Enough with the stigma, already
I have a secret: once a month I menstruate. Although that’s not really a secret, is it? So why does our culture make us feel that periods need to be hidden? We hide our period products when we walk to the washroom, we speak in hushed voices and use silly euphemisms, and period commercials show mysterious blue liquid. It’s time for all of that to change, and thankfully, the crimson tide is turning.
It doesn’t make sense that menstruation—a normal, healthy human function that happens to an estimated 50 percent of the population through much of their lives—carries so much stigma and shame.
Even our language demonstrates our reluctance to talk openly about periods: some estimates counted 5,000 euphemisms for “menstruation” in 10 languages. Another recent study found that 42 percent of women have experienced “period shaming”—often from men. This study, commissioned by a period underwear company, found that 51 percent of men surveyed believe that it is inappropriate for women to talk openly about their periods.
From the very moment our menstruation begins, girls are typically taught to speak in hushed tones, hide their menstrual products from men and boys, and believe that periods are unhygienic. Even the terminology “female hygiene products” and “sanitary napkins” reinforces this belief.
This shame and stigma is hardly imaginary: it can be seen in our public places, and it’s built into our very economy when we examine access and cost.
Period products aren’t seen as optional, so why are they taxed? That’s a question Canadian activists have been asking for years. Finally, in 2015, the Trudeau government did away with the “tampon tax” (as it is colloquially known) and made menstrual products tax free.
In the US and many other countries, period products are still taxed, and research shows that many struggle to afford them. It’s called “period poverty,” and it exists in Canada as well. One study found that a third of people with periods under age 25 struggle to afford these very necessary products.
When those with periods can’t afford menstrual products, it means they aren’t able to fully participate in society. Many activists are campaigning for free access to period products for everyone.
Current regulations under Part II of the Canada Labour Code require employers to provide supplies such as toilet paper, soap, warm water, and a means to dry hands. The Government of Canada is considering adding menstrual products to that list and has embarked on a consultation and regulatory development process, with potential changes coming this year.
In schools, young activists are demanding period products provided for free, in the same way that other necessary products such as toilet paper and soap are provided for free. The BC government has already taken action to require all 60 of its school districts to provide free menstrual products for their students, while other governments are either considering similar steps or have already implemented them.
Activists are also calling for increased male education, explaining that boys and men aren’t taught about menstruation, therefore adding to the confusion, stigma, and shame. In school puberty talks, for example, it’s commonplace to separate boys and girls and teach them separate topics. Years later, this may translate into a culture that doesn’t understand the importance of period product accessibility, and the cycle continues.
No, it’s not just girls and women. These days, language surrounding periods is also starting to change in terms of gender and pronouns. A more inclusive vocabulary is emerging that considers trans and non-binary people who have periods, which also helps to dismantle shame. Several companies are even changing their packaging and terminology.
In popular culture and the media, we’re also seeing a pushback against the conventional period discourse. Runner Kiran Gandhi free-bled during the London Marathon in 2015 and was photographed with period blood on her clothes—an image that went viral. Also in 2015, an image from poet Rupi Kaur depicting period blood was removed from Instagram. (It was later restored, and Instagram says the removal was accidental.)
Meanwhile, some period product companies have been trying to fight to show more accurate depictions of periods and more frank language in advertising. A period underwear company recently sent shockwaves through major TV networks by showing a tampon string dangling from a pair of underwear. Another period product company has even run a TV commercial that shows red liquid, not the startlingly unnatural blue substance we’re so used to seeing. It’s hard to believe that only now is society coming to terms with seeing a red spot on a white pad, but it’s further proof of the deep shame and secrecy that we’re taught.
People with periods use an estimated 11,000 single-use period products in their lifetimes, whether it’s tampons or pads. These products don’t simply go away—in fact, they’re one of the items most found in shoreline cleanups. Made mostly from non-renewable ingredients and requiring vast amounts of resources to produce, single-use period products are unsustainable. Thankfully, wonderful reusable options exist.
A classic staple around the world, cloth pads typically adhere to underwear with snaps and are simply washed and reused.
For those who favour tampons, cups are a wonderful choice. There are many different sizes and types available.
A comfortable and practical choice (including for nighttime), period underwear is exploding in popularity. Again, many options exist in different styles and for different purposes and flows.
Days for Girls is an international non-governmental organization that creates period kits and provides health education and training for girls in more than 125 countries around the world. To date, it has reached more than 1.5 million girls and women worldwide, tackling stigma, spreading empowerment, and championing menstrual health. To learn more or to get involved, visit daysforgirls.org.
Abroad in many countries, the stigma and shame is much more extreme, and many taboos exist. In some areas, menstruating girls and women are believed to be dirty and untouchable. This information leads to widespread human rights abuses:
So, what can we do?
Donate to, or volunteer with, organizations that fight period stigma and help provide period products overseas.
Although there are many health concerns and hormonal imbalances that may affect periods, these are some supplements that have been used to help menstruation-related concerns:
For more info on reusable period products, visit alive.com/webexclusive
Leah Payne is a writer, editor, and sustainability influencer. Follow her at leahstellapayne.com and instagram.com/leahstellapayne.
This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title "Let’s Talk About Periods."