PART ONE: THE SHAME
Gross, smelly, unsanitary. An inconvenience, a burden, the unspeakable. All words many of us have likely heard our periods described. How did a completely natural process become entrenched in the muck of so much shame? Poet, feminist, and queer scholar Judy Grahn explains in one of her poems how
“Menstrual blood is the only source of blood
that is not traumatically induced.
Yet in modern society, this is the most
hidden blood, the one rarely spoken of”Judy Grahn, “All Blood is Menstrual Blood”, Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture
If menstrual blood is linked to creation rather than destruction, why is it suppressed by so many cultures? Why even in “pro-life” circles, is this blood not proclaimed as beautiful or transformative but instead something that must be concealed from children through censorship? For International Women’s Day, let’s explore the price of menstrual stigma as well as the hope and possibility of reclaiming this natural process.
When I started my period, I was at a navy base with my father, surrounded by mostly men’s eyes. I clawed inside for knowledge received from my mother, dabbing the blood bubbling fresh from my vagina, testing its truth on my fingers. It was real. The time had come. I unrolled a few sheets of toilet paper, imagined I was like Laura from Little House on the Prairie and plunged it all up with my own resourcefulness. Once I had emerged, starstruck by my own success, my dad, with rage and control issues, then kept asking why I took so long. I tried to explain and then not explain, receding and begging, not sure how to name what was happening to me to anyone but my mother. He then started yelling and making a scene, muttering that I was probably getting into some bad stuff and keeping secrets.
How many of you felt you had done something wrong upon your menarche, your first period? Or feel embarrassed to talk about periods to the cis men in your life? You are not alone and it is not your fault. According to a study by the Period Company and THINX, two period underwear companies, forty two percent of their study participants have faced period shaming.
In America and many parts of the world, people who period encounter discriminatory myths. UN Women lists some of them: “If you look at people, you’ll make them sick; If you cook or touch food, the food will rot; If you swim, sharks will attack you”; If you use a tampon, you will lose your virginity”. All these myths bar access and promote problematic ideas of purity. Break them apart yourself. These superstitions seek to make us afraid of our bodies and hesitant to be comfortable within ourselves.
That night, I went home to my mother and she explained it all to me in more detail. She told me about her first period when she was only nine years old, that this was a new stage in my being but was still me. She taught me about pads and to never use tampons as she survived toxic shock syndrome and it was genetic. We unraveled the plastic wrapper together and the clump of maxi pad filled up my panties. It was our little world of blood made safe somehow.
Our menstrual referential words, such as “Aunt Flo” and “The Curse”, are even identified as code words by the UN. It’s like we must be undercover in our own bodies. Still, a secret comfort rises from reaching out to others who period through strategic talk, a confined hope that maybe we can be seen and understood. Conserving “a woman’s culture” is our solution to a world hostile to the way we bleed.
One research article argues that how disposable tampons and pads are marketed and physically shaped as cultural objects further keeps periods “more like a hidden than visible stigma” (Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler). The article demonstrates that 75 percent of American women are terrified of leaking during their period, which “exposes her then stigmatized condition”. The authors are skeptical about contraceptives that claim to give people who period “the ‘freedom’ to make a ‘choice’ about whether to menstruate”, suggesting that the idea of a period free world sans those trying to become pregnant is an almost dystopian manifestation of this stigma (Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler). Of course though, those with incredibly painful periods may choose to opt out for more personal rather than social reasons.
Menstrual stigma can also be mentally and physical catastrophic. For many women and girls in the world, forced menstrual leave from school and work and inflexible working hours make economic opportunity impossible. Our (sometimes irregular) monthly visitor is made to feel unwelcome and acts as a barrier to creating a living. This type of segregation, for many women, girls, and trans people, has the power (and the purpose) to rot a sense of self separate from the restrictions imposed.
The person who periods, alienated from their own body by a shaming society, resembles what Paulo Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
“The individual is divided between an identical past and present, and a future without hope. He or she is a person who does not perceive himself or herself as becoming; hence cannot have a future built in unity with others” (Freire 154).Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Girls in India and Nepal, usually in more rural areas, are often forced to sleep in menstrual huts called a gaoker. It is a custom originating in the ancient Hindu practice of Chhaupadi, which claims that menstruating people are impure and bad luck. One fourteen-year-old girl named Sangita Kumra expressed anxiety in this separation,
“there is nothing to do and I cannot play… luckily so far I have never stayed alone, but I am scared that I might have to. My friend once had to stay alone, and the very mention of it would make her cry”quoted by Gangadeep Kaur, “Banished for Menstruating: the Indian Women Isolated While They Bleed”, The Guardian
Menstrual huts are one of the most severe forms of menstrual shaming; all menstruating people want is to be included.
It goes further than isolation and towards dehumanization. Almost a quarter of girls in India drop out of school when they start menstruating. The UN Human Rights Watch states that
“A young girl’s first period can set off several human rights violations, including child marriage, sexual violence, unintended teenage pregnancy, and the disruption or end of their education”Removing the shame of menstruating,
I most certainly experienced increased sexualization from older men shortly after my menarche. What about you?
Despite occasional strides, Patriarchy still buries embodied realities beneath the ponderous ideals of purity and desirability. This denial of the physical truth of a menstruating body kills. The Ladli Foundation Trust found that “nearly 60,000 cases of cervical cancer deaths are reported every year from [India], two-thirds of which are due to poor menstrual hygiene” (Menstrushala). Yes, you can die from a world that makes you feel dirty. Many people who period throughout the world do not have access to even disposable pads due to the expense and must rely on unwashed cloth, plastic bags, socks or other unsanitary options. The UN puts the number at about 13 percent of menstruating people who live in severe poverty. Still, so called “Pink taxes” or more inclusive period taxes are widespread. For example, Mexico has a tax of 16 percent on menstrual products (García). Texas is half that and has an 8.25 percent tax (End Tampon Tax NOW, https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/end-tampon-tax-texas-freetheperiod/)
As Grahn and many period activists call for, I will be open. I found my own way around the ecologically wasteful and literally taxing barrier of the disposable menstrual product industry. I write this article on my period, privileged and grateful to be in sustainable comfort. I lay in my thinking nest, taking the day off to write this blog post, in full control of my faculties while on my very heavy period. I wear breathable red cotton underwear and nothing else; this underwear has its own proclamation. It does not try to hide it. It is from the Period Company, the most affordable and ethical period underwear company I have found and part of that study I mentioned earlier. Here is a link to the underwear I am currently wearing, feeling safe and free and connected to the world as I bleed, finally unashamed and unburdened: https://period.co/collections/all/products/the-bikini
Though individual companies may make a small difference, the structures of domination and inequality still remain. The root of these issues lies in our education systems, in the fear those in power experience in providing us, from an early age, with a scientific understanding of our bodies and what they need. They do not want us to be self-sufficient and aware. They want the vagina to be sick, the vagina holder ignorant and easier to govern. We will discuss the issue of surveillance and censorship surrounding menstruation in the next blog post. If you are reading this all the way through, thank you. To all of you, love your body and stay informed!
This post is dedicated to Mae Mae who loved being a dog, a silly girl, and a constant companion (August 20, 2005-March 8, 2023)