Ending the stigma and shame around menstruation

The New Zealand government recently announced all school aged women will receive free sanitary products in an attempt to tackle period poverty, which causes more than 90,000 young women to stay home from NZ schools because they can’t afford to pay for pads and tampons. 

Period Poverty effects women globally. Infographic: Nell Van.

The move was welcomed by Preventing Period Poverty secretary Erin Prentice, but she says more needs to be done.  

“Schools, colleges and universities are not open at all times of the year and whilst I agree that period poverty should not impact a woman’s education, period poverty still affects women after those times,” Prentice says.

“It provides short term help, but does that further perpetuate the embarrassment in having to ask for financial help or provision of sanitary products when school term or education ends and periods still continue every month?”

She says that sanitary products should be offered more freely and at a more affordable price to those who need it most, not just school aged women. 

PPP, founded in Scotland, aims to provide education around the stigmatisation of periods, as well as raising awareness through collecting and donating sanitary products to local communities.

Many women feel somewhat uncomfortable when discussing the topic of menstruation. According to Erin Prentice, this uncertainty stems from the fact that throughout their lives, they are conditioned to believe their period is a ‘girls problem’. She says this imbalance is often perpetuated in school sexual education where it is a reoccurring theme that women are pulled aside to learn about menstruation, often leaving men completely naïve to the topic. As a result, along with other social, cultural and religious factors, the topic of menstruation is widely considered taboo across society.

What do you think? Image: Nell Van.

To further reinforce this, an informal survey completed by more than 300 Australian participants found that 80 per cent believed the topic of menstruation was indeed a taboo topic in society. 

Prentice says the menstruation taboo has been ingrained in women for generations. 

She says women are accustomed to feel as though their period is something to be whispered about and endured quietly with no discussion, especially with male peers and male family members.

“In my early teenage years I was embarrassed to talk about my period because dirty and gross was all anyone had ever described it to me as.” 

Gracen Woodcock, 24, from Perth, says she always felt uncomfortable discussing her period, even with the men in her family.

“I never felt comfortable asking the men in my life to buy me sanitary products,” she says.

“On top of that, whenever one of my friends had their period at school they would hide their pads and tampons and go to the bathroom. It was a very discreet practice. I think it’s all learned behaviour.”

Brandon Wheeler, 22 from Perth, who took part in the survey says he thinks the reason some men are uncomfortable with the topic is because it is something they are not properly educated about. He says if he didn’t have female friends that were comfortable discussing the topic, he wouldn’t know anything about menstruation.

“At first, the topic of periods weirded me out, I think that’s sort of the natural response to someone else’s bodily fluids,” he says.

“It wasn’t until I got a girlfriend that I learned to understand that periods are completely normal, men need to be educated the same way women are.”

PPP vice president Sruthi Ravichandran says in a lot of cultures, menstruation is considered taboo because it is seen as ‘dirty and unclean’. 

“I come from a South Asian family and when my mother was younger, my grandmother would make her sleep on a mat instead of a bed when she was on her period,” he says.

“She would also have to wash her hair on the first and last days of her period and avoid going to the temple.”

North Sydney naturopath and menstrual health educator Chloe Sheehan says the process of menstruation being branded a taboo comes down to ignorance and a lack of education.

“Perhaps it is easier to believe that blood is dirty and should be treated that way,” she says.

“It’s a pretty outlandish concept to think women bleed every month or so, however, it is a sign of health and fertility.” 

Prentice says the media plays a major role when contributing to ideas that menstruation is ‘dirty’ and something that should be hidden, often releasing advertisements for ‘discrete’ sanitary products. 

“Additionally, the media portrays women on their periods as chocolate crazy, emotional wrecks. This adds to the notion of women being overtly emotional and hysterical, making people shy away from discussing that ‘time of the month’ when women are wrongly assumed to be their most emotionally unstable.”

#Bloodnormal campaign video. Video: @lovelibra.

Feminine hygiene company Libra challenged this in their 2019 blood normal ad campaign that was released on prime time television in Australia. The campaign aimed to normalise menstruation and broke barriers by being the first televised advertisement to depict red period blood when demonstrating sanitary products.

According to the Australian Ad Standards Community Panel, prior to it airing, Libra tested the ad with more than 500 women aged 16-65. Results showed 62 per cent agreed periods are just a normal part of life, and should not be ignored by mainstream media.

Yet, also according to the Australian Ad Standards Community Panel, the ad was the countries’ most-complained-about ad of the year, receiving more than 600 complaints. Some of which claimed the ad was ‘distasteful’, ‘extremely inappropriate’, and ‘offensive‘ while others stated “showing girls bleeding is wrong at any time of the day.”

All complaints were dismissed.

Prentice says while she admires the progress and changes to some media campaigns around menstruation there is still a long way to go to normalise the topic.  

“I think it’s important to have media and school campaigns about sanitary products because half the population have very little idea as to how they are used never mind how much they cost and how menstruation can significantly impact the quality of a woman’s life.” 

So what can be done to remove this stigma?

Sheehan says the female health revolution started when the pill was introduced, and there has been an increase in awareness and education from then. However, she says there is still not enough education and awareness surrounding the topic of menstruation.

“Unless we talk about something, it will remain unknown. To increase menstrual proactivity and prove that menstruation is a key pillar of health and fertility, we must create awareness and increase education”

She says there are a series of steps that need to be taken to ensure the normalisation of menstruation

“The above points need to become a habit, therefore creating a new perception that menstruation is a powerful thing rather than a taboo.”

Recommendations from the survey participants included better education in schools involving men and women together and engaging in open and frank discussions.

Cultural theorist from Perth Rachel McCabe, who took part in the survey, says everyone should be taught about the functions of the human body.

“Menstruation is one of those things that will inevitably be involved in everyone’s life, whether it be themselves directly or someone they know,” she says.

“The topic of menstruation for men is a fear of the unknown. Once they become educated there is far less stigma of it being gross or shameful.”

She says from a gender studies perspective, everyone’s relationship to their period is different. The topic should not be tied to femininity because it isn’t just women who bleed, and not all women do bleed. She says there needs to be a bigger effort to educate everyone on the same level in order to destigmatise it.

“We must aim to destigmatise the inherent idea that periods are exclusively female related and instruct both men and women how to unlearn the dangerous idea that periods are taboo,” McCabe says.

Prentice adds: “We need to break the stigma by educating everyone in schools to try and prevent this perceived awkwardness that periods can’t be discussed in front of boys.

She says this will help prevent women from shying away from the discussion of menstruation with their partners, brothers, fathers or other male figures in their life.

“Apart from educating our boys and men, we must also educate our girls and women to not be afraid to talk about menstruation and not feel embarrassed or ashamed about their bodies.

“Education starts at home, school, university, community outreach and public campaigns at both a societal and individual level.”

PPP vice president Sruthi Ravichandran says there are two major ways to preventing period poverty. First, ensuring access to sanitary products so that anyone who menstruates is not disadvantaged in any way and second, promoting and engaging in conversation about menstruation and breaking down barriers when it comes to topic. 

“Talk to your friends, your family and your peers, we want to make everyone aware of this pressing issue in our society and educate one another.”

When asked what advice we should give to young girls who are uncomfortable talking about periods, Chloe Sheehan says similarly to feeling uncomfortable with body image, women must look beyond what they are told to think. 

“Ask yourself questions like, what is the point of menstruation, how many people experience menstruation, why do I feel uncomfortable, and how can I learn to accept what is normal rather coexisting with it in a negative outlook? 

“Feeling positive about your period doesn’t mean you have to celebrate it every day. Period positivity simply means you accept it for what it is and choose to see the benefits of what menstruation encompasses.”