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Taking menstruation seriously

Addressing stigma, accessibility and shame

By Caitlin Parr

The menstrual cycle is typically a monthly strain on approximately half of the population’s bodies, yet is still viewed as some mysterious or dirty, abnormal phenomenon. When it is that ‘time of the month’, menstruators often feel very unwell - and are consistently mocked for this through euphemisms, jokes, and belittlement.

Menstruation affects every menstruator differently, some experience little pain and some getting cramps that result in them not being able to stand. When I am experiencing the latter, I cannot help but feel that people would never believe me if I explained just how debilitating the pain is and would feel as if I was just making excuses.

It is quite literally enough of a pain having a period without having to battle the stigma that surrounds them at the same time.

This pain that we describe when discussing our periods is often undermined and belittled, and unfortunately we now find ourselves in a culture of feeling guilt when telling the truth on how much pain we are in. Does anyone else find that they agree to plans when in this pain just to keep face, and then make yourself incredibly unwell? It's one vicious cycle that none of us need on top of the cycle already causing so much hassle in our uteri.

It is upsetting to learn that often this belittling starts as soon as our periods do, with nearly half of menstruators reporting that they felt embarrassed when they got their first period, and 34% even being scared. This fear is more than likely established through the lack of open and stigma-free discussion of the menstrual cycle in our curriculum, but could equally come from stigma based in the home. Though worrying that it is impossible to know of which source this shame and fear has originated from, it does prove how we should be actively aiming to reach all people in society when campaigning for stigma-reduction in discussing menstruation and the impacts it has on people who get periods.

Statistics Behind Stigma

In a 2018 study by YouGov, the following facts were found -

  • 37% of women* in the UK have experienced bullying, jokes, isolation and/or public shaming relating to periods, especially jokes about people assuming that moods and emotions are because of it being ‘that time of the month’.

  • 77% of women* in the UK (approximately 3 in 4) have felt isolated after experiencing period shaming in school, as well as 34% experiencing period shaming in the workplace.

  • 63% of women* found that they have experienced jokes about their periods and shaming at home, in a space where they should be respected and understood. This is made even more upsetting when YouGov were found to report that out of these experiences in the home, 40% of period shaming was from partners and 30% from friends - the two pivotal support systems in anyone’s life and people you are likely to want to rely on when menstruating or in pain.

* The term women, as opposed to menstruators, has been used here due to phrasing in the research associated with these statistics from YouGov.*

These facts are shocking, yet unfortunately not entirely surprising, as I can reflect on a time where I and all of my period-having friends have been contributors to the statistics or experienced each of these instances.

Do we contribute to the stigma?

I know I don’t only speak for myself when I say that I have turned down one too many opportunities, events and dates because of my period. Whether due to the pain or impracticality, menstruating has been the reason behind many missed opportunities. But, how many of these turned down invitations did I give an honest and ‘bold’ RSVP to?

Absolutely none. The most infuriating part is every time I am so angry at myself for not explicitly stating that “I cannot see you this evening because of an extremely normal monthly event that is experienced by half of the population but is currently unbearably shredding my uterus tissue and I’m exhausted.” Sounds like a perfectly rational reason to me, right? Apparently not to some, as the disdain that some friends show when you tell them that your cramps are too bad to hang out is baffling.

For many years now I have worked with organisations teaching young menstruators to not be ashamed, but to be empowered and to have respect for their bodies - and I love that job! So why do I, like 52% of others (YouGov) go out of my way to hide my sanitary products when walking from my desk to the bathroom at work? Or feel ashamed and embarrassed at the intensity of my periods? Because of the stigma and jokes that we have all faced growing up, and the misconception that periods are a dirty thing - which is ridiculous!

Stigma in Language

In the first sentence of this piece alone (and many times since) I used the euphemism of ‘period’, showing just how much nicknames associated with the menstrual cycle have filtered into our day-to-day language without us realising. Though ‘period’ is ultimately a nickname for menstruation and originated from a derogatory euphemism, I think that culturally we have turned to this one quite fondly and do not use it in a derogatory way anymore.

Other common, and ridiculous, euphemisms and slang for periods commonly used in the UK include the saying ‘on the blob’, or someone asking if the ‘painters and decorators are in’ - which I’ve always thought are more cringe and embarrassing to say than just ‘period’ or ‘menstruating’. Why does it have to be made whimsical for people to feel comfortable discussing a very severe problem for many?

The stigma around periods is also amplified using language when insinuations that women and menstruators that are frustrated or upset must be so because they’re on their period - as if that is the only logical explanation for a menstruator expressing their feelings. I don’t know about you, but I don’t only show hurt, anger, or sadness on the 7 days that I’m on my period, so where has this insensitive and belittling myth come from?

Stigma in Accessibility

Though the UK is one of the richest countries in the world, a study by Plan International UK in January 2018 found that 40% of girls have had to use toilet roll as an absorbent at some point due to not being able to afford sanitary products. And, that 27% of girls have overused a sanitary product due to having to limit their usage because of the cost. The stigma that period poverty brings is often formed from a mixture of financial and academic prejudice, especially as girls often have to miss school due to their period and will be missing out on hours of valuable education predominantly against their wishes.

The report also found that the lack of leniency on using the bathroom in school lessons has led to an increase in stigma. 70% of girls do not have regular permission to use the bathroom in lesson times, it reads, which contributes to the overuse of products and subsequently often visible leakage. Though there were many times in school that I contributed to this figure and needed to change immediately, I can guarantee that due to the stigma I would never have considered raising my hand and asking if I could be excused to manage my very heavy period - even overflowing was somehow better than that, which says all we need to know.

January 1st 2021 saw the end of the ‘tampon tax’ in the UK, with the VAT rates on all sanitary products being abolished. Finally. This will reduce the cost of essential products for menstruators (that were once thought of as luxury items), and will in turn hopefully improve the accessibility of the products to those who have not been able to afford a sufficient amount of products for each period before.

You’re not alone

Most importantly, you should remember that periods are totally normal and will happen every month even if the stigma miraculously disappears one day. Looking after yourself during your period is incredibly important and should be a priority. The menstrual cycle brings a lot of pain and complex changes to our bodies and mental health, which needs to be put first. If you feel you need to cancel plans then please do. Speaking from experience I can say that the months I have been the most ill during my cycle is because I have overworked my body during this draining time and have made it worse. You are losing blood and minerals and often become very dehydrated so caring for your health through this is the most important thing. Besides, if other people were losing on average 16 teaspoons of blood from anywhere on their body when you were supposed to be going on a day out then they would cancel too right?

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