did not ask to go home, since the pain was preventing her from completing her work anyway. She answered that she was too embarrassed to explain to her boss what the issue was. Surely, if we worked together to make periods less of an avoided topic, women would find it easier to speak about, and so those who have particularly difficult cycles would not have to suffer through it.

The issue of period shame can be much more serious. Plan International UK found that 79% of girls/young women who had experienced symptoms relating to their period that concerned them, such as especially heavy bleeding, irregular periods or intense pain, had not sought professional help. Over a quarter of those explicitly stated that this was because they were too embarrassed. This could prevent serious medical issues from being diagnosed. An American study by THINX found that almost 60% of women felt embarrassed at being on their period and around 75% made sure to hide their sanitary products. Shockingly, 29% said they had cancelled plans out of fear people would discover they were on their period. Periods, it seems, are still restricting women in similar ways as they have done in the past.

People feeling so embarrassed over a bodily function that roughly half of the world’s population experience is ridiculous.  The stigma around periods needs to be reduced, with more campaigns like Bodyform's #bloodnormal, for the health of many women and girls. I understand why people may find it embarrassing, any form of blood is, to many people, quite gross, and we don’t generally discuss what our genitals are doing. However, this is a key feature of the health of any person with a uterus therefore normalizing discussions about it has important ramifications. You wouldn’t feel ashamed buying toilet paper, despite it relating to a bodily function (and urine is definitely less clean than menstrual blood), so why should we feel so ashamed at buying menstrual products. The majority of people who menstruate are living with discomfort and shame that is wholly unnecessary and potentially harmful, so everyone (including those who have never experienced a period) needs to put effort into rejecting period stigma.