Alexandra Blanter discusses the social stigma around periods and why we should change the way we (don’t) talk about them
Picture this. It’s a beautiful, sunny morning, the sun shining brightly in the sky, birds chirping, people chattering. What a nice day, you think to yourself, as you walk up the campus ready to start the day. “Want to head over to English?” your friend asks you. “Oh yes, just a second,” you say, smiling. “Have to stop by the bathroom first.” Your friend waves to you, and you wave back and skip off.
So you go to the bathroom. You’re getting ready to, well, you know what, when you see it (in one of two forms). A small, red spot that kindly lets you know that “hello, it’s me” or a casual explosion of blood all over your favorite new pair of underwear that you just bought last weekend.
Either way, you now have the option of proceeding in a couple of different ways.
- Option #1: stuff your underwear with toilet paper because you conveniently left your tampons at home.
- Option #2: lock the door to the bathroom and desperately try to wash out the stain in the sink hoping that nobody in the meantime will knock on the door.
- Option #3: After finding that there are no tampons in the girl’s bathroom (which is a separate issue) and the machine eats your quarters, you sprint over to the nurse’s office, grab two or three, and sprint on back, getting your daily dose of exercise.
- Or, my personal favorite and probably the most common, Option #4: casually saunter back into the courtyard, nudge your friend, hoping to avoid attention and whisper into their ear with the discretion of a drug deal. “Can I have a…” They nod discretely, unzip their backpack, and pull out a small package, eyes darting around to make sure nobody’s watching. You slide the tampon up your sleeve, because God forbid anybody sees, and head on back with a sigh of relief, glad to have avoided any further embarrassment.
These actions are in response to a strange phenomenon called the “period” or as I like to affectionately call it, absolutely the worst time of the month. And in 2018, as we live in an era of woman-empowerment, feminism and gender equality, the stigma behind periods is still somehow prevalent in our everyday lives. All over the world, in all types of scenarios and situations, in ways both blunt and subtle, women are taught to be ashamed of their periods.
Not long ago, photographer Rupi Kaur posted a picture on Instagram to her thousands of followers. The picture depicted a woman, lying on the bed in sweatpants, with a small bloodstain visible. Instagram deleted it not once, but twice, saying that it didn’t follow their “community guidelines.” But there is plenty of bloody content roaming free on Instagram, isn’t there? Bloody noses, scrapes, violent video games or even violent situations in real life. Sure, it’s not pleasant to look at and I can confidently say that I get slightly nauseous at the sight of even a small cut, but what differentiates those photographs from the one posted by Kaur? Isn’t the only difference between a bloody nose and a period is that, to put it bluntly, they come out of different holes? What is it about period blood that makes it so much more unbearable than the other blood we are accustomed to seeing?
Here are a few more examples: In Nepal, 95% of women and girls are put into isolation, called Chaupadi, when they are on their period. As the absences pile up, girls fall farther behind in classes, fail tests, and leave school. As a result of lacking education, 37% of girls marry before the age of 18. Through Chaupadi, women are outright shown that hiding their periods from the world is more important than their education.
Furthermore, in a study done in 2008 by the Association of Reproductive Health, researchers found that 65% of women interviewed did not feel comfortable openly talking about their period, 55% of women would be interested in stopping their period, and 90% said that men had an advantage in society because they did not have to deal with a menstruation cycle.
37 out of 50 U.S. states add an additional tax on tampons, pads, and other menstrual products, averaging about $7 dollars a boxiv. Tampons are not covered by food stamps. Condoms are not taxed. Toilet paper is not taxed. Tissues are not taxed. Shaving cream, razors, soap, shampoo, you guessed it, are not taxed. Why can I wipe the snot from my nose when I’m sick for a lower price than I can protect and support my body when it is going through a natural process of life?
Through social media, through laws, through social customs, society teaches us that our periods are shameful. That they are humiliating, that they should be hidden from the world and we come up with endless euphemisms – shark week, Aunt flo – just to avoid saying the word itself. We smuggle tampons up our sleeves, we sit out of sports because we have a “headache,” and we rarely talk about menstruation in the presence of men or our male peers.
I remember getting mine when I was just 13 at my synagogue as I was learning about Moses parting the Red Sea (true story). I remember calling my mother in tears, humiliated that there was blood in my underwear and that everybody knew that what was happening to my body. And then, I remember going back to class, telling my male teacher that I “wasn’t feeling well” and asking to be excused.
Looking back, I’m ashamed at how ashamed I was, but why should I have been?
Why couldn’t I have told my teacher that I was on my period without it being weird or uncomfortable for either of us? Why couldn’t I simply say that I was having cramps and why can’t I complain about the pain or about how moody I am in class or ask my friend for a tampon in a normal voice without getting strange looks from the people around me?
We talk about equal rights, we advocate for feminism and speak out against oppression of women, but oppression of women can’t be eliminated until society stops telling us that our natural, biological bodies are an inconvenience to be hidden from the world.
My period is not a curse. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love it, nor do I look forward to that special time of the month when I feel like crawling into a dark hole for a couple of days. But I respect it, and every time, I am reminded: that my body is powerful, that my body is beautiful, that my body is strong. Period.