It was in fifth grade. Four days after my eleventh birthday. I was filled with nothing but immersion in Tuck Everlasting and a copious amount of grape Fanta from our class Christmas celebration. I was sitting in the designated “girls” bathroom, getting light-headed from the flickering overhead light as I stared at my now blood-stained, polka-dotted underwear in disbelief. I convinced myself I was just dying. There was no way I had just gotten my period.
But sure enough, I had. And I was absolutely petrified.
At home that night, I received a Master Class on period products, a luxury I am increasingly grateful to have had access to from such a young age. My mother taught me everything I needed to know: "Don't let anyone see you grab one of these," she stated as she waved a tampon in front of my face. "You can't be too emotional this week. You don't want the boys to say anything." She made sure I knew not to wear my white skirt.
These have been the rules to live by each month for close to a decade.
I am not the only one who received the Master Class of shame and embarrassment surrounding periods from the moment it started.
It’s time we start doing something different.
Menstruation. It is a necessary biological function that half of the world’s population experiences. Over the course of history, and throughout all of the primary secular religions, periods and those who are experiencing them are seen as “unclean.” Today, we witness the more extreme versions of this. Where in some countries, women are banished from their homes, forbidden from attending work or school and are publicly shamed because they are on their period. Throughout Europe and the United States, period poverty, education and period shaming are still very large issues.
Period stigmas are further exemplified by the plethora of euphemisms that are used instead of the actual term: “Aunt Flo,” “shark week,” “time of the month,” “on the rag,” are some just to name a few, and that’s just in English. A study conducted by the Women's Health Coalition found that there are approximately 5,000 different slang words that are used in reference to periods across ten different languages. Although using these words may seem harmless, it is rooted in a larger trend of a negative attitude towards menstruation worldwide. For many individuals who menstruate, the sole acknowledgment of the biology behind their period is one thing. Talking about it openly, however, is an entirely different challenge.
I spoke with several students enrolled at the University of South Carolina who menstruate to dive into why they thought period stigmas run so rampant, even in 2022. All students involved will remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of this topic.
“It usually depends on who I’m with, but I generally feel super uncomfortable bringing up my period,” one UofSC student shared. “Even with my friends. I feel like people think it’s gross. Mainly because it’s blood and it comes from the vagina. I think mainly cis-gendered men find it gross because they don’t have to personally experience it."
“Now that I’m older, I’m not as embarrassed to be seen with menstrual products,” another UofSC student shared. “We’re growing up, and I feel like it’s just known that periods are a thing. I’m okay talking about my period with other people who menstruate, but not in a public setting. I feel like no one wants to hear about it because they think it’s gross.”
However, another student had a bit of a different perspective. “Honestly, I’ve never really been embarrassed about outwardly carrying menstrual products. When I started getting my period, I was really young. I didn’t think too far into the fact that other people could view it as ‘weird,’” they stated. “I was too distracted with the intense side effects that come with periods to even care about people seeing my pads and tampons.”
This same student shared their perspective on the societal implications of menstruation. “I think people are scared to hear about periods because they have been brought up in a society that demonizes the female body,” they said. “Periods are incredibly natural. But because the side effects make women ‘irritable’ and ‘irrational’ and they are seen as ‘dirty’, they’ve been told not to talk about it,” they shared. “At the end of the day, society cares more about the comfort of men than they do about women feeling happy and content in their own bodies."
So the question is: how do we help destigmatize menstruation? In short: We talk about it. We all know periods exist. When we whisper about them in classrooms or at work or with our friends, we are furthering the notion that they are not acceptable topics of discussion. If we stop discussing menstruation with hushed tones and code words, those around us will recognize periods as the natural biological function that they are.
It is time to further the education and openness surrounding menstruation to help the new generation of menstruators be free of period guilt and shame. Including those who don’t menstruate in the conversation can help reduce falsehoods surrounding menstruation as well.
And not to mention: periods are exceptionally powerful. The existence of human life would literally not be possible without them and that is something to celebrate, not silence.
Lady Business is a student-run organization on the UofSC campus that is working against the menstruation stigma. The organization helps raise money to distribute period products to those who are affected by period poverty. “In a world where periods are not optional, menstrual products are a necessity. Lady Business is an organization with a mission to provide women with proper education on their menstrual health and access to the feminine products they need,” their Garnet Gate reads. Additionally, they push for the accessibility and affordability of period products both locally and abroad.
Planned Parenthood Generation Action has a chapter at the University as well. They work to combat both those who experience homelessness as well as menstruation. Their goal is to provide a safe place for period discourse and raise awareness of the social implications of the menstruation stigma. They are planning to organize more tabling events around campus to distribute menstrual products to those in need and to help provide more information to those who don’t experience a period.
University Health Services also has free menstrual products for students in need. Similarly, they provide specialized Women’s Health Services. Schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment through MyHealthSpace if you need more personalized menstruation assistance or information.
So the next time you’re going to pull out a pad or a tampon from your bag, don’t hide it subtly in your shirt sleeve. Don’t hush or whisper as you talk about cramps with your friends. Hold your products proudly in your palm on your stride to the bathroom. Keep your voices strong and present.