Period shaming must end now

Half the world’s population faces monthly challenge

If you add up the average number of days a woman is on her period in her lifetime, the result is about 10 years. Years filled with misery, embarrassment, discrimination, and isolation. 

About half the world’s population must suffer through this monthly trauma, yet society shuns any acknowledgement of menstruation. 

The worst part of having a period is the stigma. Girls must learn about sanitary products, hormonal changes, excruciatingly-painful cramps, and the art of the “Period Dance,” or keeping everything surrounding menstruation hidden under society’s blanket of conformity and suppression. Everyone with a period is familiar with the Dance: hurrying to the bathroom with a tampon tucked in your boot, stressing when to change your sanitary product without contracting Toxic Shock Syndrome, secretly throwing up between classes from debilitating menstrual cramps, or answering the question “How are you?” with an automated “Good” and a fake smile all while your insides scream. 

Even as you read this, you may be wondering why there is a story about blood and vaginas in a school newspaper. This is a valid question, because in all realms of life politics, religion, and the workplace those with menses suffer silently in order to comply with social norms. Society tells us that periods are something to keep locked in a box, as if all our traumas and life experiences must be covered in wrapping paper and a bow. The truth is, periods are a part of the reproductive system, vital to life, and it’s time we stop cringing about it.

From a young age, girls hide their pads and tampons and foster a sense of shame. Unsurprisingly, this translates to adulthood, where, according to the New York Post, 58 percent of women feel embarrassed about their periods. 

Although discerning and upsetting, period shame for women is understandable. For one,  Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, three of the largest religions in the world, all historically considered (or still consider) women on their periods “impure” and “unclean.” The Bible even says that those around women on their periods are “unclean” as well. 

Despite a universal taboo surrounding periods, the reproductive cycle allows women to have children and plays a critical role in the circle of life. Yet, instead of appreciating women for their sacrifice and life-creating power, some religions attack them for it. 

Not only do women face this spiritual stigma, but they also face stereotypes when they are on their periods. American media portrays women on their periods as “hormonal,” “emotional,” and even “hostile.” If a woman is angry or upset, her genuine emotions are often dismissed with “it must be her time of the month” or “looks like someone’s having lady troubles.” 

A poll of 2,000 women conducted by Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that this stigma translates into workplace inequality, with 57 percent of respondents saying that they had to lie to their managers about why they needed a sick day. Furthermore, one quarter of respondents said they did not have sanitary bins at work, and almost one-third did not have constant access to a toilet.

While these slights may seem insignificant, they are mere examples of the power period stigma holds over women’s lives. It influences their job performance, with the average woman perceiving herself to be about 33 percent less productive on bad period days. Period stigma ultimately creates fewer opportunities and career advancement possibilities for women.

Women already face a draining financial obstacle when it comes to their periods: According to Digital Hub, the total cost of menstrual products in an average woman’s reproductive lifetime is $6,360, and that’s not even taking into account the cost of productivity, laundry, period complications, period cravings, and many other related costs. 

Making it worse, sanitary products that are vital to basic hygiene are considered a “luxury item” in some states and have a hefty “pink tax” as a result. Groceries and medicine don’t get taxed, yet the “pink tax” considers tampons and pads nonessential. The government should provide free sanitary supplies in public restrooms, not force women to pay valuable money for vital supplies. The “pink tax” highlights the fact that period stigma transcends societal limitations and exists as governmental discrimination.  

While political and economic inequity are serious problems, the largest issue with period stigma is the resulting oppression of women. In many developing countries, societal customs ban women on their periods from many aspects of life. Sometimes, women cannot pray, visit temples, cook, go to school, or even stay in their own homes. In some places, women must stay in chhaupadi huts when they are menstruating. Girls endure freezing temperatures, smoke inhalation, animal attacks, rape, and domestic abuse in these isolated places. 

Period stigma promotes feelings of isolation and shame, which, coupled with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), can lead to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. According to Net Doctor, 90 percent of women suffer from PMS, resulting in symptoms ranging from bloating, breast pain, and acne, to anxiety, social isolation, and body dysmorphia. Periods cause many changes in the levels of hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol, leading to increased feelings of anxiousness during PMS. When society delegitimizes this pain and forces girls to endure these chemical imbalances alone, it often results in mental health disorders, and sometimes, suicide. 

As a result of period shame and poverty, many women do not have access to water, sanitation, toilets, a gynecologist, or sanitary supplies. 335 million girls around the world go to school without water and soap to wash their hands, according to The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Some girls must use (and reuse) dried leaves, plastic, cloth, and rags as substitutes for pads. As a result of this poor menstrual hygiene, women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and Hepatitis B, which can cause long term physical effects.  

The inaccessibility of sanitary products, however, is not just in developing countries. According to Ananya Grover’s Ted Talk, “A Campaign for Period Positivity,” 64 percent of women in St. Louis, Missouri, could not afford menstrual hygiene supplies in the last year. 

Many girls are denied access to education when they are on their periods. According to UNICEF, one in five girls in India must drop out of school, due to missing about 25 percent of instruction time from being on their period. Similarly, in Sub-Saharan Africa, one in10 girls skip school or drop out entirely due to a lack of adequate menstrual products and proper sanitation during their periods, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Without education, women in these developing countries are likely to remain in poverty and continue to be oppressed.

According to Grover, two-thirds of high school girls in rural India do not understand what their bodies are going through. Their initial thought is usually panic, believing that they are injured. Many women who experience the lack of health education that increases period shame will project it onto their daughters, and the cycle continues. 

Periods are not shameful, and it is time society stops acting like they are. Women shouldn’t be discriminated against because of religion, social stigma, or embarrassment. The most effective way to break the stigma is through education, not just of women, but of all genders. We must open the conversation up to everyone and teach people about the importance of equality, respect, and support. We must turn discrimination and stigmatization into admiration.

Through this open dialogue, we will not only shift people’s mindsets, but also create a generation dedicated to providing free sanitary products to girls in need, exerting pressure on governments to improve sanitation, and eliminating the inequities that stand in the way of female education and employment. When we open the conversation up to everyone, we create a world of people who choose action over inaction, love over hate, and respect over isolation. 

We must educate those on menstruation, and only then can we win the fight for female empowerment.